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Interview with Philip Smith

Philip Smith is an internationally renowned designer bookbinder and book artist. He has been designing and creating intricate and fascinating bindings for well over 50 years and has been awarded gold and silver medals in several international competitions. In 2000 he was awarded an MBE for services to Art.

How long ago did you first come across the works of J.R.R. Tolkien?

Shortly after the first publications of his works.

As a designer bookbinder, what drew you to the works of Tolkien as good subjects for some artistic bindings?

I was simply fascinated by his writings and made bindings eventually when I could get the publishers to send unbound sections, paid for at the publication prices..

I believe you developed a method of applying layers of leather for which you coined a term which was actually based on something from Tolkien's writings - could you perhaps explain what it was and how it works?

I began mixing my off-cuts and parings of leather (waste from other projects for example) into a kind of 'porridge' and then putting the damp mixture in a wooden frame to compress it into a slab or tile, then when air dried I shaved thin layers off the slabs and by various selections of the slivvers I glued these down on to a background leather, and when assembled thus and allowed to dry, I turn over the leather with the patches of what I then called 'maril' (extracted with Tolkien's permission from silmaril  or Silmarillion) and level the leather area with a spokeshave to remove the equivalent thickness of the 'maril' from the flesh side of the leather (or skin) to level it flush to the same thickness  - the 'flesh side' is the opposite side to the grain side.

How many different works of Tolkien have you produced designer bindings for?

I can't quickly estimate how many works of Tolkien I have bound with artistic covers; but they include a binding of The Annotated Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings (about 55 bindings, of which 21 were formed into what I termed a 'book-wall') and about four copies of The Silmarillion.

The book-walls are arranged as panels in a walnut and Perspex framed container, with a design which made a linking overall image. There are some bound sets of the three-volume LotR.

How did you start out as a bookbinder?

As an art student (ex-RAF) I joined the bookbinding class simply to make custom-built sketch books, but as one could only do bookbinding as part of the Intermediate Art exam, I had to made set books in those first two years as a student, as a result of the designs of the two Intermediate Exam bindings I was invited by Roger Powell (who re-bound the famous Irish manuscript The Book of Kells, and other pre-10th Century mss.) to do Bookbinding at the Royal College of Art in the School of Graphic Design;  later I made bindings of other book titles, including LotR and the Silmarillion. I spent four years working in the studio of Sydney Cockerell (mainly on restoration and conservation work), before setting up on my own in Hampstead to make my own designed bookbindings, soon to be made as an 'fine art' form.

How would you suggest anyone interested pursue the art and craft of bookbinding if they wished to explore and take it further?

To learn to be a bookbinder, by joining either Trade bookbinder classes at further education or Technical college, or as an art student in an Art College, or in a trade firm one can learn bookbinding and conservation of books and maybe set up on one's own and do any bindings one wishes.

What do you look for in a book in order to make it a good subject for one of your bindings?

I am interested in particular philosophical ideas, such as Non-Duality, and bought copies (in folded sections) if a publisher was kind enough to have sheets pulled out when a book-production was in progress, otherwise one has to buy an already published copy from a book-store (it will already have trimmed edges) and take it apart and re-bind it by hand if one wants a particular book in a custom-built binding. If one is binding a book from untrimmed sheets one can usually leave wider margins than a mass produced edition binding would leave.

What projects are you working on currently?

My wife has typed out examples from my hand-written Work Record books and we are intending to make a book out of about 50 - 60 of the records. This is a work in progress just now. We shall find a printer and then it will be published by The Book House (here) with the title:   A Book Art: Concept and Making

Tolkien's works include references to, and even examples of, ancient books and manuscripts - such as the Book of Mazarbul of the Dwarves in Lord of the Rings, and the Golden Book of Tavrobel in the Book of Lost Tales - and he did designs for the covers of some of his own books. Do you think perhaps he might have been a frustrated book binder himself?.  I don't think Tolkien was interested in binding books himself; he would be too busy writing his epic works. He used the commercial publishing/binding system as authors usually do. He didn't mind if a book-binding artist made special bindings. (OK - that is a bit of a cheeky question, perhaps...).

He signed one that I made for Prince Philip commissioned by the Crafts Council in 1971and it was presented to the Prince by J.R.R. Tolkien at a special Craftsmans' Art exhibition at the V & A Museum. That is where my wife and I met Tolkien and had some interesting conversations about his books.  There were some trade designed hand-bound copies; (but not artistically designed!) I like my binding images to relate to elements in the book being bound, not just a decorative cover, but one making an artistic evaluation of the books content.

Can readers see a selection of your bindings online, and if so, where should they look?

I have a web-site: www.philipsmithbookart.com  There are I think 24 images on it, and there is a photo of me says my wife.

There may be some visuals of my work on other web-sites, but I have not been looking recently.


See Who's Who 2009:

Born 10th June 1928, Southport England.

Edu. Ackworth School Yorkshire 1939-1946. RAF 1946-1949: Southport School of Art 1949-1951; Royal College of Art, London (Roger Powell) 1951-1954, ARCA (1st Class).

Art and Bookbinding teacher Malvern College of Art 1955-1957, Assistant to Sydney Cockerell (bookbinder) 1957 - 1961;

Married Dorothy Weighill, artist 1957; three sons: Jason, Alaric, Philip.

Book-art studios, Hampstead, Woodford, 1961- 1970, Merstham 1970-1986; studio at Yatton Keynell 1986-present.

British Museum team for Florence flood disaster 1966-67.

MDE (Meister der Einbandkunst) 1970: Fellow, Designer Bookbinders, President 1977-79.

Editor of The New Bookbinder 1980-95.

Bindings in many public and private collections world-wide include: V & A Museum, London: British Library, Royal Collection, Royal Library, Holland; New York Public Library, HRHRC Texas, the Lilly Library Indiana USA.

14 lecture tours in USA since 1975, and 9 lectures in Europe and other countries.

150 book art exhibitions, major retrospective solo exhibitions Ascona and Goldsmiths' Hall London, 1970-71, Portland Oregon of works collected in USA and Canada 2007. Several painting exhibitions include John Moores, RBA.

Publications: The Lord of the Rings and Other Bookbindings of Philip Smith 1970, New Directions in Bookbinding, 1974, The Book: Art & Object, 1982; A Book Art, Concept & Making in preparation. Numerous articles, reviews, exhibition catalogues internationally.

Honours: Gold Medal, second International Biennale Sao Paulo, 1972: Presidium of Honour, Czechoslovakia 1989, Silver Medal, Paris International Bookbinding Art,1992;Gold medal EEC Bookbinding Prize 1993, Patents for maril 1971; Lap-Back Book-structure UK and USA 1994; 1st Prize Bookbinding Czech Republic 2004; MBE for Services to Art, 2000; Silver Medal Exhibition of Books as Art Italy, 2000, 2002; British Library National Sound Archive: National Life Story Collection 2004; Representative of UK at international exhibitions of Bookbinding Art, Paris 1992, 2008. Listed in International Biographical dictionaries in UK and USA.

Memberships: Society for the Study of Normal Psychology 1957- present; Designer Bookbinders; Meister der Einbandkunst Germany; Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG); Society of Bookbinders UK; Centre for Book Arts New York; Czech Society of Designer Bookbinders.


Philip’s first major invention was that of 'maril'. By mixing scraps and fragments of leather parings and compressing them, a block or thick tile is created. Parings from the surfaces can be taken at different angles and used to produce configurations and textures to build up images along with conventional parings for onlays or inlays.

Moby Dick

The Tempest