An Extremely Attractive Binding by a Master Leather Sculptor

SOPHIE ARNOULD.

(Paris: Carrington, 1898). 254 x 178 mm. (10 x 7"). x, 264 pp., plus four leaves at the end comprising a prospectus for this work, including specimen pages. No. 4 OF FIVE COPIES on Japon with plates in three states. First Edition in French.

A REMARKABLY ATTRACTIVE CONTEMPORARY SCULPTED CALF BINDING BY NICOLAS RALLI (signed at lower right corner of upper cover with the monogram "N R" and with the same monogram on shield at center), BOTH COVERS WITH LARGE CARVED-OUT PANEL FILLED WITH VERY ELABORATE AND ANIMATED TANGLE OF SCULPTED ACANTHUS LEAVES AND FLOWERS, spine similarly sculpted in compartments bearing three flowers (77 carved flowers in all), the carved-out portions with thousands of tiny dots in blind (giving a sense of pointillé decoration but without the gilt), upper cover with escutcheon at center, smooth calf spine, labels titled in blind, very unusual endleaves of thick vellum containing large field of lozenges with rows of double crosses and fleurs-de-lys. Original wrappers (with cover title at front and imprint leaf at back) bound in. Slipcase. Frontispiece, title vignette, vignette headpiece and tailpiece, and three plates, all drawn and etched by Adolphe Lalauze, each of the engravings in three states (headpiece and one plate appearing again in the bound-in prospectus). Title in red and black. Carteret V, 67. Very minor chafing to leather at spine ends and corners, original bound-in cover title a bit browned and foxed, but A VERY FINE COPY OF A LUXURY EDITION IN AN EXTRAORDINARILY APPEALING BINDING.

This is a most attractive copy of the biographical account of the beautiful French actress, opera singer, and wit Madeleine-Sophie Arnould (1744-1803), who has been called the greatest lyrical and dramatic actress of the 18th century. In addition to introducing us to the fascinating world of theater of that period, our volume presents additional sources of aesthetic pleasure in its binding, printing, and illustrations.

The eye is first drawn to the exuberantly decorated binding, which has been identified for us by binding scholar Stéphane Guérineau as the work of Nicolas Ralli, a little-known but extremely talented binder whose circumstances allowed him to pursue his passion as a hobby rather than a livelihood. Born in Odessa, Ralli (1861-1936) was a wealthy member of the Greek diaspora who settled in Paris. He was prominent in that city's Greek Orthodox Church and its exclusive social clubs, including the Automobile Club De France, the members of which included Louis Renault. At the age of 45, he took up bookbinding, studying with Jehan Raymond, author of "Le Cuir. Compositions Decoratives," a manual on leather tooling featuring Art Nouveau patterns that could be used by artisans making wallets, belts, and other fashion accessories as well as bookbindings. Ralli has made great use of this technique in our binding, which was likely among his early efforts, as it is signed simply by his stamped initials rather than the "N. Ralli" stamp he created for his later efforts. Unhappily for connoisseurs of fine bindings, Ralli appears to have confined his bibliopegic efforts to his own library, and examples are quite uncommon in the marketplace. As he was not in trade, he was not included in the listings of Flety and Duncan & De Bartha, even though his skill was equal to that of noted binders of the period.

The illustrations by Lalauze (1838-1906) are part of what Ray describes as a revival of etching as an art form in France, a revival partly stimulated by the founding of an etcher's society. The renewed interest in etching was carried into book illustration by several publishers, notably Jouaust, who specialized in luxury editions intended for bibliophiles, printed on special papers, and offering the option of extra suites of plates. (An ad for such an extra suite of plates appears on the final page of the present book.) As Ray notes, Lalauze produced the etchings for some of Jouaust's printings, including the most successful productions. (Ray) Very little is known about the author except that he was apparently born in 1848, was interested in French theatre and literature, translated several books from French to English, and wrote a biography of Madame du Barry. The present work appeared first in English, also in 1898.
(ST15714)