S. A. Neff, Jr. Catalogue

The Collector as Bookbinder–The Piscatorial Bindings of S. A. Neff, Jr. Essays by Elizabeth R. Agro and Stanley I. Grand. Binder’s Statement, Catalogue Entries, and Glossary by S. A, Neff, Jr. Sordoni Art Gallery, Wilkes University, [1999]. 68 pp, 49 color illustrations, pictorial soft cover. $15.00

There have been some highly respectable books published on individual binders’ works–Tini Miura and Michael Wilcox come to mind–but as for a single binder’s show, this exhibition catalogue appears to me to be without peer. From its unique pictorial cover displaying ten fishing reels on the Treasury of Reels binding, to the magnificent color reproductions of bindings and containers in S. A, Neff, Jr. repertoire (pp.[18-65]), this catalogue-book mirrors the design and layout forethought which went into the bindings themselves: artfully explosive, historically mindful, with incredibly accurate and precise execution. The photography is sharp and clean.

The introductory essay by Elizabeth Agro of the Carnegie Museum of Art gives an informative biographical overview of Neff’s development as a fine binder of piscatorial books following his studied years–first as an angler and then collector of angling books. A most erudite and instructive essay by Stanley Grand of the Sordoni Art Gallery ensconces Neff’s work within the rich tradition of angling’s historical development and its attendant printed record. The binder’s own statement reveals his grounding in the equally rich tradition of bookbinding. These essays are supplemented by an itinerary of six exhibition sites (p[2]), a glossary (p.17), and a list of S. A. Neff Jr.’s past exhibitions (p.66).

The catalogue’s oblong dimensions (11″ w x 8″ h) provide a visual forum of double-page spreads which contain the text on the verso side and its conjugate photo-illustration(s) on the recto side. A generous amount of white space allows the colorful bindings to dominate and the text to take a more subordinate but supportive role. My own particular binding favorites are the more than sixteen volumes and panels displaying the use of Japanese dyed and gilt papers. But to simply focus on individual bindings in the catalogue–as alluring as these admittedly are–is to miss the greater part of what the binder has tried to achieve. S. A. Neff, Jr. is a master of containers, or as Elizabeth Agro likes to refer to them: “environments.” Boxed sets of miniature books, letters between anglers, angling memorabilia, trout flies and materials, and even fishing reels are all brought into tandem with S. A. Neff’s bookbindings providing a composite “feel” for a slice of the angler’s world being preserved for posterity.

S. A. Neff’s work is only partly served by such a two-dimensional catalogue, as beautiful as it might be. In seeing the exhibit one is further introduced to a three dimensional view of his work, but even that is somewhat unsatisfactory for S. A. Neff’s work requires the fourth dimension of time to truly appreciate the unfolding of containers, panels, bindings, and contents as one investigates each work. The only way this could be accomplished is through videotape or by actually manipulating the binder’s containers and contents in front of oneself. Admittedly, such is beyond the purview of the catalogue in front of me, but it is a limitation of medium which nevertheless shouldn’t be overlooked. Lastly, I was a bit perplexed by the omission of any prominent, identified photos of S. A. Neff. Jr., although there are three locations in the catalogue showing a small photo or other representation of the angler-collector-binder (entries 4, 28 & 49).

I would heartily recommend this exhibition catalogue for any modern binder’s or institution’s collection of books on bookbinding, or for any angling devotee or piscatorial collection. Incidentally, in my opinion the catalogue is under priced.

Philip R. Bishop is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (AABA), a collector-connoisseur and purveyor of bindings, and author-compiler of the widely acclaimed bibliography: Thomas Bird Mosher–Pirate Prince of Publishers (The British Library & Oak Knoll Press, 1998).