Alberto Sangorski – An exraordinary calligrapher and illuminator of the twentieth century

Alberto Sangorski – An exraordinary calligrapher and illuminator of the twentieth century
Alberto Sangorski, illuminated Songs and sonnets by William Shakespeare

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were two rivaling bookbinding companies in London: Robert Riviére & Son was a renown and appreciated firm with a long family tradition, while Sangorski & Sutcliffe was established by two apprentice bookbinders, Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe in 1901. Sangorski & Sutcliffe were specializing in creating unique editions with the finest quality work, reviving the Middle Ages tradition of jeweled bindings with ivory, rich fabrics, gold inlays, and precious gemstones. They quickly became known for their ornate, luxurious book bindings – the Great Omar, a magnificently adorned edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is their world-famous masterpiece, which unfortunately went down with the Titanic in 1912. A lesser-known fact is that Francis had an elder brother, Alberto Sangorski, who was an extraordinarily talented calligrapher and illuminator, working for both his brother’s company and for Riviére over the years.

Alberto Sangorski was born in 1862 in Bloomsbury, London, as the eldest son of a Polish emigrant. Little is known about the first decades of his life, he might have had some experience with painting but was working as a secretary and accountant for a firm of goldsmiths until his 40s. He only started to pursue his interest in calligraphy around the time when his brother established his company. Alberto was most probably self-taught, inspired by illuminated gift books produced from the late 1800s, following the trend of the revival of calligraphy and medieval scripts and illumination. He might have received some training in technical skills from his brother Francis, who was a student of Edward Johnston, the most influential teacher and scholar on Renaissance and medieval manuscripts and calligraphy.

Alberto’s first works from around 1905 were manuscripts of Francis Bacon’s Of Gardens and a version of the Rubáiyát on vellum, with only an illuminated title and a decorated first page, bindings done by a leading London bookbinder, Morrell. The first manuscript he produced for Sangorski & Sutcliffe was Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. He prepared five copies with similar details but with different binding, and sufficient minor differences in the content to make each exemplar unique. These manuscripts show every distinct characteristic of his later works: he settled on a semi-Gothic script style and used not only beautifully detailed, illuminated borders and initials heightened with gold leafs but inserted watercolor miniatures as well. These miniatures often reference famous paintings by earlier and contemporary artists he admired, like, in this case, the works of the English Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse.

Most of Alberto’s later work follow the same practice: he prepared only a few exemplars by hand, and no facsimile (printed) copies were produced, making each of his books a one of its kind. One of the exceptions is his especially elaborate manuscript of Lord Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur, which was used as the model book for a facsimile edition printed and published by Chatto & Windus in 1912. The original (now in the Rare Books and Special Collections of the Princeton University Library) has a fabulous binding by Riviére, featuring coat of arms, helmets and weapons, and roses and leaves with colored morocco and silver inlays.

The binding was prepared by Riviére because around 1910 Alberto left his brother’s company and went to work for the rival. The reason of the break-up remains unrevealed, personal issues and the lack of credit and recognition of his craftsmanship might have played a role. In the following six years, Alberto finished several illuminated manuscripts for Riviére, among them Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee (and other poems) and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For many of his books he designed the binding as well.

With the changing economy after World War I, the demand for unique calligraphic manuscripts and intricate bindings has significantly reduced, so Alberto left Riviére and continued working on his own until his death in 1932. One of his most beautiful works from these years is Songs and Sonnets (finished 1926), a tribute commemorating the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. The manuscript is held by the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is their description:

“No expense was spared in the choice of materials. Passages from the works of Shakespeare are written in an exquisite calligraphic hand on the finest vellum, with 23-karat gold leaf in the illuminations. Each page is interleaved with moiré silk. The front cover of the binding has sapphires in the corners and incorporates Shakespeare’s coat of arms in 18-karat gold, embellished with a ruby and black and blue enamels.” 

The manuscript incorporates pages with many of the most famous quotes and songs from Shakespeare’s dramas, and his most popular sonnets, accompanied by full-page watercolor miniatures, a portrait and mention of Henry Wriothesley (1573–1624), third earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron, followed by “A National Hero – Tributes Of Three Centuries”, an essay written by Sir Sidney Lee.

Prints with the illuminated Shakespeare quotes, songs, and sonnets are available in our store.

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Published by Moira Risen