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Title: The ideal book or book beautiful

A tract on calligraphy printing and illustration & on the book beautiful as a whole

Author: T. J. Cobden-Sanderson

Release date: December 5, 2023 [eBook #72320]

Language: English

Original publication: Hammersmith: The Doves Press, 1900

Credits: Terry Jeffress and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at (This file was produced from images generously made available by The Internet Archive/American Libraries.)








THE IDEAL BOOK OR BOOK BEAUTIFUL is a composite thing made up of many parts & may be made beautiful by the beauty of each of its parts—its literary content, its material or materials, its writing or printing, its illumination or illustration, its binding & decoration—of each of its parts in subordination to the whole which collectively they constitute: or it may be made beautiful by the supreme beauty of one or more of its parts, all the other parts subordinating or even effacing themselves for the sake of this one or more, & each in turn being capable of playing this supreme part and each in its own peculiar and characteristic way. On the other hand each contributory craft may usurp the functions of the rest & of the whole and growing beautiful beyond all bounds ruin for its own the common cause. I propose in this brief essay, putting aside for the moment the material, paper or vellum, the binding & decoration, & the literary content of the Book Beautiful, to say a few words on the artistic treatment of the vehicle of expression—Calligraphy, Printing, & Illustration—and on the Book Beautiful as a whole.


HANDWRITING and hand decoration of letter & page are at the root of the Book Beautiful, are at the root of Typography & of woodcut or engraved Decoration, & every printer, & indeed every one having to do with the making of books should ground himself in the practice or knowledge of the Art of Beautiful[2] Writing or Calligraphy, and let both hand and soul luxuriate and rejoice for a while in the art of Illumination. Such practice would keep Type alive under the influence of an ever living & fluent prototype. It would supply a stock of exemplars & suggestions from which the Typographer might cautiously borrow, converting into his own rigid stock such of the new beautiful growths of Calligraphy as commended themselves to him for the purpose.

¶ In the making of the Written Book, moreover, in which various modes of presentment are combined, symbolical and pictorial, the adjustment of letter to letter, of word to word, of picture to text & of text to picture, and of the whole to the subject matter & to the page, admits of great nicety and perfection. The type is fluid, and the letters and words, picture, text, & page are conceived of as one and are all executed by one hand, or by several hands all working together without intermediation on one identical page and with a view to one identical effect. In the Printed Book this adjustment is more difficult. The type is rigid and implacable. The labour is divided and dispersed: the picture or illustration, for example, is too often done quite independently & at a distance, without thought of the printed page, & inserted, a stranger, amid an alien type. Yet in the making of the printed book, as in the making of the written book, this adjustment is essential, & should be specially borne in mind, and Calligraphy and immediate decoration[3] by hand and the unity which should be inseparably associated therewith would serve as an admirable discipline to that end.

¶ Perhaps the most interesting things to note historically in this connexion are (1) that all Calligraphy in Italy, Spain, France, Germany & England would seem to be a development, with many subdivisions, of Roman Calligraphy, itself a development of Greek, and that the beautiful formation of the letters and their orderly placement in sequence upon the rectangular page are but modes of that general delight in the making of order and beauty which is the note of unity throughout all the arts: and (2) that in Calligraphy, as in all the arts, a beauty of decoration once started on its way, proceeds to throw off the conditions of its birth and where it was meant to be only a minister to make itself master. The stages in this usurpation in the case of Calligraphy are singularly well marked & apparent. At the outset, Calligraphy was uniform writing only, a succession of SQUARE CAPITALS all of equal value. Then came the enlargement of the sphere of action, so to speak, of letters in prominent positions, of initial letters & their decorative treatment: then, in consequence of this very enlargement, a further enlargement or emphasis which ended in ceasing to be adjective decoration & becoming a substantive beauty, as of a picture, framed by the adjacent illumination & writing, but superior to them as the flower to the leaf. Each of these stages has a beauty of its[4] own, and each in its turn constitutes a Book in some sense a Beautiful Book. But in the passage from the image created in the mind by abstract symbolism to the image expressed on the page by verisimilitude, the book itself underwent a change & became in the process, not a vehicle for the conveyance of an image, but itself the image, to be appreciated not so much by the imagination, the inner eye, as directly by the outer eye, the sense of sight itself; just as on the stage the scenery created at first imaginatively by the spectators, in obedience to the influence of the actor, is now presented externally by the scene painter & costumier in simulated reality. I apprehend that when the illuminator, passing on from the decoration of significant or initial letters, took to the making of pictures in this fashion within the folds of them, he was pressing his art too far. He was in danger, as the event showed, of subordinating his Text to himself, of sacrificing the thing signified to the mode of its signification, for in the end the written communication became as it were nothing, or but the framework or apology to support a succession of beautiful pictures, beautiful indeed, but beautiful at the expense of the Text which they had set out to magnify.

¶ And we may in this connexion safely moralize & say that when many arts combine, or propose to combine, to the making of one thing, as the process continues, & the several arts develop, each will attempt to assert itself to the destruction of the one thing needful, to[5] the making of which they at first all combined in a common subordination. Thus in our own case the illuminator destroyed by over relative development the purely written text, & the moral is that every artist, in contributing to the Book Beautiful, must keep himself well in hand and strictly subordinate both his art and his ambition to the end in view. He must remember that in such a case his art is a means only & not itself an end.

