Berthe van Regemorter and Prosper Verheyden:
Books and Bindings in Antwerp, 191239
A revised version of the Homee Randeria lecture given to the Bibliographical Society on 20 May 2003
One day in february or march 1912 the museum Plantin- Moretus at the Vrijdagmarkt in Antwerp welcomed two visitors. A gentleman, in his late thirties, accompanied a somewhat younger lady, and introduced her to the Officina Plantiniana with an enthusiasm that was clearly matched by his expertise. The printing house of Christophe Plantin had continued its activities after Plantin's death in 1589 until the middle of the nineteenth century. Practically every phase of book production, from beginning to end, had taken place within these walls -- from preparing printer's copy once manuscripts or printed books were obtained, to typesetting, proof-reading, and printing, as well as marketing, some retailing, and sometimes also binding. Round these multiple activities an important library had been built up. After the printing house had ceased to operate, the city of Antwerp bought the entire premises, in 1877, and turned it into a museum that was opened to the public. In 2002 its 125th anniversary was celebrated after the completion of extensive restoration.
The gentleman-guide on that early spring morning in 1912 was Prosper Verheyden. He was born in 1873 in Mechelen, a provincial town about equidistant from Brussels and Antwerp, to which he remained strongly loyal all his life. But Verheyden spent most of his life in Antwerp, the city of Plantin and Rubens, which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a revival of intense cultural and artistic activity. Here he met regularly Max Rooses (18391914), his senior by thirty-four years, who was the first curator of the Museum Plantin-Moretus, as well as authors and historians such as Emmanuel de Bom (18681953), Maurits Sabbe (18731938), who later became the curator of the Plantin Museum, the bell-ringer Jef Denijn (18621941), the folklorist and collector Emile van Heurck (18711931), and Jozef Muls (18821961), who was a solicitor and art-historian, as well as many others. Verheyden prepared with Max Rooses and [End Page 65] Emmanuel de Bom a large exhibition on the modern book in Belgium and abroad, held at the Museum Plantin-Moretus in 1904 to much acclaim. Verheyden had therefore plenty of opportunity to learn, to expand his areas of interest, and to develop his talents. Although as a book historian he was self-made -- his academic studies had been in mathematics and physics -- it was as a historian of bookbinding that his merits were greatest. He is remembered as the driving force behind the exploration of early Flemish bookbinding, that is to say, the study of blind-tooled binding in the Low Countries from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. If James Weale (18321917), of the previous generation, had awakened interest with the publication in 1894 and 1898 of his Bookbindings and Rubbings of Bindings in the National Art Library, South Kensington Museum, it was Prosper Verheyden who systematically investigated the whole area and put it on record. His earliest publication came only seven years later, in 1905. There may be even now some still unexplored areas, not every demarcation may be firmly established, but Verheyden's knowledge and merits were great. Unfortunately he was not able to fulfil his dream, of writing a history of bookbinding in the ancient Low Countries: there was still too much hands-on research that was not completed. He died in 1948 at the age of seventy-five.1
The lady whom Verheyden accompanied round the Plantin Museum had recently set out on a career as an independent bookbinder, and was at that time well capable of binding and decorating books, but was otherwise not yet particularly knowledgeable about them. Berthe van Regemorter, six years younger than Verheyden, was also born in Mechelen, in 1879. She had been taught bookbinding by Joseph Hendrickx and gold-tooling on leather by Louis Jacobs, both of whom worked in Brussels,2 and had gained further experience in London where she worked for two years for Sangorski & Sutcliffe.3 Her biographer, Mies Jurriaanse, notes that she found herself there in a team consisting of twenty men and four women. On her return to Belgium in 1911, or possibly already in 1910, she settled in Antwerp as a [End Page 66] bookbinder and finisher.4 In a second phase of her life she abandoned the practical side and concentrated on studying the history of bookbinding. She died in 1964, at a great age.5
Berthe van Regemorter was so delighted to become acquainted with the Museum, and especially with the gifted Mr Verheyden, that she expressed the hope that the visit might be repeated. Here is her first short letter to Verheyden (Letter 1, 6 March 1912):6
Cher Monsieur, merci de tout coeur de m'avoir envoyé cette très intéressante collection de frottis. Je vais l'examiner avec soin, cette étude me sera fort utile. Je serais enchantée de recommencer notre promenade de dimanche passé au Musée Plantin, mais je crains vraiment d'abuser de votre complaisance et je ne sais comment vous remercier de l'intérêt que vous portez à mon travail. Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, l'expression de mes meilleurs sentiments.
What circumstance might have led to this visit? We can only guess. At the end of 1911 the art society 'De Scalden' had organised an exhibition of decorative art. A highly reputed periodical, Onze Kunst, had reviewed it early in 1912, praising the outstanding work of 'Mejuffrouw Berthe van Regemorter'. If there were bindings anywhere, Verheyden would not be far away. He would have visited the exhibition, would have made up his mind about the bindings, and would have decided that he should meet their maker. Thus love of bookbindings led to a friendship that was to last for a lifetime, to exchanges that did not avoid criticism, and to the development of Berthe van Regemorter as a bookbinder. These elements all feature in what was a lively correspondence.
