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

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