I’m not quite sure what the opposite of carrying coals to Newcastle may be, but that’s certainly how I felt when coming away from the recent Edinburgh Book Fair, bringing back to London two Scottish bindings. Ian Marr had brought them up from Cornwall and they had sat unwanted on his shelves, under the gaze of Scottish collectors, Scottish booksellers, and Scottish librarians, for at least a day before I happened across them – very modestly priced and full of interest. Quite why I think I might be able to sell them down here, when they plainly hadn’t excited much interest up there, doesn’t really bear any kind of deep analysis, but booksellers do what booksellers do – they buy books more often than they sell them.
Both books are by that interesting Victorian éminence grise Sir Arthur Helps (1813-1875), old Etonian, Cambridge Apostle, Clerk to the Privy Council, author of Friends in Council, confidant of Queen Victoria, and connected to many of the leading political and literary figures of the day – Gladstone, Disraeli, Ruskin, Carlyle, etc. “His Thoughts upon Government  provided some of the most pertinent reflections on the evolution of government practice in mid-Victorian Britain” (Stephen L. Keck, Sir Arthur Helps and the Making of Victorianism. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2013. p.17). And as Lucy Soulsby, headmistress of Oxford High School for Girls, advised her young women, “Those of a philosophical turn may read Kant and Hegel, but all would find life easier for the mild metaphysics and shrewd wisdom of Friends in Council” (Keck, p4.)
Difficult too, to disregard a man who once wrote, amongst a plethora of other aphorisms, “Routine is not organization, any more than paralysis is order”. And he was born just up the road from here in Balham – which must give him a certain (if not unique) cachet in the annals of the great and good.
The first book is Helps’ Companions of My Solitude, published by Pickering in 1851 – musings on life in general and the questions of the day, with much on workers and their pay, education, the position of women in society, etc. As Ian pointed out in his extensive and very helpful catalogue notes, the index is a joy in itself –
Monomaniacs, too little account taken of them, 189.
Originality, diseased desire for, 249.
Parliaments, an instance of misplaced labour, 8.
Pope Alexander the Sixth, to blame for the Post-office regulations, 26.
The book was bound for Peter Carmichael (1809-1891), engineer and wealthy industrialist, a fortune made in the flax trade. A partner in the Baxter Brothers mills at Dundee, he could afford to buy Arthurstone House and its estate in 1869. Interesting to see that Helps’ influence extended well beyond the metropolitan milieu and Westminster politics – Carmichael (I assume it was he) has read the book thoroughly and pencil-marked numerous passages. Interesting too, that although the work was published anonymously, Helps’ authorship was evidently an open secret. His name appears in large letters in this somewhat unusual position at the foot of the spine.
The binding is a of a very hard and tightly-grained red leather – sealskin, I think – contrasting green label, raised bands with distinctive vertical bars, single small tool in blind in the compartments, gilt panels on the gently bevelled boards, very prettily marbled edges and endpapers, etc. A bold gilt stamp on the turn-in declares it to be the work of J. B. Brechin, binder, of 7 Castle Street, Dundee. Nothing much on him to be found anywhere, although there was apparently a piece on one of his bindings in The Bibliotheck in 1989 (which I’ve not seen) and there is a nice example of his work in the Folger.
His name in full was James Brody Brechin (1827?-1897), actually born in Brechin, in or about 1827, and a binder in Dundee from at least as early as 1851. He was originally a partner in “Young & Brechin”, who moved to the premises at 7 Castle Street in 1853. The partnership was formally dissolved on 31st July 1857, shortly after Brechin had married Mary Nicoll. Brechin continued alone in Castle Street until 1871, then moving to Commercial Street (1871-1876), and finally to the High Street, before retiring in the mid-1880s. In 1861, at around the time he was producing this binding, he was employing five men and two boys, and apart from bookbinding he was also publishing bibles and bible commentaries.
He was more than just a workaday bookbinder. There was a long account (forgive me if I quote it in full, I found it fascinating) of some of his work being displayed at a local charity exhibition in the Dundee Courier in 1867:
The most attractive articles on the fifth table are the examples of illuminated and inlaid morocco bookbinding, designed and executed by Mr James B. Brechin, Dundee.