The surviving letters are kept in two locations. Miss van Regemorter's heirs have deposited the correspondence addressed to her in Antwerp at the AMVC-Letterenhuis (Archive and Museum for the Cultural Life of Flanders).7 A few years before his death, Prosper Verheyden transferred his entire archive of papers concerning books and bindings to my father, Luc Indestege. This included extensive documentation of rubbings and a large [End Page 67] collection of letters, most of them addressed to Verheyden himself. 8 For the purposes of the present study all the letters in the correspondence between Verheyden and Van Regemorter have been numbered consecutively in a single sequence according to date.
Verheyden was a prolific writer. In his fiorid handwriting he wrote sonorous sentences, in Dutch, his mother tongue, but also in French, German, and English. In one of his letters to Berthe van Regemorter he sang the praises of calligraphy. He himself had learned, when young, the style à l'anglaise, that is the English copperplate hand that was commonly taught in Belgium (Letter 74, 24 September 1925). The correspondence between Verheyden and Van Regemorter was entirely conducted in French, although both were Flemish. This can be explained by the fact that Berthe was a daughter of the bourgeoisie, whose daily language was French. Convinced Fleming as he was, but at the same time polite, generous-spirited, and gifted with language skills, Verheyden used exclusively French in his contact -- at least his epistolary contact -- with Mademoiselle van Regemorter.
From the earliest correspondence until the end, their shared interest in bookbinding was the reason for, and dominant theme in, their exchange. Verheyden had won Berthe's confidence. A few months after their meeting she offered to bind a book for him (Letter 3, 8 May 1912). Unfortunately no title is mentioned, and we are left ignorant about book and binding.
The year 1912 and the following year saw a lively exchange of letters, a recurring subject being a forthcoming celebration in honour of the Antwerp alderman for fine arts, Frans van Kuyck (18521915). Van Kuyck was a politician as well as an artist, and his particular concern was to fight for the cultural emancipation of the Flemish people, who since the establishment of the Belgian kingdom in 1830 had had to cede the primary position to the French-speaking part of the population. As usual on such occasions, Van Kuyck would be presented with a laudatory address in a lavish binding. Verheyden, who was the secretary of the organising committee, saw a chance to promote his protégée, and did so successfully. In September he wrote to her: 'La manifestation projetée en l'honneur de M. l'échevin van Kuyck serait évidemment incomplète si elle ne comprenait pas la remise d'une adresse -- reliée par vous' (Letter 6, 16 September 1912). In addition Miss van Regemorter was asked to bind a book, Oud-Antwerpen, written by Van [End Page 68] Kuyck and Max Rooses, and published by Buschmann in 1896. She was not really allowed sufficient time for this work, and this did not please her. The bindings were ready in time to be presented, but after the event the binder asked for them to be returned: 'Le temps m'a totalement fait défaut pour achever, comme je l'aurais voulu, le volume Oud-Antwerpen. Il n'y a aucune décoration sur le dos et par-ci par-là une petite imperfection dans la dorure, que je désire pouvoir corriger' (Letter 8, 19 October 1912). We do not know the present whereabouts of the two bindings. The laudatory oration was reproduced by Prosper Verheyden in a memorial volume also published by Buschmann.9 That Verheyden was also very sensitive to the quality of printing is demonstrated, if indirectly, by an interminable letter to him from the printer Gustave Buschmann, trying to offer explanations for the weaknesses in the work he had produced.10
With the laudatory oration, or whatever we may call such ephemera, Berthe van Regemorter continued a tradition that had started in the nineteenth century and that lasted during most of the years when she was active as a binder.11 Her first binding of this kind dates from 1910.12 We all know the phenomenon: people of merit are publicly fêted on the occasion of a birthday, a promotion, a commemoration, or the like. The offering in the shape of a book is lent glamour by a fine binding, of the kind that in French is called a 'reliure de circonstance'.13 Frequently this is not a real binding but more a kind of portfolio, enclosing a text that consists of only a few sheets folded together, far too thin to be gathered, sewn, and bound in the traditional way. The folded sheets might be sewn in a wrapper, or suspended on a colourful silk ribbon in a portfolio, or placed between two firm boards held together by ribbons laced through the boards and decoratively tied at the front. The decoration of such a portfolio, as for example that made for Max Rooses, also in 1912 (Fig. 1), is in no way inferior to the decoration of a real binding. Small fioral or geometrical tools, usually in gold, and sometimes modest coloured inlays, occasionally combined with blind tooling, are all characteristic. Roses or rosettes of different sizes are the ornaments of choice. There are also tiny leaves, and small circular tools, dots, and curves, together achieving the effect of fine borders. As a rule, such bindings for special occasions required more lettering than an ordinary book, and this was placed in a frame on the upper cover. Van Regemorter knew that here she was entering a risky area. Verheyden advised her to study lettering, [End Page 69]
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Upper cover of the Huldeadres Max Rooses, 1912 (Antwerp, AMVC-Letterenhuis). Reproduced with permission.
referring her in particular to an article by the typographer Sjoerd de Roos of Haarlem, which had appeared in 1908 in Onze Kunst, and she also visited Brepols in Turnhout, by then established as printers for more than a century. 'Je crois que je vais suivre votre conseil et continuer mes recherches d'un nouvel alphabet. Je ne sais pas si je réussirai. Je ne suis pas vite satisfaite de ce que je fais, et c'est si difficile de composer de belles lettres!' (Letter 37, 22 December 1913). Six months later she had the first trials of her alphabet in her workshop, but progress was slow. 'Je dois m'y remettre' (Letter 45, 24 May 1914).
