Philip Smith – A Meditation by Timothy C. Ely

In 2016 I was asked to write an introduction to the catalog for an auction of Philip Smith’s work. Given the interest in my prior post about Philip, I’m re-posting what I wrote here.

I am a romantic but not prone to great exaggeration. As I have studied deeply the history of books and their making, I think I am in a safe zone in stating that the bindings of Philip Smith are among the finest and most skilled ever made.

Philip Smith and I share a common denominator in that we both were art school attendees before we came to the craft of bookbinding. He is 21 years older than I, so by the time of my birth, he was already involved, and, as I speculate about this, he was laying some important precepts about the art of the book that would be solid in the world by the time I began to work. The ideas he advanced had to do with turning bookbinding away from being a service craft  — something done at the end of another process, in this case book printing — and turning it towards being an expressive art form. Couple this idea to great technical skill and something happened: dazzling magic.

Simply put, Philip Smith made expressive binding a reality. There were predecessors who stimulated the conversation, but in the mid-century, post-war world, these ideas were startlingly novel. As I read the writings of other binders from the early days of Designer Bookbinders, of which Philip was a founding member, the emphasis was on keeping the hand craft alive as a way of fighting the industrial machine. This meant holding to Victorian ideals of sound craft and good materials, and maintaining the standards set by an earlier generation. Philip Smith argued for a different path – one that advanced the craft.

This was the path that inspired me. His example and his life of working is potent. He is an innovator and skilled designer. He knows how to bind a book to last for the long haul. In choosing artistic expression over a merely illustrative approach, he investigated deeper emotional strata, in ways that no one has ever done. He revealed to me in 2007 that his bookbindings were, for him, a way to confront the questions of consciousness and a non-dual reality. I believe in many of his bindings, especially the Shakespeare bindings, were platforms for this expression. These monumental books are nearly cinematic in their power and invoke the desire to read.

His other works, initiated by his own desires— the works of J.R.R.Tolkien —allowed him to not only go deeper, but to make works that he wanted to see, apart from a client who will often drive a commission by certain demands. These books of Professor Tolkien’s were like a palette of moods, forms, and choices, to which Mr. Smith could respond expressively. These were among the first bindings I ever saw of his, and, looking back now 40 years later, I realize there was no context at the time within which to grasp what I was seeing. I knew they were books and bindings, but the overall impact was novel and astonishing. His forms were both literal to the book and abstract at the same time. Maps were layered with portraits, and symbols abounded. They were made of leather and an amalgam Philip invented called MARIL which had evocative visual properties not available through more conventional bookbinding materials. Using leather throughout kept him working within the school of conventional thought and time-honored binding methodology, but this new material blew the doors off the game by introducing a new generative syntax. His inventory of symbolic images was tremendously amplified by this new material.

The work in this auction that most projects this mastery is a work of three volumes by Tom Philips, Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s three great books, bound in Philip Smiths stylistic manner, using all of his powers of visual persuasion, is gathered in a tower of extraordinary presence. The books are large and, again, I call up the cinema as a metaphor, as the scale of each gorgeous treatment of the poem by Mr. Philips is not trod upon by by the binding. The power of each of the bindings reveals the reading experience to come, even with the fact that Mr. Philip’s potent text and translation is also highly visual. It is to my mind a rare synthesis of two working, living geniuses giving visual form to a remarkable poem. In the general scheme of how bookbinding works as a process, binding always finds itself last in the chain of events that leads to the final incarnation. Rarely do we see an artist like Philip Smiths involved in the critical last phase of bring the final physical book to life.

This extraordinary work is unique in vision and skill. Like the lives of all great artists, there is a frame of time when they start and when they end. I have been privileged beyond expectation to have a long view long of the career of my friend Philip Smith, from his early ideas to new notions, solutions and equations as they made themselves know along the way. Here is an opportunity to acquire these magnificent visions. I believe their like will never be equalled.

Timothy C. Ely April 2016
Colfax Washington.


©2016 Timothy C. Ely – All Rights Reserved




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