No 1. — This design is entirely made up of blind tooling and runs over both sides and back. The colour of the morocco is purple, inlaid with maroon, having a centre design in scarlet. Edgings of scarlet lap into the purple, and eight circles of green fit into the centre of large circles, which curve along the fronts of the boards. The back is richly inlaid with smaller patterns in various colours. The pattern on the gilded edges forms two designs, one in dull gold and the other burnished, which very much enhance the beauty of the edge gilding.
No 2. — The sides of this specimen are of very intricate workmanship, being composed of three designs, one in scarlet, another in green, and third in dark purple, inlaid with maroon morocco, and intertwining with each other. At the top and bottom of each board are edgings of yellow morocco let into the rose red morocco in which volume is bound. There is, besides, a deal of tooling in gold on this example. The insides and back are also richly ornamented, and a very beautiful double pattern in dull and burnished gold decorates the edges.
No. 3. — Is bound in light green smooth morocco, with yellow corner pieces illuminating the comers of the boards, and having centre patterns of orange coloured morocco let into green ovals in the middle of the boards. Larger ovals, sunk below the level of the rest of the boards are formed of light blue morocco, into which are let flowing blind designs in scarlet morocco. The back is composed of two compartments of light blue leather with scarlet patterns let in, also blind. The gold tooling on this specimen is very effective, and harmonises well with the illuminated work. The insides have a series of light blue ovals inlaid with smaller ones in orange and scarlet morocco, and tooled in gold. The patterns on the edges are also in ovals, with scrollwork in the body of each, which give a brilliant appearance to the edges of the volume.
No. 4. — This is a very rich example of illuminated workmanship, having about fifteen different colours of morocco inlaid in orange-coloured calf, in which leather the book is bound. The design is composed entirely of squares and angles, with gold lines running through the whole. The first panel on the side is made up of green and blue angles let into red morocco, with others in gold alternating. The second panel in the centre is formed of a series of crosses, with their points of contact hid behind differently-proportioned squares. The design on the back is in keeping with those on the sides, part of it being also sunk. The insides of this specimen are very richly wrought in gold, the leather being carried over the joints and end-papers. The tooling on the edges is in harmony with the rest of the workmanship, and is partly in dull and partly in burnished gold, very carefully wrought with small tools. We understand that the last specimen, along with a large memorial volume containing the proceedings of the British Association, with illuminated title, contents, and pages in colours and gold, by J. B. Brechin, and richly bound in illuminated morocco by him, are reserved for presentation to the Free Library. (Dundee Courier, 27th September 1867).
Now this all reads like something not from the 1860s but from a modern Designer Binders exhibition, so my question is – to all of you out there – where on earth are these extraordinary bindings now? And what else did James Brody Brechin produce over the course of his career?
In November 1878, he made the newspapers once more, but in a rather different context. He was fined £1 at the Sherriff’s Court in Dundee for refusing to have a child vaccinated. He sent a long and dignified letter in explanation to the Dundee Evening Telegraph, which was published on Saturday 23rd November 1878. He pointed that some doctors were well aware that although the overall benefits of vaccination were not disputed, the effects were not in every single instance beneficial. He wished only to delay having the vaccination until he judged his son old enough “to bear the operation with safety”, going on to point out some of the complete anomalies in the current working of the regulations.
By 1881 the days of the wide general patronage of binders like Brechin were coming to an end. His employees were now down to a single man, just one boy, and a woman. He retired a few years later and died suddenly on 7th July 1897 at his home at 2 Tay Street Lane.
The second binding is for one of Arthur Helps’ least-known works – Oulita the Serf. A Tragedy (1858). Set in Russia in the early years of the nineteenth century, it is a philosophical play on the treatment of women and the concept of slavery. Helps had reviewed Uncle Tom’s Cabin when it first came out in this country, corresponded with Harriet Beecher Stowe, and met her when she came to London. She wrote of him, “Somehow or other I had formed the impression from his writings that he was a venerable sage of very advanced years, who contemplated life as an aged hermit from the door of his cell. Conceive of my surprise to find a genial young gentleman of about twenty-five, who looked as if he might enjoy a joke as well as another man” (Keck, p.12).