The letters provide ample evidence that the two correspondents also continued to meet, even if Berthe was by no means always in Antwerp in her atelier. She stayed often with her parents in Kalmthout, in their house the 'Ruitjeshof', situated in the heath- and woodlands north of the city. Verheyden visited her there more than once, having received her precise instructions as to which train to take:
Cher Monsieur, [. . .] Êtes-vous libre samedi après-midi? Si oui, venez donc à Calmpthout par le train quittant Anvers à 2 h 30. Nous parlerons à notre aise de ce qu'il convient de faire pour les reliures que vous me confiez. -- Si le temps passe trop vite en parlant reliure et impression, restez donc dîner avec nous, vous avez des trains à toutes les heures.
It was not long before Berthe became aware that they had a common obsession:
Cest vraiment bien aimable de votre part de vous occuper de mon travail et je vous suis très reconnaissante de cette collaboration dans mes recherches. Nous avons tous les deux la même . . . manie, avouons le mot.
Yet impressions of concerts, operas, and song recitals were also subjects of their correspondence.
Verheyden kept his protégée regularly informed of his own research into early Flemish bookbindings and sent her offprints of his articles. Sometimes, owing to his love of late-medieval panel-stamped bindings, he showed lack of appreciation of the charms of contemporary binding decoration (Letter 14, 9 February 1913). Thus he ventured to suggest that she might design a panel inspired by the motif of animals in vines, and include the text 'Bertha van Regemorter me ligavit Antverpiae'. She was not averse to his idea, except that she did not wish to see her name spelled out in full on the binding, and in the end she decided in favour of something else. But three days later she sent him a design for the decoration of a binding on August Vermeylen's novel De wandelende Jood (Bussum: Van Dishoeck, 1906) (Fig. 2). A panel of 85 x 55 mm with a geometric pattern was to be impressed four times on the upper cover. Straight across the cover a frieze bears a text, provided by Verheyden, proclaiming in uncial lettering de band beware 't, which means in archaic Dutch that the binding may 'keep' or 'safeguard' the [End Page 71] book (within its confines). Unfortunately -- or perhaps we should amend that to fortunately -- the cost of engraving the panel turned out to be too high (unless some bibliophile were to commission it), and she had to abandon the design.
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Design for a panel stamp; drawing, 1913 (Brussels, Bibliotheca Wittockiana, F4.P105). Reproduced with permission.
Verheyden was a bibliophile in the sense that he loved books, but he was not particularly well off and could therefore not be a real collector. Occasionally, however, he managed to acquire something. Thus he became the possessor of a fifteenth-century manuscript (Dat boeck vander voersienicheyt godes), in bad condition although complete, and without its last binding, which may have dated from the eighteenth century. The sections [End Page 72]
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Upper cover of a vellum binding, lettered in gold, 1913 (Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS II 6906). Reproduced with permission.
and the book-block were in disarray, but he enjoyed restoring order to the chaos and then entrusting it to Berthe van Regemorter. They decided on a vellum binding, and the subject of its fastenings gave rise to a fiurry of correspondence. 'Si vous tenez au vélin, dois-je mettre les fermoirs en lanières de chevreau blanc, ou bien avec une petite boule en ivoir la lichette en vélin tourné.' But if the binding is to be of calf it is better to have ribbons of green silk, for brass or silver clasps are very expensive. And what to use for the fiyleaves? And so on. (Letters 20, 21, 24, 25, 26, 27, between 4 May 1913 and 19 June 1913.) Berthe van Regemorter opted in the end for a contemporary binding, no pastiche or imitation, no 'trucs d'antiquaire'. Verheyden did not object. The end-result was a Dutch vellum binding with laced-in thongs, measuring 138 x 116 x 28 mm, with turn-ins, tooled in gold with simple fillets, and the long title arranged in four lines (Fig. 3). Verheyden writes: 'Je [End Page 73] pense que la disposition de l'inscription en un petit bloc presque carré est très heureuse; mais l'effet serait encore meilleur sans les grandes capitales' (Letter 27, 19 June 1913). Berthe van Regemorter sticks to her own opinion but is not upset when Verheyden is obviously not in agreement: 'Comme vous me connaissez mal si vous pensez que je n'aime pas qu'on dise que ce que je propose n'est pas parfait! Vous aviez parfaitement raison pour ces majuscules dans l'inscription' (Letter 29, 29 June 1913).14
Prosper Verheyden became increasingly convinced of Berthe van Rege-morter's talents. Even if we may allow that his feelings of friendship accounted for part of his enthusiasm, we do observe that her work excelled that of her contemporaries, certainly if we compare it to that of other female binders of her time. For Verheyden the evidence was obvious at the exhibition 'De hedendaagsche vrouw -- La femme contemporaine' that was held in Antwerp in 1914. Berthe expressly asked him to visit it (Letter 43, 15 May 1914) and he writes (Letter 44, 22 May 1914):
Chère Mademoiselle, j'ai été hier à l'exposition; à côté de quelques choses intéressantes, que de simple mercantilisme sans aucune signification pour 'la femme contemporaine'. En entrant, j'ai pris la gauche, je me suis donc énervé de 'tomber' sur une foule de 'travaux de dames' dont certains avaient la prétention d'être des reliures. La dernière vitrine, enfin! Comme au royaume des cieux, les derniers seront les premiers, dans cette exposition-là. Que vos neuf reliures -- neuf seulement -- m'ont consolé! Si les dames de Bruxelles et d'ailleurs, qui font d'horribles fantaisies, pouvaient toutes voir vos reliures et s'occuper d'autre chose!
