- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2001

J. Franklin Mowery shows courage when he says, very convincingly:

"A book is the ultimate art form — far more than the greatest painting, because it incorporates multiple arts in one form."

The conservation chief for Folger Shakespeare Library stands before a glass case in which rests an elaborate binding by Briton Stephen Conway for a book containing Shakespeare's poems and sonnets. Six ornate recessed panels using goatskin, paper and studs make up the binding.

"This [art] combines the skills of the writer, the illustrator, the typographer and the binder," Mr. Mowery says.

This relaxed, confident man who calls himself "Frank" points across the Folger's Old Reading Room to an even larger book that is a bound version in black leather and gold tooling of Shakespeare's "King Lear" illustrated by Czech artist Oscar Kokoschka. The binding by Ivor Robinson is another of the 47 works in Folger's newest exhibit, "Designer Bookbinders in North America."

Unfortunately, for security reasons and a need to protect the books, visitors are denied a look at the text inside these impressive bindings. But for once — at least in these precincts — it is possible to judge a book by its cover. It's even possible to ignore the interior altogether, so exquisite and engaging are the varied examples of bookbinders' skills.

The exhibit's formal title barely hints at the delight to be found in exploring a little-known art form. These are handmade book covers, made with care by members of a prestigious group called the Designer Bookbinders, the principal bookbinding society in Great Britain.

Some of the exhibitors created the text as well as the bindings. "It's known as an artist's book, where the artist is responsible for the interior as well as the exterior," Mr. Mowery says.

Another creation by Mr. Conway is an artist's book accompanied by a separate cover for a CD of his own verse, titled "All My Heroes Sang the Blues." Other binders chose greater or lesser-known literary texts to honor.

"Most bookbinders work with what they have been given," Mr. Mowery says. "They are not trying to break out of the mold of the traditional book format. But they are breaking the mold in presentation and design."

Still others seem inspired solely by the challenge of the materials — a range that includes corrugated cardboard, lacquered eggshell, fish skin, paper, silk, other cloths, tape, silver chains, wood, paint, epoxy and even computer paper.

"There is nothing that hasn't been used in bound books," Mr. Mowery says.

Goatskin, chosen for its versatility when treated, is used most frequently. "It's supple with a textured grain," he says. "Calfskin is flat. Vellum is any animal skin treated for use as a writing surface."

The books are on a two-year tour of North America, with the Folger the last U.S. stop before the exhibit moves on to Toronto. Mr. Conway's binding for Shakespeare's poems and sonnets will return to Washington at the conclusion of the tour. It has been purchased for the Folger collection by local arts patron and Folger trustee Ronald D. Abramson.

The inspiration for Mr. Conway's panels with "boxes" was a visit he made to London's Globe Theatre. "He was impressed by the oaken doors with studs," Mr. Mowery says. "He saw them as the entrance to a cathedral, leading to a great open space. The boxes are a maze that leads you into the sonnets."

Most books on display are for sale, with negotiations handled directly through individual binders, all members of the nonprofit Designer Bookbinders, based in North Yorkshire.

The Library of Congress is considering purchase of another entry in the exhibit, "The Bible Designed to Be Read as Literature," bound by exhibitor Jenni Grey and priced at $6,500.

"People don't understand how wonderful a book like this can be," says Mr. Mowery. "Say, the price is $10,000. Lots of collectors spend that on a painting, put it on a wall and brag about it. Unless they can display a book, it goes on a shelf."

Many of the designers in the Folger show apparently have made special efforts to feature the architectural qualities of their work, as if to challenge a book's conventional image and its upright storage in a line on a shelf. Like architects, too, some binders detail drawings in preparation and followd a precise plan through to completion. Others work more spontaneously. "Most of the resulting designs are balanced with what is inside, usually text," Mr. Mowery.

Most represent an entire month's work, or a full year in the case of Philip Smith's interpretation of Dante's "Inferno," a large three-volume set displayed vertically in a contiguous line. Mr. Mowery estimates the column, encased in three clear plastic boxes, would bring "at least $150,000" if it were for sale.

Mr. Smith, an internationally regarded master who has written several books on the art, is represented by two pieces. The second is a portrayal in gray-green textured goatskin with balsa wood and epoxy putty of his interpretation of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," which surrounds a collector's version of the text printed on handmade paper by Arion Press of California. It's his "complex technique, his choice of materials and his elaborate presentation" that makes him stand out in the field, according to Mr. Mowery. Neither of the Smith works is for sale.

To add perspective to the exhibit, Mr. Mowery selected several prime examples from Folger's extensive collection of rare bound books to display in a separate case. They include Queen Elizabeth I's Bible with a painted vellum oval inlaid in a leather binding whose design has an eerie resemblance to one of the modern works in the show.

The exhibit is one of few times the Folger has put contemporary bookbinding on display. A 1986 show by the Guild of Book Workers did not just highlight bindings but "all the arts of creating books, including calligraphy." Mr. Mowery, a past president of the guild, also is a member of the British group. None of his designs is included in this display.

His own work, displayed in 1986, was seen again in 1992 during the institution's 60th anniversary when the Folger commissioned him to produce a jeweled version of Shakespeare's sonnets. The design he chose incorporated 56 diamonds and four rubies in a gilded black leather binding.

The son of two librarians, Mr. Mowery early began helping his father at work in the university town of Springfield, Ohio, and was drawn to the craft as a teen-ager. Eventually, he became the protege of a German bookbinder in Hamburg and perfected his talent in Austria and Italy.

Europe has more of a tradition in perpetuating the art, with the French the most prolific, he says. Unlike the British, the French involve many craftsmen in a creation: one prepares leather, another does the tooling, a third paints, etc.

The only place in the United States teaching bookbinding is the North Bennett Street School in Boston, Mr. Mowery says. Few museum curators consider it an art, although the National Gallery of Art has several examples in storage, he says, including some of his. The Renwick Gallery held a show of work by the American guild in the mid-1980s.

"Shows like this I hope will get the juices going so this art won't die out. It's under-recognized and under-appreciated. The reason I've stopped binding books is because I can't afford to do it. Materials are costly, and it's nearly impossible to charge fairly for the time involved," he says.

Mr. Mowery will give a gallery talk at 6 p.m. May 14 that is free, but reservations are necessary. The number to call is 202/675-0359.

WHAT: "Designer Bookbinders in North America"WHERE: Great Hall of the Folger Shakespeare Library, 102 East Capitol SEWHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, through Aug. 18TICKETS: FreeWEB SITE: www.folger.edu

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