Obituaries: Edgar Mansfield

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The Independent Online
Edgar Mansfield deserves much of the credit for the revival of British bookbinding in the second half of the 20th century. He galvanised bookbinding design and freed it to move forward.

The centenary of the death of William Morris has prompted much to be written about Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement which spread his ideals of the value of handwork, and the decorative style of his fabric and wallpaper designs. This style, in a form disseminated first by the gentleman amateur T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, who was prompted to take up bookbinding by May Morris, dominated British fine bookbinding for the next half-century, largely as a result of the manual written by his apprentice at the Doves Bindery, Douglas Cockerell.

Bookbinding and the Care of Books, first published in 1901 and still in print 95 years later, probably remains the first manual that most beginners will pick up. It treats cover design only in terms of ornamentation built up from a few simple decorative units by the repetition of individual tooled impressions, plain or gold. The Arts & Crafts style appeared in French bindings with the work of Marius Michel, but the Parisian ateliers and their designers went on to absorb Art Deco, Surrealism and Cubism, and by the 1930s and 1940s they were producing gloriously extravagant fine bindings of the spectacular illustrated editions de luxe for collectors, whilst the English taste for tradition and conformity and that curious cult of "original condition" in book collecting left little creative work for fine binders.

No wonder that Philip James, reviewing a 1949 exhibition of modern bookbindings in the Studio, wrote:

[The exhibition] reveals that this noble, ancient art is very much alive in France, even if it is restricted in its most developed state to the commissions of wealthy patrons, but that it is virtually dead in this country. Bookbinding is now one of those handicrafts, like pottery or weaving, which attract a few isolated performers who feel the same compulsion to create as animates the painter or sculptor. Today the work is its own reward, so few are the commissions, so dim the prospects of a revival.

He continued with a plea:

A vigorous, school of original binders who, while respecting the limitations imposed by the nature of a book and its use by the reader, yet work in a style which springs from contemporary art forms, is absolutely necessary for the development of bookbinding.

Edgar Mansfield was just such an original binder as the writer was seeking and, the year before, he had commenced teaching design to bookbinding students at the London School of Printing. Perhaps it was because Mansfield had come to Europe as an outsider that he could accept and absorb the modern movement in art, at a time when we were trying to ignore it or dismiss it with ridicule.

Born in London in 1907, he was taken to New Zealand by his parents at the age of four; matriculating from Napier Boy's High School in 1923, he then began 10 years of study and teaching of art and crafts. He returned to London in 1934 to extend his studies, of pottery at Camberwell School of Art & Crafts and bookbinding under William Matthews at the Central School of Art & Crafts. In 1936 he began an extensive course in design at the German Reimann School in London under Elsa Taterka. Following war service with the British army from 1941 to 1946 he was repatriated to New Zealand, but returned to London in 1947 to continue bookbinding and design. For much of his active life he divided his time between the two countries, and considered himself "a New Zealander through and through".

He had been elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1934, and in 1950 was elected Member of the German Bookbinders Guild (MDE).

From 1948 to 1964, he taught design and colour at the London School of Printing. Even in art schools in the Fifties, abstraction and "School of Paris" ideas had barely penetrated and artists such as Picasso and Henry Moore were stock figures of fun to Punch cartoonists. But Mansfield's enthusiasm and encouragement to students and the younger binders was infectious. A "Mansfield style" was detected in the new designs from the London College of Printing students, some of whose names became familiar in bookbinding circles: Don Etherington and Faith Shannon for instance, and Anthony Cains, later to be Director of the Conservation Laboratory at Trinity College Dublin, who pushed Mansfield's technique of manipulating the grain of the leather during covering to the extreme of expressive leather puckering as the binding's sole design medium.

I have been saddened that subsequent generations of bookbinders have seemed unaware of what he achieved on their behalf. I had the good fortune to know him for four decades, since I - a green young student - was invited to attend the first meeting of the Guild of Contemporary Bookbinders in Bernard Middleton's London workshop at 63 Broadwick Street, Soho, on the evening of 7 April 1955. This small group of like-minded bookbinders, banding together to mount exhibitions of their work under the initial prompting of Bernard Middleton and Arthur Johnson, with Edgar Mansfield as their President, became the present Designer Bookbinders: a flourishing society with about 700 members world-wide, and currently 17 Honorary Fellows, 28 Fellows and eight Licentiates.

During his Presidency of the Guild of Contemporary Bookbinders, from 1955 to 1968, the society mounted an ambitious exhibition programme and many travelling exhibitions in Europe and across the United States were arranged, as well as regular exhibitions at Foyle's Gallery in London, plus others elsewhere, of which the Harrods exhibition of 1958 was perhaps the pivotal event, attracting wide notice in Britain and on the Continent. Mansfield taught us the benefits of publicity, that our work should be photographed and published where possible, and particularly through publication in German, French and Dutch trade magazines. He was made an Honorary Fellow of Designer Bookbinders in 1968.

His teaching at the London School of Printing extended until he retired in 1964 in order, in his words, "to concentrate entirely on creative experiment, and to spend more time at home - in New Zealand". In the 1979 Birthday Honours list came his appointment as OBE for services to New Zealand, and in 1980 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors (FRBS).

