The Wailing Wall

Strange as it seems, I somehow got myself into the unusual situation of creating a semi-shrine to destroyed bindings. I’m prompted to write about it now because I’m in the midst of returning a binding on a Mosher book which was recently offered to me. The binding on William Morris’s Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair is somewhat lackluster, but it’s major defect is that somebody took great pains to obliterate the name of the bindery and the firm for whom the binding was done. Very close inspection revealed that it was done for G. P. Putnam’s Sons–scratched out at bottom of the front inside cover just under the gilt rule–by The Knickerbocker Press [Bindery] which was again scratched out and pressure dented under the gilt rule, but this time on the rear inside cover at the bottom. What would have ever possessed anybody to mar the binding like that is beyond me, but it is a serious defect for a collector of bindings and I refuse to have such an abused binding in the Mosher collection. In returning the book my mindset was naturally inclined toward other unfortunate occurrences involving the destruction of bindings and I began to ponder two book disasters–one of the early 20th century, and one of the 21st century–that remain strangely “honored” here at the Bishopric.

My story begins with what became known as the most outstanding and equally tragic binding of the 20th century involving the Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding on the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (placed on the 1884 large paper Houghton Mifflin edition illustrated by Elihu Vedder)–often referred to as the Great Omar. Francis Sangorski and two of his assistants, Sylvester Byrnes who did the forwarding and George Lovett as gold finisher, created what became one of the world’s finest bindings finished by 1912. Imagine a green levant peacock binding with 1,051 gem and semi-precious stones taking three years to complete! It was a veritable treasure chest of rubies, turquoises, amethysts, topazes, olivines, garnets, and an emerald each with its own gold setting and all lavishly surrounded by the most exquisite designs employing 100 square feet of gold, 4,967 colored leather onlays, and even satinwood and ebony specially constructed to form an instrument called a Persian ud or barbat (looks somewhat like a lute). The binding took from 1909-1911 to complete. After a series of misfortunes with regard to the sale of this book, including with the original commissioner, John Stonehouse of bookseller Henry Sotheran and shipment to America where the book was rejected on a technical customs question, the book finally went up for auction where it brought a mortifying and quite frankly insulting £405 (originally the asking price was £1000). The Great Omar was again headed for America on April 10, 1912 and the book’s date with destiny was sealed. It sailed with the unsinkable S.S. Titanic. Indeed, this was a fateful year, for just several weeks after the book was lost, so too was its originator. Francis Sangorski drowned while trying to rescue a lady at Selsey Bill in Sussex, and it is said that George Lovett’s broken heart never recovered from the losses and he “died in 1918 from tuberculosis at the age of forty-five; one of the greatest craftsman of his generation and perhaps the finest gold finisher that the craft has produced. He died almost unknown and unnoticed within his profession.”–Rob Shepherd’s Lost on the Titanic. London: Shepards, 2001, p. 54.

In 2000, the amalgamated firm of Shepherds Sangorski & Sutcliff and Zaehnsdorf had been steadily at work recreating, through computer technology, pictures of the Great Omar utilizing the archives of the old Sangorski & Sutcliff firm. I talked with the people at the Bookbinding 2000 conference held at Rochester Institute of Technology and bought a large horizontal poster beautifully recreating the Great Omar down to the smallest details. When I got it home I had the image sumptuously matted and framed giving it choice position in my upstairs hallway. At least this was a way to enjoy the beauty of one of the greatest bindings of the world. And so it remained as a solo reminder until this past Baltimore Summer Antiquarian Book Fair held at the end of August 2003.

While setting up at the show I perambulated about the dealers’ booths as usual. One of the last places I visited was a large booth right across a broad aisle from me, but with the kind of stock I didn’t need to survey for potential material since it was a bit out of my league. The business was Griffon’s Medieval Manuscripts, Inc. which is headed by Anthony L. Griffon, Ph.D. I perused the booth at my leisure knowing that I wasn’t about to purchase an illuminated manuscript leaf much less a book of hours. At the side, and nearly behind the booth, there were two framed hand-made images with small flowers arranged in a complicated design and amply embellished with gold highlights of incredible intricacy. I was not only attracted to their content, but also to the fact that there were two of them. Why two? What were they since it was clear that they weren’t illuminated manuscripts?

I questioned Dr. Griffon’s wife, but obviously I had to wait for the expert to have my questions answered. “What are these framed panels?” I finally got to ask Dr. Griffon. “Oh those” he said with eyebrows somewhat raised, “they’re part of a binding to a magnificent book that was destroyed.” He proceeded to tell me that a few years ago he bought a lavishly illuminated 18th-century North Indian Tafsir at Bonhams auction house in London. A Tafsir is a commentary on the Koran, written in Arabic and Persian manuscript with twenty-three lines of naskhi and nasta’lig scripts (no, I don’t know what those are, quite frankly) in black ink ruled in blue and gold with a double page illuminated frontispiece. He had bought this magnificent Tafsir for around £15,000 and already had an end buyer, one of his regular clients, ready to purchase it at a profit considerably higher than that of the auction price. The book was housed in a binding consisting of magnificent floral lacquered boards. After purchase and settlement, the book was to be shipped to Griffin Medieval Manuscripts by one of Bonham’s packing houses. Upon arrival at their office, it was easily recognized that the carton had excessive damage “as though it was rammed through by a fork lift” according to Dr. Griffon. Upon opening the packing they found to their horror and dismay that there was water and extensive impact damage. There was virtually nothing unharmed of the book except for its covers. Having their own insurance, Griffon’s recovered the full amount of the book less their deductible, and the insurance company permitted them to keep the two lacquered covers and what few leaves were left. This was a much lamented tragedy for not only was the book already sold to the client, but this unique and exceedingly rare Tafsir was forever unavailable to scholars. It was a great loss.

Now it likewise might have been nice to have recovered and purchased the covers of the Great Omar unharmed, but that was never to be. As I pondered the story of these covers, the reason why I should purchase then became ever clearer to me. They were a wonder to behold, and a testament to the destruction of a once great book from Northern India. Not only were their designs totally captivating in and of themselves, but they whispered a story of survival amidst tragedy. My wife and I decided to buy not just one as first offered, but both of the covers (the spine had perished), and I placed both of these framed treasures next to one another on the black table top covering in my booth. Numerous visitors passed by and wanted to know what they were, and we repeated the story we had been told, and which subsequently has been certified by a letter from Dr. Griffon. As we investigated their beauty, Sue came up with the idea that they really could be hung next to the Great Omar, with one flanking each side. This was actually Sue’s idea, and I liked it immediately. But then she outdid herself by making a final suggestion which totally blew me away. “Why don’t we move the Great Omar to the longer part of the hallway on a wall all of its own, and place the Tafsir covers on either side and call that the Wailing Wall.” Yes, indeed, that’s exactly what we did, and that wall has been dubbed the Wailing Wall for what tragic yet extraordinarily beautiful images hang on its surface. When anyone stands before these great images, can anyone think of anything but the lament for their destruction and what mankind has forever lost. The Wailing Wall…. how fitting.

©Philip R. Bishop
2 December 2003

This article is Copyright © by Philip R. Bishop. Permission to reproduce the above article has been granted by Gordon Pfeiffer, president of the Delaware Bibliophiles and editor of that organization’s newsletter, Endpapers, in which the article appeared in the March 2004 issue. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without expressed written permission from both parties.