Who were these other ladies? Their names are fairly obscure and I shall not list them here, but they can be found in the little catalogue of this exhibition. This reveals that the exhibited items of leather-work were hardly ever bookbindings, but instead cases for jewellery, albums, boxes for gloves or stamps, and 'liseuses' (jackets), in which one could wrap a book to protect it while reading. There is a total lack of description of and information about technique and decoration, although in a few instances there is mention of modelled leather.15 Only for Berthe van Regemorter is there a clear, if brief, mention of 'several bookbindings', but again without information about decoration or technique. Her part of the exhibition in fact included books by Baudelaire (Fig. 4), Max Elskamp, Théophile Gautier, and Camille Lemonnier, as well as Jacob Colerus's essay on Spinoza. Verheyden's reaction obviously pleased her very much: 'Je sais que vous avez la bonne franchise de critiquer mon travail quand il ne vous plaît pas, et puisque vous trouvez mon exposition à la "Femme contemporaine" belle, je suis ravie' (Letter 45, 24 May 1914). [End Page 74]
Some of the exhibited titles, especially Lemonnier's Claus and Rops as well as Baudelaire and Elskamp, were bound several times by Berthe van Regemorter, probably on commission. Again, we cannot know which of these examples were exibited in Antwerp. We may note that she used the same or very similar patterns more than once, and we can see them recurring on later work. This was also the practice of early binders, as well as of later binders of great fame, such as Rose Adler and Paul Bonet. And we should not forget that the client is king. It appears to me that Berthe van Regemorter knew precisely what her capabilities were, knew her own mind, and became increasingly independent. It would be interesting to investigate to what extent she cut loose from her teachers in London. In a letter to Verheyden (Letter 43, 15 May 1914) she writes that she is shocked by the recent work of Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe at the Central School of Arts and Crafts: 'J'ai été épouvantée de voir à quoi peut aboutir trop d'habilité et ma grande crainte est toujours de ne pas rester simple et de faire de la virtuosité.' We will never know precisely which bindings she referred to.
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Binding of Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal, n.d. (Private collection). Reproduced with permission.
From the First World War to the 1930s
Yet in the same period Berthe van Regemorter demonstrated that good taste and virtuosity need not be mutually exclusive. The years of the First World War undoubtedly made the exchange of letters more difficult, and as a result [End Page 75]
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Binding of Pol de Mont, Meivuur, 1918 (Private collection). Reproduced with permission.
there was probably more communication viva voce. A letter of 20 June 1918 (Letter 48) indicates that some time earlier Berthe had received a very special commission from Verheyden himself. He wished to create a memorial in the form of a book for a dearly loved young friend who had died prematurely of consumption in May 1918. The romantic drama Meivuur by Pol de Mont, written in 1883, was deemed appropriate. The text had been very finely printed by Gust Janssens in 1916. Verheyden's friend the composer Jef van Hoof (18861959) set the text to music, and Berthe van Regemorter bound it in green-black morocco over paste-board, tooled in gold with small sprays, tiny leaves, and circular tools, and inlaid with very dark-olive morocco, filled with a symmetrical pattern of small fiowers inlaid in red; the title was tooled on the upper cover (Fig. 5). The endbands were sewn in red and pale green silk. On the vellum front fiy-leaf the dedication in Dutch was tooled in Roman capitals: 'To honour the memory of Louise Steenackers 9 February 18946 May 1918, bound for Prosper Verheyden by Berthe van Regemorter, Kalmthout, 1918.' The spine has five raised bands with the title tooled in the second compartment. The top edge is cut and gilt, and the fore and tail edges trimmed and gilt.16 [End Page 76]
Verheyden commented on this binding more extensively than ever before (Letter 49, 21 November 1918):
Votre dessin me plaît en tout point, il a suscité également l'admiration de mon cher ami, à qui j'ai expliqué la combinaison des couleurs et de l'or. Ce sera somptueux et d'un goût exquis. Ce n'est que de loin que vous avez suivi Douglas Cockerell; c'est bien une chose neuve que vous avez créee. Tout ce que je crains, c'est qu'elle ne vous coûte trop de peines. J'ai deux remarques de l'ordre des infiniment petits. Ayez plus de blanc, d'interligne entre MEI- et VUUR. [. . .] Les deux branches étalées au milieu des petits côtés de l'encadrement, ne devraient-elles pas surgir en sens inverse, se rattacher au calice de la grande fieur [here follows a little sketch] et se rencontrer sur l'axe, en faire de la grappe de cerises? Ce sont les deux seules branches dont l'origine ne soit pas bien motivée. Je m'aperçois que j'emploie trop de mots pour expliquer qu'il s'agit de diriger les feuilles et ces deux branches en sens inverse. Troisième remarque, d'un ordre encore plus infime. Vous pourriez peut-être ne pas mosaïquer de rouge les cerises éparpillées dans la bordure, mais les laisser vides ou les remplir d'or. Et mieux vaudrait les laisser vides.
