They say you can’t judge a book by looking at its cover, but we know that this is not always true. Sometimes there is little else that it is needful to judge – as in the case of this superb binding of about 1900 by the London bookbinder Lucien Broca.
Yes, yes – I know it’s another Harrison Ainsworth novel and I’ve repeatedly promised never, ever, to buy another one (see the previous “Bound by Worsfold” post from earlier this year), but I wasn’t going to turn this down when I ran into it at Bayntun’s in Bath last week. Magnificent shop, magnificent bindings – if you don’t know it, stop reading, drop what you are doing, and go there right now. It was the last stop on my latest book-hunting tour – as indeed it was the first stop on my first ever book-hunting safari over forty years ago. Still in thrall to the place.
All I can say in my own defence on the Harrison Ainsworth front, is that Bayntun’s had two of his novels bound by Broca and (a) this one was a title I’ve not come across before, and (b) I had the iron will and self-control not to buy them both. As to Broca – he was, I suspect, comparatively little known until the revelation in Marianne Tidcombe’s “Women Bookbinders, 1880-1920” (1996), that the finest work of the well-known and much-lauded bookbinder Sarah Prideaux (1853-1933) – that from the years following 1894 – was in fact executed for her, following her designs and instructions, by an anonymous trade finisher, one Lucien Broca. There are pictures of Prideaux bindings all over the internet – attributions to Broca, not so much.
Broca’s own work, signed with his own stamp, is relatively uncommon. As far as I can make out, there are just four or five examples currently on the market. There is apparently no example in the British Library – at least not in its database of bookbindings – although the Folger has a superb Broca binding on a 1619 “Midsommer Nights Dreame”.
Information about Broca himself is even more scant. He was French, a handful of listings in London street directories between 1875 and 1901, a short partnership with Simon Kaufmann in 1876-1877, not much else – so I’ve done some digging.
Lucien Broca (1839-1910) was born in the tiny French village of Sorbs in 1839. He first appears in London in Frith Street, Soho, in 1875, remaining there until 1879 and working with Simon Kaufman (1856-1897) in the middle of that period – Kaufmann a native of Koblenz and generally described as a dealer in “plush leather and fancy goods”, rather than a bookbinder.
Broca then disappears from view, at least as far as the street directories are concerned, until 1890. I assume he was working for other people during this period. In 1890, he re-appears in Shaftesbury Avenue, initially at Nos. 46-47 (1890-1891), then at No. 154 (1892-1896). It was also in 1890 that he married Florence Mary Rummery (1872-1947), the London-born daughter of a grocer’s assistant – a girl of eighteen and more than thirty years his junior. There was perhaps something covert about this, as on the 1891 census return she is still described as single and as living at home with her parents. Her occupation is given as a bookbinder’s book-sewer, and I can only assume that she was Broca’s assistant. They had their one and only child, Lucien Jean (John) Broca (1895-1968) in the spring of 1895.
Broca then disappears from the directories again until 1901 – he was perhaps working more or less full-time for Sarah Prideaux at this period. In 1901-1902 he was in Percy Street, by now described as an “art binder”, living over the workshop with his wife and son. His final appearance as a bookbinder in the directories seems to have been in 1904, by now in Gerrard Street, still in Soho.
From there I can only assume that this master craftsman, by now in his sixties, was struck by some failure of health, hand or eye, which prevented his continuing to work as a binder. He ended his days, from at least 1907, selling confectionery on Chiswick High Road, the business continuing for a time under his widow. He died on 30th December 1910 at a nursing home in Merton and probate on his meagre effects of £233.17s.3d was granted to his widow the following October.