Arthur Johnson

Bookbinder who campaigned against 'chocolate-box' designs

Arthur Johnson was a leading designer bookbinder and teacher. He maintained that the decoration on a book was of secondary concern in comparison to the binder's responsibility to preserve precious and enduring literature. Johnson's own designs were bold, with a keen sense of colour.

Arthur William Johnson, bookbinder, writer and teacher: born London 22 April 1920; twice married (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Barnet, Hertfordshire 18 November 2004.

Arthur Johnson was a leading designer bookbinder and teacher. He maintained that the decoration on a book was of secondary concern in comparison to the binder's responsibility to preserve precious and enduring literature. Johnson's own designs were bold, with a keen sense of colour.

Because his bindings were affordable, his work is spread quite widely. Good examples are to be found in many of the major institutional libraries, such as the British Library, as well as appearing in private collections such as those of Major J.R. Abbey and P.L. Bradfer-Lawrence. The latter included a dozen or more copies of the first trade edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, each bound by a different designer bookbinder. The glowing gold of the morocco of the Johnson copy, with its brightly coloured onlays, calls up the hot Arabian sun.

Completely different, but equally successful, is the Johnson copy of 52 colour-plates of paintings by Matthew Smith. Its dark green morocco background represents an artist's palette, with the reds that dominate so much of Smith's work being pre-eminent. This volume demonstrates Johnson's ability to break away from the conventional lettering founts available to binders.

Arthur Johnson was born in London in 1920. His early years were hard. Living standards at home were minimal and the house was completely without any intellectual stimulation. Johnson himself said that the only literature to be found there was "the odd football programme or discarded comic book".

In 1927 the Southwark slums were cleared and the Johnson family moved to Essex, where Arthur attended the Eastbrook School for Boys in Dagenham, which had a progressive headmaster who encouraged art and music. He had on his staff a graduate of the Royal College of Art, Alan Wellings, who recognised Arthur's potential and was to exert a great influence over him. He and the headmaster arranged for Arthur to be offered a scholarship to a grammar school, but the family could not afford books, uniform or transport. So it was that at 14 Johnson left school and joined the dole queue, where he received from the Government just five shillings a week.

At 15 he found employment with a Fleet Street photographic agency - and spent four or five hours each day walking round London delivering photographs. Seeking to improve himself, he took a job as processor to a portrait photographer. Working in the darkroom all day meant that for much of the year he saw no daylight from one week's end to another.

Fortunately Wellings had kept in touch with him and secured him a job as a "studio attendant" at an Essex art school for two and a half days a week, for which he was to receive one pound in cash, and free tuition for the rest of the week. Wellings continued to encourage the young Johnson's interest in art, music and literature. Johnson records that he read voraciously, taking in anything that could be borrowed or that was free, "from the lurid novels of Hank Jansen to The Origin of Species".

In 1940 he sat and passed his end-of-term examinations just before he was called up for military service in the Royal Armoured Corps. In action outside Caen he suffered extensive burns and when he was discharged from hospital he was made a sergeant in an educational unit in Dorset.

With the Second World War over, Johnson set about obtaining qualifications that would enable him to earn a salary to keep a young family. He married in 1947 and his wife bore him three children, a girl and two boys, the elder of whom, said to be a brilliant scholar in the field of astrophysics, was, tragically, killed in a car accident when he was only 38. In 1974 Johnson married again, his bride being Pamela Nottingham, an authority on bobbin-lace making.

While he studied at colleges of art in Hornsey, Hammersmith and Camberwell, Johnson had begun to teach bookbinding at Hammersmith. Most instructors in bookbinding, he saw, were journeymen from the best trade workshops. While he recognised and admired their achievements in forwarding and finishing, he thought their design work deplorable - "their covers were reminiscent of carpets and chocolate boxes". Feeling the need to exchange ideas with like-minded people, in 1950, the year he gained his Art Teacher's Diploma, he became a founder member of the Hampstead Guild of Scribes and Bookbinders. Bernard Middleton was another member from this time, as were Sally Lou Smith, Elizabeth Greenhill, Edgar Mansfield, Trevor Jones, Ivor Robinson and Philip Smith. The name was changed to the Guild of Contemporary Bookbinders, and then to Designer Bookbinders.

Johnson wrote a number of books on the subject. These include The Thames and Hudson Manual of Bookbinding (1978), The Practical Guide to Craft Bookbinding (1985), The Practical Guide to Book Repair and Conservation (1988), Lettering on Books (1993) and The Repair of Cloth Bindings (2002).

In an autobiographical essay in 2001, Johnson writes:

I claim to have been a teacher first and a craftsman second. To my satisfaction I have instructed many who have gained benefit from and surpassed my own abilities. That, after all, is the reward for teaching.

Anthony Rota



Suggested Topics
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star