From what we can see, the binder followed Verheyden's advice; at least the cherries in the border have not been inlaid in red, and the small circles have remained empty. Verheyden's mention of Douglas Cockerell, without specifying a binding or pattern, was no doubt meant to refer to his infiuence on Van Regemorter during her stay in England, which is indeed apparent in her work.
Prosper Verheyden's interests were not limited to bookbindings. He was a historian with artistic talents, an aesthete with unblinkered vision. He was proud of Mechelen, his native city, dominated by the ancient tower of St Rombauts, which in spite of its rather forbidding aspect enlivens its surroundings with the music of its bells. Verheyden's pride in Mechelen soon became focused on an interest in carillons. He would invite friends, Berthe van Regemorter among them, to carillon recitals in Mechelen and Antwerp (Letter 25, 14 June 1913). But this interest would take him further afield. In Dorset, in the village of Cattistock, the church of St Peter and St Paul had a carillon badly in need of restoration -- this was in the 1860s. And this was why Peter Benoit's 'Rubens March' was heard every hour in the valleys of Cattistock, as Verheyden explained many years later in the annual report of the school for bell-ringers that he had founded in Mechelen together with Jef Denijn.17 In Cattistock carillon recitals followed -- Thomas Hardy was regularly in the audience -- and friendships grew around them. Such a friend [End Page 77] from an early date was William Gorham Rice (18561945). He sent Verheyden in 1914, from Albany, New York, a copy of his Carillons of Belgium and Holland: Tower Music in the Low Countries (New York: John Lane, 1914), with the inscription 'To Mr Prosper Verheyden, whose counsel and whose kindness is on every page, from his friend, William Gorham Rice'. Verheyden added to this inscription: 'I am very happy to receive this book at Croydon, London, on Dec. 15, 1914.'
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Binding of W. G. Rice, The Carillon in Literature, c. 1919 (Private collection). Reproduced with permission.
This detour brings us almost inevitably back to bookbinding. Years later Berthe van Regemorter was commissioned to bind the book on carillons in the Low Countries (Letter 59, 16 July 1920). She had already bound another work by Rice, The Carillon in Literature: A Collection from Various Authors with Some Notes on the Carillon Art (also published by John Lane, in 1916), which was bound in red-brown calf, tooled in blind and gold with a six-petalled rose (Fig. 6) (Letter 51, 19 January 1919). The Carillons of Belgium and Holland is bound in dark red-brown morocco, tooled in gold with small leaves, dots, and tiny circular tools, and with fioral endpapers. Both bindings are signed at the bottom of the spine with Van Regemorter's monogram, a reversed B followed by vR. They could be seen at Van Regemorter's first solo [End Page 78] exhibition held in 1923 at the Museum Plantin-Moretus, and they are now in a private collection.18
This large exhibition in Antwerp contained over fifty full-leather bindings and an unspecified number of half-leather and case bindings. It is not hard to imagine that Verheyden was closely involved in selecting and organizing, and also in editing the catalogue, especially the Dutch version. He writes: 'Je serai heureux d'être encombré!' (Letter 70, 24 January 1923). In this catalogue we see for the first time a list of bibliophiles in Antwerp, Brussels, and Geneva who owned bindings by Berthe van Regemorter. As mentioned earlier, we do not know the present whereabouts of many of these bindings, but thanks to the surviving designs (annotated by the binder) and to rubbings now in the Bibliotheca Wittockiana in Brussels we know what many of them looked like.
The exhibition also included bindings commissioned by the Brussels book-lover Frank Flausch. Flausch (18781926) was a very active bibliophile to the extent that he himself undertook the publication of several books 'Aux dépens d'un groupe d'amateurs, à l'enseigne du Framboisier', an imprint inspired by his home address at the rue du Framboisier in Brussels. The books were usually printed by the firm of Goossens. Flausch was a good friend of Paul Valéry, and for at least five special copies of Valéry's books he commissioned bindings from Berthe van Regemorter. One of these bears on a fiyleaf the inscription: 'Exemplaire de Monsieur Franck Flausch, mon guide et tentateur à Bruxelles. Paul Valéry, février 1923 [. . .] délicieusement relié par Mademoiselle Berthe Van Regemorter, P.V.'19
In November 1924 Van Regemorter was commissioned to bind a congratulatory address to Count Charles Moretus Plantin. Our only sources are a design and a rubbing, now in the Bibliotheca Wittockiana. It is for a portfolio, of c. 400 x 280 mm, in orange-red oasis morocco, tooled in blind and gold.20 Other designs for large-format bindings survive that have a similar pattern of fiowers enclosed in full and half circles.