The binding, despite some minor differences in detailing, is essentially the same in design as the first one – obviously by the same hand – except that it is not. Looking to find Brechin’s stamp in the same place, I found instead a similar stamp (in blind) recording the work of W. Smith, binder, of 88 Nethergate, Dundee. And William Smith (fl.1860-1879) was even more obscure and difficult to trace than Brechin.
Born in Dundee itself, in or about 1834, Smith set up for himself in 1860 with a borrowed amount of £150. He was at this 88 Nethergate address only between 1862 and 1865, when he moved to larger premises at 104 Nethergate, which gives a relatively narrow time-frame for the execution of the binding. His business rapidly expanded, he was frequently advertising for staff at this period, and his activities soon encompassed bookselling, printing, lithography, and the sale of stationery, as well as bookbinding. By 1871 he was employing twelve men, eight boys, two women, and two girls.
His downfall came suddenly. A creditors’ meeting was summoned in August 1871, his estate sequestered, and his entire stock and plant offered for sale as a going concern. Examined in the Sherriff’s Court in September, he blamed ill-health and unspecified “other reasons” for his troubles, but mostly the over-hasty action of some of the creditors. He somehow managed to start up again, now at 112 Nethergate. In 1876 he became embroiled in a row with Dundee’s venerable Snuff & Twopenny Whist Club – the members were complaining about the noise from his printing machines housed on the floor above their club-room. This was perhaps the least of his troubles, because the creditors were once again gathering. In November of that year his entire business was sold to William Kidd, who ran it successfully for many years. Later in the month, Smith was attacked and robbed in the street. In March of the following year, he was compelled to admit in court that he had been “slightly under the influence of drink” that evening. He was unable to identify the accused, who was promptly acquitted.
Worse was to come – and I rather wish I hadn’t discovered this, but research doesn’t always take us to comfortable places. In June 1877, he was arrested for assaulting his wife. Now living in Newport, across the Tay, he had returned home “somewhat the worse for drink, and on entering the house proceeded to smash everything that came in his way. On his wife going out to the garden, the accused followed her, and seizing hold of a rake, threw it at her with considerable force”. He was sentenced to thirty days’ imprisonment, with a threat of thirty more, and strongly recommended “to refrain for ever from taking intoxicating liquor” (Dundee Courier, 29th June 1877). It also came out that he had previously been convicted of assaulting his former wife.
He had resumed business of a kind in Barrack Street, Dundee, but creditors’ meetings and sequestrations were again in the air in October 1877. He failed to appear for a bankruptcy hearing in December 1877 and a warrant was granted for his apprehension. His son, David Low Smith (who later became a bookseller in Manchester), was summoned to account for what had happened to the household furniture. Although a dividend of some kind was paid in May 1878, there were further public examinations and bankruptcy proceedings in June 1879. And after that William Smith seems simply to disappear from view.
What is interesting about these two Dundee bindings is the degree of precise instruction that Peter Carmichael must have been giving his binders. This was how he wanted his books by Arthur Helps to be bound – and for further proof of that, Nick McConnell (McConnell Fine Books), down in Deal, has another Helps book bound for Carmichael in exactly the same style, the four volume Spanish Conquest in America (1855-1861). To all intents and purposes the same design, but this time bound by Andrew Grieve of Edinburgh.
Quite why Carmichael should have used three different binders, when to use one could have led to an even more precise matching of design is a mystery. Perhaps none of them were getting it quite right, but Carmichael’s archive, papers and journals are now at the University of Dundee and perhaps the answer lies there, should anyone wish to look.
The evidence that this was Carmichael’s specific design just for books by Helps is conjectural (i.e. I’m guessing) – does anyone know of others? – but the meagre information I can find on other bindings executed for Carmichael on books by other authors, all look to be quite different in style. There is an architectural book in the National Library of Scotland bound for Carmichael by Brechin in green morocco, and a travel book in blue morocco by Smith turned up at auction a couple of years ago. But after scouring the world of books on the internet, the only image it revealed that I could reproduce was of a book (another bound by William Smith in the early 1860s) already sitting here forgotten on my own shelves. There may be a lesson in that.