¶ It is worthy of remark that the Church fought against the idolatry of its Scribes, & sought to curtail the too exuberant beauty of their illuminators, & a similar attempt was made to keep down the idolatry of the Binder. The Church has perhaps lost all pretension even to influence in this respect. But artists should not need the guidance of anything outside themselves as artists. They should, as artists, realise that the world of art is a commonweal, and that the most beautiful art is a composite work, higher than the art of each, and that the art of each is contributory, only to be exercised in due subordination to the ideal which is the creation of all.


THE PASSAGE from the Written Book to the Printed Book was sudden & complete. Nor is it wonderful that the earliest productions of the printing press are the most beautiful & that the history of its subsequent career is but the history of its decadence. The Printer[6] carried on into Type the tradition of the Calligrapher & of the Calligrapher at his best. As this tradition died out in the distance, the craft of the Printer declined. It is the function of the Calligrapher to revive & restore the craft of the Printer to its original purity of intention & accomplishment. The Printer must at the same time be a Calligrapher, or in touch with him, & there must be in association with the Printing Press a Scriptorium where beautiful writing may be practised and the art of letter-designing kept alive. And there is this further evidence of the dependence of printing upon writing: the great revival in printing which is taking place under our own eyes, is the work of a Printer who before he was a Printer was a Calligrapher & an Illuminator, WILLIAM MORRIS.

¶ The whole duty of Typography, as of Calligraphy, is to communicate to the imagination, without loss by the way, the thought or image intended to be communicated by the Author. And the whole duty of beautiful typography is not to substitute for the beauty or interest of the thing thought and intended to be conveyed by the symbol, a beauty or interest of its own, but, on the one hand, to win access for that communication by the clearness & beauty of the vehicle, and on the other hand, to take advantage of every pause or stage in that communication to interpose some characteristic & restful beauty in its own art. We thus have a reason for the clearness and beauty of the text as a whole, for the especial beauty of the first or[7] introductory page and of the title, and for the especial beauty of the headings of chapters, capital or initial letters, & so on, and an opening for the illustrator as we shall see by and by.

¶ Further, in the case of Poetry, verse, in my opinion, appeals by its form to the eye, as well as to the ear, & should be placed on the page so that its structure may be taken in at a glance and distinctively appreciated, and anything which interferes with this swiftness of apprehension and appreciation, however beautiful in itself, is in relation to the book as a whole a typographical impertinence.


ILLUSTRATION, the other expressive constituent of the Book Beautiful, is a part of the whole subject matter, in process of symbolical communication, picked out, isolated, & presented pictorially. Besides its relation in the field of the imagination to the rest of the subject matter, the thought of the book, it has a relation & a most important relation, in the field of the senses, to the vehicle of communication, the immediate typographical environment, amid which it appears. And here comes in the question, which has sometimes been confused with the question of relationship, the question of the mode in which the pictorial illustration may be produced & transferred to the page, by woodcut, by steel or copper engraving, or by process. But this seems to me to be an entirely subordinate though[8] important question. The main question is the aspect which the illustration shall be made to take in order to fit it into and amid a page of Typography. And I submit that its aspect must be essentially formal and of the same texture, so to speak, as the letterpress. It should have a set frame or margin to itself, demarcating it distinctly from the text, and the shape & character of the frame, if decorative, should have relation to the page as well as to the illustrative content; and the illustrative content itself should be formal and kept under so as literally to illustrate, and not to dim by over brilliancy the rest of the subject matter left to be communicated to the imagination by the letterpress alone.


FINALLY, if the Book Beautiful may be beautiful by virtue of its writing or printing or illustration, it may also be beautiful, be even more beautiful, by the union of all to the production of one composite whole, the consummate Book Beautiful. Here the idea to be communicated by the book comes first, as the thing of supreme importance. Then comes in attendance upon it, striving for the love of the idea to be itself beautiful, the written or printed page, the decorated or decorative letters, the pictures, set amid the text, and finally the binding, holding the whole in its strong grip and for very love again itself becoming beautiful because in company with the idea.


This is the supreme Book Beautiful or Ideal Book, a dream, a symbol of the infinitely beautiful in which all things of beauty rest and into which all things of beauty do ultimately merge.

¶ The Book Beautiful, then, should be conceived of as a whole, & the self-assertion of any Art beyond the limits imposed by the conditions of its creation should be looked upon as an Act of Treason. The proper duty of each Art within such limits is to co-operate with all the other arts, similarly employed, in the production of something which is distinctly Not-Itself. The wholeness, symmetry, harmony, beauty without stress or strain, of the Book Beautiful, would then be one in principle with the wholeness, symmetry, harmony, and beauty without stress or strain, of that WHOLE OF LIFE WHICH IS CONSTITUTED OF OURSELVES & THE WORLD, THAT COMPLEX AND MARVELLOUS WHOLE WHICH, AMID THE STRIFE OF COMPETITIVE FORCES, SUPREMELY HOLDS ITS OWN, AND IN THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE WRITES, UPON THE ILLUMINED PAGES OF THE DAYS, THE VOLUMES OF THE CENTURIES, & THROUGH THE INFINITUDES OF TIME & SPACE MOVES RHYTHMICALLY ONWARD TO THE FULL DEVELOPMENT OF ITS ASTONISHING STORY THE TRUE ARCHETYPE OF ALL BOOKS BEAUTIFUL OR SUBLIME.


This Tract, written by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, was printed by him & Emery Walker at The Doves Press and finished Oct. 19, 1900. Compositor J. H. Mason. Pressman H. Gage-Cole. Sold at The Doves Press.