1840 - 1922: English lawyer turned Arts and Crafts bookbinder, who revolutionised fine binding at the turn of the 20th Century.
Childhood & Professional Years
Thomas James Sanderson was born on December 2, 1840 in Alnwick, Northumberland. His childhood was not notable. He studied at Owens College in Manchester from 1859 - 1863, then attended Trinity College, Cambridge to study classics and law. By 1871, he was a barrister in a large London firm, on his way to a successful - if dull - future in railway law.
In 1881, it all began to fall apart. He became ill from overwork, and was advised to travel and recuperate. He chose to go to Italy, and while staying in Siena met the suffragette Anne Cobden. He soon adopted her forward-thinking beliefs, and they married in 1882, combining their surnames.
Change of Life
Cobden-Sanderson was still unhappy at work, but his social circumstances were much changed. His wife was friends with many of the leading figures in the Arts and Crafts movement, particularly William and Jane Morris. It was Jane who, hearing that he had an interest in bookbinding, persuaded him to change careers. In 1883, at the age of 43, he quit the law and became a binder.
He served a six month apprenticeship with London binder Roger de Coverly, then set up on his own. The quality of his work won him immediate recognition, not just among his Arts and Crafts friends. His techniques were excellent from the beginning - solid forwarding overlaid with restrained and tasteful finishing, contrasting with the gaudy but weak bindings current in England at the time.
Working alone, he produced about 100 bindings over the next ten years. He was known for designing his own decorative tools, and started the practice - still common today - of signing the dobloures of his books with his initials and the date.
In 1893, his friend and fellow artist William Morris persuaded him to give up his solo work and start a bindery. Morris was acting partly out of self-interest; his own Kelmscott Press was printing books that needed fine bindings. Cobden-Sanderson set up the Doves Bindery in Hammersmith.
The bindery was established to put creativity before profit. Workers were paid well above the going rate, had a 48-hour week (shorter than the standard for manual workers), and received a generous 14 days' paid holiday (plus Christmas and Bank Holidays).
But managing his own bindery meant that Cobden-Sanderson no longer had time to do his own binding. He designed the 1000-odd bindings the Doves Bindery was to produce before his death, but other craftsmen did the work. Soon his interest wandered. Although he admired William Morris as an artist, he felt that the books from Kelmscott Press were ill-designed.
Cobden-Sanderson decided to start his own press with printer Emery Walker. In 1900, the Doves Press started operations. The partnership, which lasted until Cobden-Sanderson's death in 1922, was not an easy one. The two men quarrelled frequently about design decisions and the division of labour. (Once, Cobden-Sanderson even threw the press's type into the Thames from Hammersmith Bridge in a serious statement of design disagreement.) Nonetheless, the Doves Press was popular and influential, both in Europe and the United States.
Cobden-Sanderson died in London on September 7, 1922, with his wife at his bedside. As a lawyer, he was everyday, dull and normal. As a bookbinder and artist, he was extraordinary.
Design Philosophy and Legacy
Cobden-Sanderson's goal was to produce the "Book Beautiful". He felt that the design, typography, forwarding and finishing should all work together to produce a simple, well-balanced volume. Along with many in the Arts and Crafts movement, he abhorred industrialisation and mechanisation. The mass-production of books for the middle classes, and the techniques used to make it possible, particularly disgusted him.
His influence on future binders was unmistakable, if mixed. He advocated a return to traditional binding styles, particularly perfect bindings with tight joints. This rejection of the recent hollow backed style, with its French grooves, still influences fine bindings.
However, his legacy is not entirely one of a return to the past. He was also one of the first bookbinders to incorporate current artistic trends in his work. Previous binders tended to lag a generation or so behind the artistic trends of their times. After Cobden-Sanderson, however, fine binders have sought inspiration from contemporaneous styles, from cubism to pop art.
His final legacy, for me, is the inspiration of his life. As an amateur bookbinder, I admire wholeheartedly anyone with the courage to give up his career for his art, and the talent to make that dream pay the rent.
The British Library guide to Bookbinding by PJM Marks, The British Library Press, 1998
The Thames and Hudson Manual of Bookbinding by Arthur W. Johnson, Thames and Hudson Press, 1978