Inspiring: Philip Smith’s Bookbinding for Finnegans Wake, Moby Dick, and more

Philip Smith is an internationally renowned designer bookbinder and book artist, born June 10, 1928, in Southport England. He has been designing and creating intricate and fascinating bindings for well over 50 years. Here are some of my own favorites. Don’t miss the last one I’ve included here — believe it or not, it has a detachable mask.

by James Joyce
1st Edition, published by Faber & Faber, 1939

Design detail from Philip Smith’s website:  Sculptured male figure (Dublin/Giant Finn) created from balsawood and epoxy putty, onlaid with tiny ‘buildings’ of black millboard. A cavity hidden in the chest of the male figure contains a small plastic canister in which are four small ball bearings. The female figure (River Liffy/Anna Livia Plurabelle) is also modelled from epoxy putty. Strips of millboard form the maze glued to the boards and covered with thin feathered onlays. The maze is derived from the circular Meditation Maze on the floor of Chartres Cathedral converted into a rectangular form.

Small plastic Airfix ‘civilians’ are laterally bisected and fixed to the boards, some showing the fronts and some the backs of Dubliners. The ‘dung-heap’ made from emulsified maril, with the half-exposed special ‘letter’, and the hen that scratched it out, are placed on the back covers. The portico is a millboard construct sheltering the four old men. Figurations of maril fill in the triangle of the architrave. The book is covered with goatskin; all the epoxy modelling and figures are covered with onlays in blended shades of green and blue. A hole is drilled in the epoxy head of the female figure to insert brass rod and tube for the swivel closures at the fore-edges of the boards. A diagram based on that on p.293 of the book is blind-tooled within a rainbow arc on the back cover. Maril onlays are placed above the arc on the back cover and within the arc on the front cover.

Anagrams of the title, plus the initials of HCE and ALP converted to ‘Chapel’, read as: ‘Jim, Gef, Anna Wakes (chAPel) Joy Scene’ inside a heart-shaped title piece. The regular book title and author’s name are situated at the foot of the spine.”

by Herman Melville
Published by The Arion Press, San Francisco, 1979. One of a limited edition of 250 sale copies. Wood engravings by Barry Moser.

Design detail from Philip Smith’s website: Book bound in black, dark green and dark blue scarf-joined goatskins with various sea-coloured onlays. Most of the surface of the book is built from emulsified maril (this is a mixture of fine shavings of the grain side of coloured leathers mixed with PVA adhesive) and modelled with shaped bone folders and card templates. The book edges are painted with acrylic in a decalcomania technique at the head and with shaded acrylic paint on the fore-edge. The book is closed with brass clasps (swivel rods) set into the edge of the boards with brass tube. There is a triple (wave) ogee headband and cap.

The container is a slipcase with plastic strengtheners and modelled with epoxy-putty, all corner edges covered with goatskin, and infilled with layers of nap shavings and emulsified maril.

Depending on directional raking lights, the facial expression is changed to convey the various moods of Captain Ahab In his vendetta with the whale. The whale is modelled in balsawood and epoxy-putty, and covered with a creamy goatskin and white emulsified maril etc.

The rope is of epoxy-putty covered with leather. The tail of the whale, dripping ‘water’ emerges down the closed edge of the box. There is a small frame with an oil lamp at the foot.

The book is retained in Its box with a shaped strap-clasp and snap fasteners. The blood of the whale is formed of red-dyed ostrich parings. Minimal shading with acrylic paint. A platform shaped to accommodate and support the tail edge of the book is provided for display. The paper flyleaves and pastedown are treated with acrylic decalcomania waves.

by T. S. Eliot
Officina Bodoni edition 1961, signed by T. S. Eliot.

Design detail from Philip Smith’s website:  Book with detachable ‘mask’. Oasis goatskin over modelled and pierced boards. Flyleaf with circular leather image seen through cavity on front cover and ‘mask’.

See all of his inspiring bookbindings at the Philip Smith website.

Browse other articles in this series: Inspiring Miscellany.

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