Tuesday, 12 November 2013

More's Utopia: Historically Bound

A tradition of utopian writing, in which an ideal state or ‘other worlds’ are portrayed in order to cast a light on contemporary society, runs through English and European literature. The idea of utopia can be traced back to around 380 BC and Plato’s Republic, in which he outlines what he sees as the ideal society and its political system, and discusses the concept of ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ worlds. The word recurs in a modern context in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 work Utopia, where he too sets out a vision of an ideal society. The meaning of utopia - literally ‘no place’ - indicates that the perfect state may be an unattainable goal, and it is often depicted via satire and parody. There are two notable editions of More's Utopia in the Brotherton Library's Special Collections; the first is a 1893 edition, printed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press in a limited edition of 300 (see image), the second is an early edition, published in 1518 by the famous printer and publisher Johann Froben.

Utopia by Thomas More (Kelsmcott Press)
This second copy of Utopia forms part of the Howard de Walden Collection. The Roundhay Hall catalogue shows that by 1926, Lord Brotherton had purchased 117 volumes from the library of Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis VIII, Baron Howard de Walden (1880-1946) for his own collection, which he later bequeathed to the Library. While the works themselves were published between 1471 and 1889 (although most date from the 16th and 17th centuries), many of the collection were bound early in the 20th century with Rivière bindings. These sought to recreate binding styles that were contemporary with the period of the printed work, in-keeping with the fashion at the time. The firm of Rivière, active in London between 1840 and 1939, was famous for the quality of their workmanship, and their work was prized by collectors. However, although the subject requires further research, it has come to light that the techniques used were not always accurate so that in some cases the binding reveals more about the binders' knowledge of historic binding than about the binding styles themselves.

Perhaps, then, the ideal of the perfect binding, much like the ideal of the perfect society envisaged by More's Utopia, remains elusive and ultimately unrealisable. The mixing of memory and desire, quoted famously in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (see also the Memory-Technology-Utopia post on this blog), reflects that impulse to delve into the past in the hope of creating something perfect for the future, even if a sense of history becomes distorted the effort.

This post adapts text from the booklet Visions of the Future: The Art of Science Fiction by Paul Whittle and Liz Stainforth.

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