At the time of the 1923 exhibition in the Plantin-Moretus Museum we can observe that Berthe van Regemorter, by now almost forty years old, had reached the apogee of her active career as a bookbinder. She continued to receive many commissions, from societies, public institutions, and bibliophiles. We find traces in the correspondence, especially of commissions of the first kind, because Prosper Verheyden was always well informed of anything that was going on in Antwerp. He seems to have had less contact with [End Page 79] bibliophiles in Brussels, which is in itself not surprising, but it is difficult to be certain, unless we learn their names from catalogues or find them mentioned in letters.
Undoubtedly the correspondence does not refiect the full extent of their communication. There is a striking absence of letters from Berthe van Regemorter for the long period between 1920 and the mid-1930s, when only Verheyden's letters have been preserved, but it is very clear that their friendship was not interrupted. Verheyden was a prolific and natural letter-writer, who reserved time for his correspondence. Berthe was much preoccupied with her time-consuming commissions. On top of this she started to teach. In 1926 she gave a course on binding technique at the Vrije Akademie, a technical college for applied arts in Antwerp that was founded partly on her initiative.21 In the following year, 1927, Henry van de Velde (18631957) invited her to teach binding decoration at the École nationale supérieure des arts visuels (the Advanced Institute for Decorative Arts in Brussels), which had been founded by him. It was situated in the remains of the old Cistercian abbey of Ter Kameren or La Cambre on the southern outskirts of Brussels. That institute, too, still exists.22 Berthe van Regemorter's enthusiasm and dynamism remained recognised for many years. Even in the 1950s, when she was of quite advanced age, she was invited to teach the history of bookbinding for the Plantin Genootschap Hoger Instituut voor Grafische Kunsten in Antwerp.
After the fifteen-year interval the first surviving letter from Berthe van Regemorter is dated March 1936 (Letter 81, 2 March 1936). The tone, however, is the same as of old: to the point, enthusiastic, and communicative. It is clear that there had not been a silence between these two correspondents. Berthe's parents had died in the intervening years. Their house ''t Ruitjeshof' had had to be restored in order to be rented out in the summer months. She herself had moved to a comfortable apartment at the Begijnenvest in Antwerp. There had been exchanges of books. In 1928 Prosper Verheyden thanked her for E. P. Goldschmidt's Gothic and Renaissance Bookbindings, which had just been published. Verheyden, in his turn, lent her Geoffrey Hobson's Les Reliures à la fanfare. Her critical disposition led her to pose a question regarding Hobson's methodology:
Je ne puis croire que les différents fers n'ont été employés à cette époque que par un relieur bien déterminé. Il faut envisager d'autres facteurs encore que les fers pour être sûr de la provenance d'une reliure. En tous les cas le livre de Hobson est un travail précieux et je voudrais rechercher nos fanfares pour les examiner suivant la méthode.
Hobson's subsequent publications, especially those on Romanesque bindings, were to interest her very much. It is not known whether she met Hobson when she was in London in early May 1936 in order to bid on a binding at Sotheby's at the request of Prosper Verheyden. More than half a century after Verheyden's death I can share the excitement stirred by the coming up for auction of a panel-stamp binding with the name of Wouter van Duffel -- a familiar name, but there was not a single specimen bearing his name in Belgium. Verheyden corresponded with Hobson about the binding, and received the advice: 'It ought to be obtainable for about £75, but I very much hope that you will get your people to bid for it up to whatever figure they think it is worth', and Hobson added: 'We might be able to re-sell the heraldic manuscript if it is decided to take it out of the binding' (enclosure in Letter 83, 28 April 1936). The Hobson/Verheyden correspondence includes an extensive discussion of Wouter van Duffel. Why was this binding of such importance? I shall not quote here the detailed explanation that Verheyden wrote to Berthe van Regemorter (Letter 83), as it can be summarized as follows. Two bindings are known with a blind panel (60 x 45 mm) representing the standing figure of the Virgin and Child, and kneeling in front of her a man in a cassock. On the left, set vertically, is the inscription woter van dvffie. The scene and text are surrounded by a border of a curling branch, terminating at the bottom in a crouching basilisk (Fig. 7). A Wouter van Duffel is recorded in the Antwerp archives as, among other things, a canon of the Cathedral of Our Lady, but not as a bookbinder -- as Verheyden proclaimed him to be in the title of an article he published in 1937,23 although in the text itself he is more cautious. Wouter van Duffel would at the least have commissioned the panel in order to decorate the bindings of his books, and this must have been during his lifetime. On this basis the earliest-known panel stamp can be dated to the second half of the thirteenth century and located in the Low Countries. That was the first important fact to be established.
