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Sangorski and Sutcliffe: The Rolls Royce of Bookbinding

By Kelsey McKinney

Jeweled bindings, which use metalwork, jewels, ivory, and rich fabrics to decorate a book, date back at least to the Middle Ages, but the form was revived around the turn of the twentieth century by the English binders Sangorski & Sutcliffe.

Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe met in evening bookbinding classes in 1896. After a few years teaching bookbinding at Camberwell College of Art, they opened their own shop in a rented attic in Bloomsbury despite the difficult economic climate. Then on October 1, 1901, they founded Sangorski & Sutcliffe. Quickly, they became known for their sumptuous multi-colored leather book bindings complete with gold inlay and precious jewels. Their designs were intricate, bold, and creative. These early years were the golden age of the company. During this time Sangorski & Sutcliffe created dozens of fine bindings and grew in both popularity and notoriety. More than 80 Sangorski & Sutcliffe originals are housed in the Ransom Center’s collections.

Many of the Sangorski & Sutcliffe books at the Ransom Center are high-quality bindings but rather plain in appearance, while a few of them are quite ornate. A Sangorski & Sutcliffe binding of Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, for example, has semiprecious stones inlaid inside the front and back covers. An edition of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark is bound in leather with stingray onlay, and semiprecious stones are inlaid inside the front and back covers. Two works, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Hermit and James Russell Lowell’s The Vision of Sir Launfal, are handwritten in calligraphy on parchment by Alberto Sangorski with decorative borders and illuminated miniatures.

One famous book that the Ransom Center doesn’t hold is a book known as the Great Omar, which was a magnificent Sangorski & Sutcliffe binding of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a narrative poem about the importance of living in the moment. Set in a Persian garden, the lyrical verses are filled with imagery of roses, celebrations of wine, and questions about mortality, fate, and doubt.

Sangorski & Sutcliffe was commissioned in 1909 to design the luxurious binding for the Rubáiyát. The front cover was to be adorned with three golden peacocks with jeweled tails, surrounded by heavily tooled and gilded vines. The Great Omar was the pride of Sangorski & Sutcliffe. Sadly, it was fated for disaster. The book was sent on the Titanic in 1912. The Great Omar went down with the ship and was never recovered. A second copy of the Rubáiyát was bound on the eve of World War II. This copy was kept in a bank safe vault to protect it. However, enemy bombing during the war destroyed the bank, the safe vault, and the second version of the Great Omar. Stanley Bray, the nephew of George Sutcliffe, created a third version of the book after he retired. This third version follows the original design and is housed in the British Library.

View a video that chronicles the story of the Great Omar, a story that was highlighted in the Ransom Center’s 2009 exhibition The Persian Sensation: ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ in the West.

Sangorski drowned in 1912, but Sutcliffe continued the firm until his death in 1936. The business changed hands and names in the postwar years as interest in fine bindings declined. The firm was bought by Shepard’s in 1998, and the name of Sangorski & Sutcliffe was restored.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Photography volunteer Michel McCabe-Hughes inventories negatives from the Arnold Newman papers and photography collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Photography volunteer Michel McCabe-Hughes inventories negatives from the Arnold Newman papers and photography collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Student technician Nestor Cordova digitizes the Robert De Niro video collection. The film being digitized is "Jacknife" (1989). Photo by Edgar Walters.
Student technician Nestor Cordova digitizes the Robert De Niro video collection. The film being digitized is "Jacknife" (1989). Photo by Edgar Walters.
Digitization Supervisor Alan Van Dyke scans a first edition copy of "Helena" by Evelyn Waugh. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Digitization Supervisor Alan Van Dyke scans a first edition copy of "Helena" by Evelyn Waugh. Photo by Edgar Walters.

Writer Jim Crace gives writing advice and discusses why T. H. White’s archive at the Ransom Center brought tears to his eyes

By Emily Neie

English writer Jim Crace, currently a visiting professor at The University of Texas at Austin Michener Center for Writers, gives a reading tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302. Crace’s archive resides at the Ransom Center, and on a previous visit to Austin he spoke with Ransom Center staff about his interests and work.

In these two videos, Crace reflects on writing advice he took to heart early in his career and how one of his favorite authors, T. H. White, adopted a life of learning to deal with depression. These videos exemplify Crace’s understanding of the emotional value of the physical and how he uses this connection in his writing.

Jim Crace’s Writing Advice

“I found myself writing more directly and more convincingly about my mum through scissors than I would’ve done if I’d written about her emotionally…”

Jim Crace on T. H. White’s Materials at the Ransom Center

“…Once you’ve learned to parse medieval German verbs, you can learn to plow. And once you’ve mastered plowing, you can set your attentions towards knitting. And once you’ve learned to knit, you can discover how to make dough rise. And that was basically his [T. H. White’s] method of dealing with this deep depression he had all of his life…”

Writer Jim Crace discusses creative process in two videos

By Emily Neie

English writer Jim Crace, currently a visiting professor at The University of Texas at Austin Michener Center for Writers, will give a reading this Thursday, December 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302. Crace’s archive resides at the Ransom Center, and on a previous visit to Austin he spoke with the Ransom Center about his interests and work.

In these two videos, Crace discusses how painting coastal watercolors sparks his imagination, and shares several original drawings of imaginary places. These videos illuminate the inspiration Crace draws from places he created as a child, both real and fictional.

Jim Crace on Painting

“All of my novels, without exception, I think, are landscape novels… and I think that landscape is almost a character in all of my novels. So these things are important to me.”

Jim Crace’s Childhood Maps and the Narrative of Travel

“I used to love looking at atlases. It seemed to me that implicit in every map I looked at on every page was a narrative of travel, an armchair story that you could imagine yourself going around this coastline or traveling up that river or crossing those mountains.”