In 1896 two bookbinding apprentices, Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe, met at the classes given at the Central School of Arts and Crafts by Douglas Cockerell. Cockerell was then working at the Doves Bindery for T. J. Cobden- Sanderson, whose revolutionary designs inspired the two young men. In 1898 they joined Cockerell when he founded his bindery, and three years later set up on their own. From the start Sangorski & Sutcliffe's work was original in design. They became famous for their elaborate bindings encrusted with gilt work and precious stones. Francis's brother Alberto Sangorski was a more than competent painter and calligrapher, and the firm could execute the inside as well as the outside of the books that bore their name.
Most famous of these books was the copy of the Rubiyt of Omar Khayym that Sangorski designed, which took the bindery two years to complete. With three peacocks in the middle surrounded by vine sprays, a snake in an apple-tree, roses and poppies, the whole worked in polychrome leather and jewels, it was a masterpiece of its kind. In 1912 it was en route for America in the Titanic; and Sangorski was drowned in a bathing accident.
Stanley Bray was born in 1907, and was a child in that year of catastrophe. His uncle George became the sole proprietor of the firm, and his sister's son joined it when he left school, in 1924. He quickly learnt his craft and became his uncle's right-hand man. Nothing, for him, was impossible; nothing too much trouble.
Between the wars was a great time for the firm. It was the era of the Ashendene and Golden Cockerel Presses, many copies of whose work they bound. They also did much work for J. & E. Bumpus, the bookshop in Oxford Street. The manager, J.G. Wilson, was the most influential bookseller in London; he taught his customers to appreciate a well-printed and well- bound book. Many a book with Bumpus's name in it was actually bound by Sangorski & Sutcliffe. A whole wall of such books can now be seen in the library of Mount Stewart in County Down, originally commissioned by Lord Londonderry for Wynyard Park.
I first climbed up the steep steps that led to the workshop under the roof in Poland Street in the year the Second World War ended. The firm's normal work had been diminished and their skills directed to making essential leather parts for munitions; normal life was only just beginning. Bray's uncle had died in 1943, soon after taking over another bindery in Wood Street, whose manager, Kenneth Hobson, had joined the firm. It was Bray himself who welcomed me, and I can still see his spare, aproned figure, a book in hand and a large roll in the other. Watching him, absorbed, at work was a deep and silent pleasure. Although a responsible proprietor he preferred to work, leaving the detail of management to Hobson. The two worked together in perfect amity.
The firm still employed enough skilled craftsmen to undertake complete (if limited) editions for the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis. They did the limited editions of Eric Linklater's A Sociable Plover and Sealskin Trousers, with Joan Hassall's lovely wood-engravings. These were to be signed by author and artist, and Linklater, cantankerous after lunch, insisted on signing "Joan Hassall" and making the hapless Joan write "Eric Linklater". Perhaps most beautiful was their large-paper edition of Andrew Young's Collected Poems (1960), also with Joan Hassall's engravings. But there were not enough of these, and the "carriage trade" that Wilson had generated began to wane. Hobson, a little older than Bray, was not well, though he gallantly clambered up the steps till the early 1970s when he retired.
Bray soldiered on until 1978 when, providentially, the firm was taken over by Asprey's, who had become its biggest customer. But Soho rents were rising. Old-style trade binders could no longer survive. Sangorski & Sutcliffe merged with an older firm, Zaehnsdorf's, and moved to Bermondsey.
For Bray, this was the signal finally to retire, but not to stop working. In 1932 he had discovered the original designs for the Rubiyt lost in 1912, and for seven years worked to recreate a "second Omar". But in 1940, by a strange fatality, the warehouse in the City in which it was stored was blitzed. All that remained was the jewels. Now, 45 years later, Bray set to work to create a third Omar, assisted by his wife, Irene, who had worked with him in the firm for 16 years. He finished in the spring of 1989, and presented it, with appropriate ceremony, to the British Library where (we may hope) it will this time be preserved. It is a monument to a long life's work.
Arthur Stanley Mardell Bray, bookbinder: born London 25 November 1907; married 1962 Irene Newstead; died Esher, Surrey 24 December 1995.
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