There is, however, more to it. The same panel was used in combination with two other panels on a binding now in Corpus Christi College, Oxford,24 both showing animals in circles, one with the name iacobus illvminator, the other with that of martinus de predio. Both are known still to have been in use late in the fifteenth century. The thirteenth-century panel appears therefore to have been used when it was two hundred years old. That was the second important fact to emerge. The binding that came up for auction at Sotheby's in 1936, which was thus the second recorded [End Page 81] binding with the Wouter van Duffel panel, came from the collection of E. Gordon Duff. According to Verheyden it appeared to be a nineteenth-century remboîtage, with the heraldic manuscript mentioned by Hobson not in its original binding. Furthermore, the other blind panel impressed on to the binding had an inscription in gothic-style lettering, and can therefore hardly belong to the thirteenth century; however, a vellum leaf of waste bound at the end, a fragment of thirteenth-century glosses on the Psalms, might indicate a binding of that period. All this is according to Verheyden. To cut this long story and maze of dubious arguments short, one thing was entirely clear to him: the Wouter van Duffel panel, with such a long service to its credit, had to be repatriated to Antwerp. Berthe van Regemorter succeeded in securing the binding at the auction, helped by the financial support of a group of bibliophiles in Antwerp and Brussels, who presented it to the Plantin-Moretus Museum.25
Click for larger view
The Wouter van Duffel panel; photograph, c. 1937, of the example in the Museum Plantin- Moretus, O.B.5.6 (De Berderen, Dilbeek). Reproduced with permission.
This big event undoubtedly alerted Berthe van Regemorter to early bindings. When two years later she visited the King's Library exhibition in the British Museum to see books by William Morris and Emery Walker, she examined a binding from Rooklooster, the famous monastery of the Canons Regular, south of Brussels. This had not been shown in the large exhibition of bookbindings at the Royal Library in Brussels in 1930. She reported it to Verheyden, in spite of her fear that she might be carrying coals to Newcastle (Letter 86, 27 July 1938). [End Page 82]
Around this time Verheyden's health began to cause him some problems; he experienced chest-pains after taking only a few steps. One of the causes may have been that his irregular working habits were beginning to take their toll. For example, he had been able to work and write for a day and half a night without taking a rest, even without nourishment. That would happen in the monasteries and abbeys that he visited in pursuit of bindings, and where, in spite of the hospitable reception by prior or abbot, he would forgo the many dairy dishes that did not agree with him. But although not in the best of health, in 1938 he began to plan an exhibition of bindings in private collections, to be held in the Plantin-Moretus Museum. As soon as the curator, Herman Bouchery, gave him the go-ahead, Verheyden began to work -- for it was he who was going to carry out the many tasks, not the Museum staff: visiting, corresponding, convincing collectors, drafting the catalogue, and everything else that needs doing in preparation for an exhibition. He assembled 150 items in all, described in the catalogue Gothieke en Renaissance boekbanden (Antwerp, 1938). The six lenders were Dr De Cap-maker and Général Jacques Willems from Brussels, and Edmond Denie, Emiel van Hoof, Berthe van Regemorter, and the Ruusbroec-Genootschap in Antwerp. In all but one instance the present whereabouts of the exhibited items is unknown, and the simple exhibition catalogue, with short descriptions but without illustrations, is therefore the only remaining source.
The most colourful of these lenders was probably Edmond Denie (18821944), whose portrait was painted by Isidoor Opsomer. He was a professional chef and owned the famous Antwerp restaurant Criterium, but in his spare time he was also a collector of books and prints and served on the Council of the Society of Antwerp Bibliophiles. His restaurant was famous for its refined cuisine, and it cannot have been coincidence that among his gastronomical clients were many who were interested in his books and prints, which he was quite happy to show them, not in his kitchen, but in his library on the second fioor. Denie was not only willing to lend precious bindings to the exhibition, he also undertook to share in the cost of printing the catalogue. When towards the end of the Second World War Antwerp was under attack by V1s and V2s, the restaurant was of course closed, and Denie, distressed and suffering a nervous breakdown, died suddenly.26 His widow sold several of his books to Georges Moorthamers shortly before her own death several months later; these were probably the bindings and [End Page 83] manuscripts that were sold at Sotheby's in 1951.27 In the summer of 1945 the antiquarian dealer Fernand Miette of Brussels had approached Verheyden offering to take care of the expert valuation and sale of Denie's manuscripts and bindings.28 He was too late. As far as I know, Miette only organized two sales, one in December 1945 containing mainly French literature, and one in 1961, when he offered the collection of Rops prints for sale.
Seven letters written by Verheyden to Berthe van Regemorter during the final war years survive. His mind was busy with books and bindings, but his body slowed him down and the deaths of friends depressed him. Preceding Denie's death in December 1944 (Letter 94, 15 December 1944), Jan Denucé (18781944), whom he had known as a young curator in the Plantin-Moretus Museum during the First World War, and later as archivist of the City of Antwerp, had died suddenly in the February (Letter 90, 15 February 1944). Moreover, the current curator of the museum, Herman Bouchery (191259) was a war casualty and was seriously ill. The museum itself took direct hits and was heavily damaged.