Although he never stopped creating new drawings and designs, Edgar Mansfield had ceased binding about 20 years ago, with the exception of one presentation binding - a commission reluctantly accepted from the New Zealand authorities some time after he had decided that his eyesight no longer allowed him to continue binding to the high standard he desired. It was a wedding gift for Princess Anne, completed in 1974, after which he concentrated on his sculpture and drawings until he agreed to collaborate with James Brockman on a group of 25 new bindings commissioned by K.D. Duval and C.H. Hamilton. The evening of 30 November 1993, when we gathered in the King's Library of the British Museum to see these bindings, exhibited alongside the Designer Bookbinders' Bookbinding Competition entries, was a rare chance for the younger generation to glimpse him for the first time, and a happy reunion with many old friends.

I was one of many binders to receive encouragement and advice about my work from Edgar Mansfield. A letter from c1960 gives some of the flavour of his correspondence:

I am still struggling frantically with design problems and hope you are too . . . I would urge you to visit the Tate often, see books like Kepes The New Landscape in Art & Science & books on Klee especially . . . Your designing will become more difficult & take longer in course of time but I urge you to work like hell & get all you can completed. There will never be enough creative work available for our future needs - of that I am absolutely certain. All the best, Edgar.

For him, the creative act could as soon be drawing, or painting, or sculpture, as bookbinding, an attitude which may have helped to ease the moment when his eyesight would no longer allow him to translate his designs into that medium.

Those who admire Edgar Mansfield's bindings and are convinced of their important place in the development of bookbinding may be disconcerted by the thought that the craft could matter less to him than he does to it. He seemed most unconcerned about the quality of the volumes he chose to cover; they were often standard publishers' editions and could be inferior examples of printing. The book he chose to bind most frequently, H.E. Bates's Through the Woods, was hardly Cobden-Sandersons's ideal book or "the book beautiful", although it became the vehicle for a memorable series of designs. Very likely the cost of buying examples of fine printing was the limiting factor in the early days, when collectors were not interested in his work; but as he became recognised he had the opportunity to bind better books. Nor was he interested in refining the structure of his bindings. Having arrived at a simple and serviceable routine, he standardised it. It is as though Mansfield thought of the book as no more than the blank canvas awaiting his creative act.

The nature of the surface of a Mansfield binding and its tactile quality is most important, as befits the work of a sculptor. His preference was always for unpolished and unpressed goatskin enlivened with surface markings and blemishes, especially the native tanned and dyed skins once obtainable from Nigeria that displayed variations of tone and colour, if necessary with his own added ink markings. He often heightened the grain texture on the leather of his bindings by rolling the damp skin on itself before pasting, and later brushing towards the spine with the palm of his hand across the surface of the leather in the act of covering the book.

Embellishment of the book cover had traditionally been a matter of borrowings from the decorative arts, and even the French Art Deco bindings that acknowledged Cubism did so at second hand, following its adoption as a style for interior decoration. The originality and novelty of his binding designs was that they used the language of fine art. That Mansfield was inspired by the abstract painting of his times is obvious: one can see echoes of Mir, Klee and Picasso in the sometimes jagged, sometimes playful, shapes of his inlays and in the dancing lines of his tooling. Surrealism is an influence, and an interest in the gestural abstraction of some of the American painters may be detected in what he called his "scribble" designs that began to appear from 1960 on. It is also possible to see these as having evolved from his use of textured areas of impressions from small dot and line tools. There are recurring motifs like the eye/sun inlaid circle and a "lobster-claw" conjunction of curved shapes. Mansfield was fond of musical analogies as a basis for his design structure: sonata form, fugue, and variations on a theme.

The glorious range and breadth of Edgar Mansfield's invention is a delight to observe as one traces the development of his art from the early search for a means of expression in the bindings of 1937-50 through to designs completed in his 86th year. His strongest inspiration, in sculpture, drawing and bookbinding design, came from natural forms; evident both in the book titles he returns to so often - Country Matters, Through the Woods, Down the River, Four Hedges, The Seasons - and in the growing, flying, swimming, branching forms, and the lines and textures that so often choke foliage, the leaf and its veins, wing, and fin.

We are fortunate in having an excellent record of his design philosophy and processes and the technical means he devised to create his bindings in the book Modern Design in Bookbinding: the work of Edgar Mansfield (1966). A new edition is long overdue.

Mansfield will be remembered for demonstrating that bookbinding is as appropriate a medium for the artist as painting and sculpture. He was an energetic and enthusiastic campaigner against a conservative trade's incomprehension, ridicule and mistrust of modern design in fine bookbinding. His long-held and as yet unfulfilled hope was for recognition for the best of modern bookbinding by the fine art world. One does indeed wonder at the convention which would accord artistic status to his sculptures but not to his bindings.

James Frank Edgar Mansfield, bookbinder: born London 11 February 1907; FRSA 1934; President, Guild of Contemporary Bookbinders 1955-68; Honorary Fellow, Designer Bookbinders 1968; OBE 1979; FRBS 1980; married 1980 Mrs Gladys Lochhead (died 1993; one stepson); died Bearsted, Kent 10 August 1996.