The Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition includes a commonplace book kept by Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) with information about ciphers, anagrams, stenography, and labyrinths. As Kelsey McKinney, a former public affairs intern, writes, these “personal anthologies” functioned as “literary scrapbooks”. While these scrapbooks were “commonplace” in Victorian culture, modern means of communication fulfill the same desire for people to record and share their life experiences.
Jeweled bindings, which use metalwork, jewels, ivory, and rich fabrics to decorate a book, date back at least to the Middle Ages, but the form was revived around the turn of the twentieth century by the English binders Sangorski & Sutcliffe.
Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe met in evening bookbinding classes in 1896. After a few years teaching bookbinding at Camberwell College of Art, they opened their own shop in a rented attic in Bloomsbury despite the difficult economic climate. Then on October 1, 1901, they founded Sangorski & Sutcliffe. Quickly, they became known for their sumptuous multi-colored leather book bindings complete with gold inlay and precious jewels. Their designs were intricate, bold, and creative. These early years were the golden age of the company. During this time Sangorski & Sutcliffe created dozens of fine bindings and grew in both popularity and notoriety. More than 80 Sangorski & Sutcliffe originals are housed in the Ransom Center’s collections.
Many of the Sangorski & Sutcliffe books at the Ransom Center are high-quality bindings but rather plain in appearance, while a few of them are quite ornate. A Sangorski & Sutcliffe binding of Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, for example, has semiprecious stones inlaid inside the front and back covers. An edition of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark is bound in leather with stingray onlay, and semiprecious stones are inlaid inside the front and back covers. Two works, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Hermit and James Russell Lowell’s The Vision of Sir Launfal, are handwritten in calligraphy on parchment by Alberto Sangorski with decorative borders and illuminated miniatures.
One famous book that the Ransom Center doesn’t hold is a book known as the Great Omar, which was a magnificent Sangorski & Sutcliffe binding of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a narrative poem about the importance of living in the moment. Set in a Persian garden, the lyrical verses are filled with imagery of roses, celebrations of wine, and questions about mortality, fate, and doubt.
Sangorski & Sutcliffe was commissioned in 1909 to design the luxurious binding for the Rubáiyát. The front cover was to be adorned with three golden peacocks with jeweled tails, surrounded by heavily tooled and gilded vines. The Great Omar was the pride of Sangorski & Sutcliffe. Sadly, it was fated for disaster. The book was sent on the Titanic in 1912. The Great Omar went down with the ship and was never recovered. A second copy of the Rubáiyát was bound on the eve of World War II. This copy was kept in a bank safe vault to protect it. However, enemy bombing during the war destroyed the bank, the safe vault, and the second version of the Great Omar. Stanley Bray, the nephew of George Sutcliffe, created a third version of the book after he retired. This third version follows the original design and is housed in the British Library.
Sangorski drowned in 1912, but Sutcliffe continued the firm until his death in 1936. The business changed hands and names in the postwar years as interest in fine bindings declined. The firm was bought by Shepard’s in 1998, and the name of Sangorski & Sutcliffe was restored.
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In America, children are raised to believe that all men are created equal. This accepted equality spurs unalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Americans have wanted and have been willing to fight for their freedom. While Americans fought for unity and independence, citizens of Great Britain were earning their freedom in the form of a long, rolled piece of paper called a Freedom of the City certificate.
The Ransom Center houses two Freedom of the City certificates in the John B. Dancer collection. One belonged to Michael Dancer. According to the certificate, Michael Dancer was the son of W. M. Dancer, who apprenticed for many years before being granted his freedom on September 3, 1776. Freedom of the City certificates were typically about 24 inches long by 5 inches high. The narrow pieces of paper are creased vertically in many places, implying that the certificate was kept rolled up for a long period. Like a modern-day passport or driver’s license, a freedom certificate would have been carried on one’s person to prove identity and citizenship. Most freedmen were given a casket—normally a long narrow tube—upon receiving their freedom in order to carry their certificate safely and conveniently.
In London, freedom had to be earned before it could be granted until 1832. Starting in the Middle Ages, a man was considered a “freeman” as long as he was not ruled over by any feudal lord. If he was a peasant or a serf, his freedom was in the hands of the lord of his land. A freeman, though, enjoyed such privileges as the right to earn money and to own land. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, freemen were few and far between. Only lords enjoyed property ownership and income until England experienced industrial progression in the late eighteenth century. The influx of industry created a middle class who were no longer agrarian peasants, but not rich enough to become lords. Such people lived in cities, often practiced specialized trades, and were commonly referred to as townsmen. Towns were often under the rule of the monarchy instead of a local feudal lord, and thus townsmen could be granted Freedom of the City.
The granting of Freedom of the City, particularly in London, is one of the oldest surviving traditional ceremonies still in existence and practice today. The first freedom is believed to have been presented as early as 1237. These early freedom ceremonies held great social importance because they affirmed that the recipient would enjoy privileges such as the right to trade and protection within the town. Until 1835, Freedom of the City members were the only people within London who could legally exercise a trade within city limits.
Members were presented with a notarized certificate proclaiming their freedom and a book titled Rules for the Conduct of Life, which was intended to guide them in their life as freemen. While providing many basic laws and recommended codes of conduct, the book also outlined several interesting freedoms available only to freemen. For example, the book notes freemen have the right to herd sheep over the London Bridge, go about the city with a drawn sword, and—if convicted of a capital offense—to be hung with a silken rope. Other ascribed privileges are said to include the right to be married in St. Paul’s cathedral, to be buried in the city, and to be drunk and disorderly without fear of arrest.
Today, Freedom of the City of London is granted in two forms. Though few of the practical reasons for obtaining Freedom of the City remain, the certificate continues to be a unique part of English history. As of 1996, the honor is open to anyone around the world who has been nominated and maintains good character. Each year about 1,800 people apply to become freemen. The second way of becoming a freeman is by being granted Honorary Freedom of the City of London. The City of London presents individuals who have made significant impact in their field of work or who have done extraordinary things for the city with this honor. Even today, many citizens of London continue to join Michael Dancer as freemen.
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Image: Certificate dated September 3, 1776, admitting Michael Dancer to freedom of the city of London.