Friday, June 12, 2015

The fate of the Sangorski Omar 1

The Great Omar*
Found in an offprint from Piccadilly Notes (circa 1930) this article about (possibly) the most lavish binding the world had ever seen. The magazine billed itself as 'an occasional  publication devoted to books, engravings and autographs.' it was edited by J.H. Stonehouse and this article is by him…

It was in 1907 that I first met Sangorski, when he brought a letter of introduction from a church dignitary, and asked to be allowed to show me a lectern bible which the Archbishop of Canterbury had commissioned his firm to bind, previous to its presentation by King Edward VII to the United States in commemoration of the tercentenary of the established church in America. I recognised at once the justice of his contention that there was something more in the design and execution of the work than was usually to be found in an ordinary piece of commercial binding and that the appreciation of it which had been expressed in the press was fully justified.

Sangorski ...showed me other specimens of his work, nearly all of which were set in jewels, each tending to become more ambitious and elaborate than the last, whilst I also began to be influenced by his extraordinary personality, dynamic energy and enthusiasm for his work. Omar Khayyam was his favourite book for binding,

partly because of the subject and nationality of it and to a small extent its size and shape (crown quarto) were particularly adaptable to his scheme of decoration.
In most of his designs, the peacock and grapevine dominated, and gradually it seemed that the former was becoming his fetish, whilst I used to think that his dreams must have been of oriental lands and colours which he had never seen. I was at first influenced more by Sangorski's use of the grapevine motif that that of the peacock, and whilst he was developing the latter in his designs, my mind was centred on the grapes.
Finally I decided to give him an order to bind a copy of Symond's 'Wine Women and Song' with very elaborate bunches of grapes formed groups of amethyst in gold. This was a small volume about 5 1/2 " by 3 1/2 " and when finished was the most exquisitely beautiful modern binding I have ever seen. It would be difficult to compare it with the magnificent 'Omar', for that would be like comparing the beauty of Aphrodite to the glory of Juno. The Symonds was sold almost immediately, but fortunately it was photographed before it went away, so that I am able to include an illustration of it...
At this time 'Kismet' was being played at the Garrick Theatre and Sangorski went to see it several times, and nearly always called at Piccadilly on the following morning, when he would describe the perfect riot of colour in the scenes, which appeared to have an almost intoxicating affect on him; and he would show me his programme, the margins of which he covered with sketches to be used later on as the the basis of designs for binding.
One of Sangorski's personal characteristics which amused and impressed me was the extraordinary bluntness and thickness of his fingers, coupled with his curious manner of gesticulation as we sat talking with each other, when he would tell me of the things he had done and the things he could do "if only he had the chance".  His work had received generous recognition at home and abroad, but it seemed that his ambition outstripped his opportunity. He would talk of this with regret, and I used to watch him with astonishment, whilst he tried to describe to me the masterpieces which he could produce - if only as he said someone would give him a commission to bind the original edition of Vedder's Omar Khayyam which was large enough to carry a very elaborate design, containing a wealth of of detail with rich inlays inset with innumerable jewels. As he talked thus , he seemed to lose himself, and waving his great thick forefinger in the air he would say "I would stand three peacocks and surround them with jewelled decoration such has never been dreamed of before". I would do "this", "that" and "the other", he would declare eagerly, all the time gesticulating with his big forefinger, until bye and bye he would come down to earth and acknowledge with a sigh that his dream was a futile one.
We had several such conversations until there came a day - and I can see him now in my mind's eye with his great forefinger waving in the air, when I interrupted him by placing my forefinger on his chest and said"All right, Sangorski, go ahead". "What", he said, " Do you mean it?" "Yes", I said, "Do it, and do it well. There is no limit. Put what you like in the binding and charge what you like for it. The greater the price, the more I shall be pleased, provided only that it is understood that you do, and what you charge for, will be justified by the result. And the book when finished is to be the Greatest Modern Binding in the World."-------"These are the only instructions."
Sangorski was overjoyed at the opportunity to produce what he knew would be a Masterpiece. For my part, I had recognised that it would be no use me asking Mr. Sotheran to give an open order such as this; but I felt that 1 was justified by my knowledge that there never had been in the history of the Binding Trade such an extraordinary genius as Sangorski; both as a Designer and a Craftsman; and that he was capable of producing a binding such an the world had never seen before.
Losing no time Sangorski set to work on hie preliminary  sketches and designs, which he brought at intervals to show me and it was a delight to witness the joy and enthusiasm with which he entered into every detail of the scheme.
His big forefinger was always busy when describing the progress of the work.He told me one day that he would have a skull with a poppy growing out of it embodied in one of the designs; and a few days later he showed me a full sized drawing of a human skull together with a letter from an eminent surgeon, pronouncing It to be the finest drawing of its kind he had ever seen.Three days later be brought me in to look at the small model of the skull, in white calf and ivory, before it was inserted in the back doublure of the book.
On another occasion he asked if I could show him an Illustration of a serpent striking its prey. As I was unable to satisfy him, he rushed off to the Zoo to make enquiries there. Meeting him next day he told me he bad found that the public were not allowed to sea the snakes fed; "However" he added "i arranged the matter" and he succeeded in getting one of the attendants to feed a snake by slipping a rat through a trap door into its cage. "The snake sprang at it,thus" Sangorski added holding up his hand with his great forefinger and thumb extended "That was just what 1 wanted to see,the angle of his jaws." A few days later he brought me in the snake modelled in different coloured morocco, all ready to be fitted into its allotted place in the back doublure.
I particularly wanted to have the Omar on view at 43 Piccadllly during the celebrations In connection with the coronation of King George V., but as the front cover was not finished in time, the book was shown in its unfinished state. and was sent back to the workshop for completion afterwards.
I had a little bit of fun with Sangorski before the Omar finally appeared at Piccadilly in its finished state. He was naturally proud his achievement and took the book round to show a number of his friends. Meantime I was expecting the  and had telephoned several times asking for delivery; beginning at last to lose my patience I made up my mind to go and fetch it myself. Calling at the workshop (which was then in Southampton Row)I learned that Sangorski was out and that he had the book with him. It was then midday, but I had a very good idea where to look and found him in the Holborn Restaurant. In those days the large front hall had a small buffet on the left going in, with a screen across to break the draught.On entering I could just see the top of Sangorski's  head above the screen, and projecting beyond the edge of the screen I saw, resting on a stool the box I know must contain the Omar. Dropping on my hands and knees I managed to slip the box off the stool, and was about to escape without Sangorski seeing me, when the girl behind the bar catching sight of the reflection of the "thief" in the mirrors with which she was surrounded, screamed out "He has got your book." We had a good laugh together over this.The original edition of Vedder's illustrated Omar Khayyam is, as most people know, a single volume of  large quarto size, measuring 16 inches by 13. The binding took nearly two years to complete,was in  green morocco richly inlaid and set with no less than 1050 jewels.  For absolute richness of design and beauty of decoration, it is no exaggeration to say that it was the finest and most remarkable specimen of binding ever designed or produced at any period or in any country. [Part 2 to follow]

*Photo has been digitally mastered by Sangorski from the original 1912 black and white. It is available as a poster from them.


  1. Re. "the above photo is probably of a facsimile of the original binding".
    My understanding is that the current owners of the Sangorski brand digitally remastered the original photos of the Great Omar - they even sell posters of the resulting image (

  2. Thanks Jim-- you are right, will amend the information. It was the impossibility of such a shot being taken in 1912 that stumped me. They have done a good job.