The Bronfman Collection 
Virtual Gallery

Masters of the Crafts

Michael Wilcox — Bookbinder

About the craftsperson

Michael Wilcox
"Fine bookbinding as we know it on this continent is a multi-media craft, demonstrating skill in the use of a variety of materials and the techniques for wedding them into an consummate whole. When a master bookbinder is also a gifted artist, we have what is known in modem terms as a designer/bookbinder, the ultimate goal of those who practise the craft. I find Mike's work intuitive, spontaneous and rarely inhibited by any kind of academic restraint. Indeed, some book collectors, who are perhaps the final jury, give him a place among the best designer — bookbinders in the Western world today."

Robert Muma
Artist and retired bookbinder

It was a combination of education and industry that Michael Wilcox sought when he apprenticed with a commercial book bindery in his hometown of Bristol, England.

There, Wilcox learned that bookbinding was made up of several specialized and rigorously defined skills, each practised by a different craftsperson. He describes the system at Edward Everard, Printer:

"There was this strict division of labour. Usually a binder was either a forwarder or a finisher. I did the forwarding. When I got there it was sort of at a toss of a coin whether I would be a finisher or a forwarder. They found an empty bench among the forwarders and put me there. Wilcox mastered the skill of forwarding which involved constructing books by ruling and binding handmade papers into ledgers and sewing up the printed pages of manuscripts into books."

Samson Agonistes
Samson Agonistes, bound 1983
(John Milton, Stamperia del Santuccio, Florence (Victor Hammer), 1931)
Brown oasis, inlaid with gilt tooling
University of Alberta Library
Image used with permission of the artist
Archives - Box 607, F4 and F5

After moving to Canada in 1962, Wilcox obtained a five-year contract restoring the University of Toronto's collection of antique medical books. This project provided him with the opportunity to refine and update his binding skills while developing related abilities in book restoration and conservation. Other private commissions encouraged him to experiment with creating original designs tor book covers.

Now Wilcox is breaking new ground within the modern context of fine-design bookbinding. His craft encompasses all aspects of the trade, from binding through original cover design to the finely tooled finished product. By double-binding rare books with an inner acid-free laver covered with a leather casing, he is offering a satisfying compromise between modern conservation concerns and the traditional aesthetic values of bookbinding.

The interest that art galleries are now showing in exhibiting fine bookbinding suggests that the craft has joined other craft media in their newly attained status as art forms.

Wilcox, however, does not regard himself as an artist but rather as a bookbinder and a craftsman. He insists that the craft cannot exist separately from the book and its literary content. The complicated process of bookbinding, with its reliance on several distinct skills, also demands a keen technical mastery that takes years of practice to acquire. For these reasons, contemporary fine bookbinding may remain somewhat isolated within the craft world and removed to a degree from the other arts.

It could be his isolation and economic vulnerability that incline Wilcox to discourage aspiring young bookbinders from taking up the trade. To those who persist, however, Wilcox still recommends a good traditional apprenticeship, emphasizing technical skills of book construction, rather than condensed college or university training in modern book design. In the end, though, Wilcox feels that the chosen course of instruction really does not matter, for "Those that have got it in them to do it will do it, some way or another."

Recent Works
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