Another point made by Ed Bayntun-Coward (George Bayntun) in his excellent talk last week was how cheap it could still be to obtain old bindings of first rate workmanship by known and named binders – especially nineteenth-century ones. Here’s an example – a book bought on my recent travels, already given a brief mention below, and now due for cataloguing in preparation for the biggest ever ABA London International Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia next week (link to the right). A first edition of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859) – in a contemporary binding by Seton & Mackenzie, with their stamp. A unique and beautiful object – and bought for under £50.
I know this confuses some people – so I shall spell it out. We use ‘contemporary’ to mean a binding made at or about the time of the original publication of the book. But it’s always as well to verify the facts – to pin down a date more precisely – and it’s also nice to know where the book was bound. Seton & Mackenzie don’t tell us either when or where. Recourse to the usual resources and reference books throws up a Robert Seton – or probably two Robert Setons – working in Edinburgh in the first half of the nineteenth-century, as well as a contemporary James Taylor Seton, also of Edinburgh. The increasingly useful British Library online Database of Bookbindings (link to the right) has three examples of Robert Seton bindings, and a single Seton & Mackenzie example – an undated book of about 1857 apparently published as well as bound by Seton & Mackenzie in Edinburgh. But nothing biographical, no solid sense of timeframe or personality.
So who and precisely when were Seton & Mackenzie? Some patient archival digging slowly unravelled the story. I’ll begin with James Taylor Seton (1805-1862), who was born in Edinburgh, the son of Robert Seton I, a bookbinder active until about 1817, and his wife Margaret Taylor – evidently a daughter of James Taylor, another Edinburgh binder, active from about 1782 until about 1825. James Taylor Seton took over his uncle James Taylor’s premises at 3 Mound Place in or about 1826 and married Margaret Bowerhill or Bourhill, the daughter of a bookseller in Musselburgh, in 1827. He evidently soon ran into financial difficulties and the National Library of Scotland is reported to have a Catalogue of books and stationary [sic], being part of the stock of James Taylor Seton, bookbinder, Edinburgh; and of Bourhill & Co. booksellers, Musselburgh. To be sold by auction, for behoof of creditors by John Carfrae & Son, Edinburgh 19-22 December, 1831.
His business continued for a few years at different addresses, but he appears thereafter simply to have worked as a journeyman binder for others – he was so described in 1851. His younger brother, Robert Seton II (1806-1854), took over the Mound Place premises and evidently fared rather better. He advertised himself as Bookbinder to the King from 1833 until the death of William IV in 1837, and adding bookselling to his binding activities. He married Grace Wilson (1818-1903), the daughter of a local merchant, in 1841, in which year he also began to publish books as well as sell and bind them. By 1851, he was employing twenty men and women. But then, in July 1854, at the age of forty-seven, Robert Seton died.
The business continued under his name, presumably under the direction of his widow and with a certain residual momentum, by now advertising for old books too, until 1856. Then a decision was made and announced in the press that the goodwill and stock-in-trade were to be disposed of –
“So favourable an opening is seldom to be had. The Stocks are fresh and well-selected; the Business is extensive, and in full operation; the Premises, both in George Street [the book warehouse] and Thistle Street [the bindery], are commodious, well fitted-up, and admirably adapted for the trade. Meanwhile, the Business is being carried on in all its departments for behoof of Mr. Seton’s family, under the old firm of Robert Seton” (Glasgow Herald, 3 Jun 1856).
Arrangements for a system of sealed bids for the whole or the individual parts of the business were announced, but evidently no satisfactory ones were forthcoming. Portions of the stock were auctioned off later in the year – and, at that point, the business was reborn as “Seton & Mackenzie”, advertising under that name “a great variety of books in elegant bindings suitable for Christmas presents” in December 1856.
The pace and ambition of the publishing side of the firm stepped up – enter Charles Mackenzie (1821-1882). Mackenzie was born in Dunfermline, the son of Charles Mackenzie and his wife, Elizabeth Webster. By 1851 he was in lodgings in Edinburgh, described simply on the Census Return as a bookseller’s clerk – presumably to Robert Seton. And it was presumably he who, along with the widow, Grace Seton, took over the reins after Seton’s death – they became partners in another sense in 1859, when they married. So there we have the identity of “Seton & Mackenzie”, but that may not be the whole story. Neither of them had trained as a bookbinder, and I suspect it may have been the elder brother and journeyman bookbinder, James Taylor Seton, who in fact ran the binding department. He was certainly living in Thistle Street, close to the bindery, in 1861, when the Census recorded him as a bookbinder, by then married to his second wife, Jessie Gentle.
Grace Seton, now Mackenzie, in due course made over her share in the business to her son, Robert Seton III (1844-1905), who remained a partner until 1873, at which point he left to establish his own bookbinding company at the Aldine Works, 169 Fountainbridge, Edinburgh. Charles Mackenzie continued to trade as Seton & Mackenzie. The firm went bankrupt and a sequestration order placed in 1879, although Mackenzie appears to have been allowed to continue to trade. He was still employing ten men and fourteen women in 1881, the year of the firm’s final publishing imprint. He died the following year – and the firm with him. [I am now informed by Diane McNicoll that this incorrect: she writes (29th July 2015) that “the firm did not in fact die with Charles. His widow Grace carried it on at 121 Princes Street, still styled Seton & Mackenzie, booksellers and bookbinders, and agents for the British and Foreign Bible Society. She died in 1903”].
The young Robert Seton went bankrupt at the same time, suggesting that the two businesses were probably still closely interlinked – with perhaps the binding work being subcontracted from one to the other. In this case, Alexander Whyte, a local wholesale stationer, was appointed to take over the business on behalf of the creditors. The winding-up dragged on at least until 1895, during which time Robert Seton moved to London – recorded as a bookseller in Lambeth in 1881, living in Hammersmith in 1891, but returning to Edinburgh, now described as a commission traveller, before his death in 1905.
To round off the story, it might have been possible to identify the original owner who took the book to Seton & Mackenzie to be bound, or who bought it from them, or was given it from their range of suitable presents, already bound. Except that a former owner, named and shamed as Donald Needham, has defaced the neat little red leather bookplate to insert his own name. Why do this?
So there I shall leave it – the first edition of a major work by our greatest nineteenth-century poet, the first book of Tennyson’s great Arthurian cycle, the defining poetic rendition of our founding myth of the Matter of Britain, in a contemporary hand binding from the Seton & Mackenzie workshop. And even with my (slightly immodest) mark-up, no-one is going to have to break the bank to buy it. Priced at so little that I’m sitting here wondering whether it’s even worth taking to Olympia – but form an orderly queue on Stand 84 if you are interested.