As to the ornament.
The aim in ornamentation is the same in art as that of vegetation is in nature. It beautifies all objects and decorates the palace as well as the cottage with all its belongings. This is not meant to say that it requires ornamental decoration to elevate the product of a handicraft to an object of art; for any object which is perfectly harmonious in all of its details and the fundamental forms of which satisfy the aesthetic sentiment by their beauty, is an object of art whether ornamented or not. Take, for instance, a book gotten up in Jansenist* style, bound in the finest French crushed levant, on which the bookbinder’s art has been lavishly carried to perfection in every detail; on whose very binding one seems to notice the traces of a caressing hand that has petted it in every stage of its completion; such a book will be an object of art even when lacking any ornamentation whatever. The perfect bodily shape of it stamps it to be a piece of art in itself; the ornamentation should merely serve in a subsidiary way to further enhance the beauty of the already perfect product and not to cover up or hide inferior creations of bad taste and poor workmanship. A badly bound and poorly shaped book will forever be an eyesore, even if covered all over with the finest and most ingeniously conceived ornamentation. Here is where many fail. We all know that the ornamentation of the book proper is more or less within reach of all those who practice the art of drawing, but it is not so with the ornamentation of bindings.
A certain design may be a marvel of art on paper, but may not admit of execution on leather at all, or may produce on the leather a diametrically opposite effect to that expected, if, in the composition of the design, the means of execution at the disposal of the artisan have not been considered. They are in this case limited. The elements with which the binder has to work and those upon which he has to operate, are so intractable that it requires profound study, long and varied practice and a consummate science in order to excel. Ornamentation here is confined by certain qualities of the object to be ornamented as to its relation to material, purpose and style. As to material, it would be wrong to try to give properties to it which it does not possess and which would be incongruous with its nature. As to purpose, it would be a flagrant violation of all esthetic law to so lose sight of the practical purpose of a book as to almost prevent its practical use. The first requisite of purpose is not to impair the usefulness of the book by unsuitable decoration; the second, to bring forth or show up the material used to its best advantage by a proper and suitable design.
Design is the life of art, the creative principle manifesting itself on the plane of sensuous and ideal perception. In the perfect balance of its function, life is perfectly expressed; in the rhythm and orderly collocution of its parts, design attains its supreme power.
Imagination is the only measure which marks off the fine arts from those termed “liberal” and defines the exact difference between artist and artisan. Adjudged by such canons, bookbinding may claim a position among the finest of fine arts if it be followed into those higher altitudes where handicraft inspires the finer essence of design. Few can breathe the air of this ideality, for the combination of attributes must be of the rarest type attainable. Not only must the bookbinder be a purist, but also his patron.
Technique, however marvelous, is the mere medium for the thought. Fortunately, there are many plans beneath one so difficult to reach where art may genuinely express itself, for bookbinding encompasses all the gradations between craft as craft and art. A perfect technique does not make up the equipment of the art binder any more than it portrays the touch of the master painter or sculptor. Indeed, the same objections as are to be found with painting present themselves with finishing. Many are painting, but few are creating; so, many are finishing, but few are creating, and the masterpieces of the past may be silently presented as indexing the best capabilities the art possesses. It is, however, unfair to compress the definition of art in bookbinding within too narrow limits; nor are the accusations of ultra critics to be regarded. These object to everything that is modern because that which is best in modern binding is to a certain extent imitative of the classic styles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The objection is unsound; composition is never subservient to its elements. Creative imagination may be equally expressed by known materials and by a new interpretative apparatus. Design may invent or it may elaborate on old motifs; it may create its elements of decoration or utilize those already to its hand in modified arrangement or repetition; it is the form, the individuality of conception, the tremulous expression of a thought, which make good art, and such may be found in the very best modern bindings.
The application of design to bookbinding, viewing the latter as a department of the fine arts, presents exactions scarcely dreamed of by the painter whose merely technical media are not fixed quantities.
The latter may modify his effects after he has placed them upon the canvas, but whatever falls from the thought and hand of the craftsman-artist upon the delicate surface of the leather is unalterably and ineradically there. Form-the form of his thoughts-must be once, and only once, interpreted. Conception may glow in his mind with all the brilliance of distinct imagery and yet materialize beneath his touch with all of the grace and inspiration flown. His condition is always variable and his result never determined. The elusive character of his ideal may never be attained. Hence, skill and artistic feeling by means of which the perfect co-ordination of mind and hand is alone attainable must both be present with the artist binder who seeks to create a pure design. These are rare attributes in any age, and especially in an epoch so dominated by the commercial spirit as the present. They are an efflorescence of the soul extremely difficult to find. The greater number lose the imaginative quality in their struggle for technique and the characteristics of art are thus rendered subservient to those of mere handicraft. The trend from one to the other of these attributes, in a proper harmony of which resides the correct attainment, is very imperceptible and the transition is easily made-almost unconsciously.
The very pursuit of the ideal in thought leads to an intense desire for its adequate expression. Delicacy of manipulation, mathematical accuracy of line and curve, evenness and regularity of impression, firmness of tooling and brilliancy of gold, are sufficient requirements to engross about all one’s attention, but by themselves are not sufficient to make good art.
*A Jansenist binding is a binding without any ornamentation whatever on ~the outside; it may have an inside doublure or rich borders, but the artistic effect sought for is obtained by the best ‘of material and the best of workmanship.