Although it was for both Verheyden and Van Regemorter the second time they had experienced a destructive war close at hand, the difficult realities of life during and shortly after the war hardly left a mark in their correspondence. Nor do we hear much about Verheyden's family, his wife, and his son. Perhaps the correspondence helped them to turn their minds from the actualities they had to face and concentrate on the timeless subjects that mattered so much to them. Significantly, it is in this period that Prosper Verheyden urged Berthe van Regemorter that she should begin to publish, following the example of some of her male colleagues such as Léon Gruel and Paul Kersten, and he suggested as a subject her observations on the sewing of early medieval books. He reminded her also of an archival document that she had acquired many years before, an account issued in 1476 by Jehan d'Ingouville, who was bookbinder to the Chambre des Comptes of the King of France. This study was not published until 1964, the year she died, in the festschrift for Tammaro de Marinis.29 But other studies appeared earlier: the first was a short note on a South Tyrolean binding published in 1946, two years before the death of Verheyden, who thus saw only the beginning of a sequence of publications that would contribute much to the fame of his protégée.
Meanwhile dramatic events, as has been said, failed to be refiected in the correspondence. Verheyden was to hear from mutual friends that the [End Page 84] 'Ruitjeshof' had been destroyed early in December 1944. Only the farmhouse remained standing. Berthe herself escaped the disaster -- it is not clear where she was at the time -- but her binding equipment was destroyed. When in May 1945 the war ended, means of communications were repaired and teaching was soon resumed. Letters from abroad began to arrive, the first of them from England and the United States. Verheyden informed Berthe: 'Hobson, Ehrman, Moss et les autres amis des reliures, ainsi que Oldham à Shrewsbury "who published a fine book" dit Hobson, et Gibson à Oxford, se portent tous très bien.' Two bell-ringer friends in the United States, from Ann Arbor and from New York, sent him long letters, but there was as yet no news from friends in the Netherlands (Letter 95, 4 June 1945).
At this time the Bibliographical Society had just published G. D. Hobson's Blind-Stamped Panels in the English Book-Trade, and the author wondered whether the book could be entrusted to the still disrupted mail service. But obviously he did not wait, for on 17 June 1945 the book arrived safely at its destination in Belgium. Its preface included a passage so fiattering that a delighted Verheyden could not resist quoting it in full in a letter to Berthe van Regemorter (Letter 96, 18 June 1945). Hobson had written:
One name is missing from my record of benefactors: I am deeply conscious how much many of the following pages would have profited from the great knowledge of Mr. Prosper Verheyden, a knowledge extending not only to the bindings, but to all the art of life of his beloved Netherlands at the greatest period of their history. Alas! He is lost in the black night of Europe, and when I think that he, whose opinion above all others I should have prized, will perhaps never see this book, half the pleasure of achievement passes, and Burke's familiar lament returns to the mind, 'What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue'.
After the war Kalmthout remained Berthe van Regemorter's real home, even after the destruction of the family house. She occupied several rooms in a villa furnished with the few pieces that had survived the disaster. This villa, 'Vogelenzang', was built in 1850; it was surrounded by a large park with ponds and bowers, and had become a landmark in the history of Dutch literature, for it was there that the avant-garde journal Van Nu en Straks began its life.30 The villa also had a connection with Henry van de Velde (who designed the cover for Van Nu en Straks) at the time when he had withdrawn from the lively artistic environment of Brussels and Antwerp, where he had taken an active part in 'L'Association pour l'Art' and 'De Scalden' in Antwerp, and 'Les XX' in Brussels: he lived for four years in a modest boarding house in the little village of Wechelderzande, not very far from Kalmthout, at a time when 'Vogelenzang' belonged to his sister, and he often stayed there painting landscapes and the beautiful garden. [End Page 85]
But this was all well before Berthe van Regemorter's days. She changed the name of the villa to 'Withof', alluding to the other 'hof', the 'Ruitjeshof', and also to the colour of its walls. A memorial plaque was placed in a side wall and unveiled, after some delay, on 13 June 1948. She invited a few intimate friends to attend the occasion, among them Prosper Verheyden (Letter 97, 6 June 1948). Precisely three years had gone by without any correspondence. Verheyden answered her by return of post, a short note, its writing almost illegible, saying that he would be there, arriving at Kalmthout on the 16.15 train. But at that time he was already terminally ill. He did not manage to attend the little party, and he died two months later.
Berthe van Regemorter continued publishing scholarly work.31 Many years earlier she had travelled in the Middle East and Egypt when one of her brothers lived there. In Egypt she had seen Coptic bindings and they continued to intrigue her. Building on her experience with Romanesque and Carolingian bindings she set out to investigate the structures of early Greek, Coptic, Armenian, and Byzantine bindings. But this is not the occasion to relate the second phase of her life, after Verheyden's death.
Berthe van Regemorter's bindings unmistakably show some English infiuence. To what extent this was due to her teachers in London, or to the infiuence of Cobden-Sanderson, Douglas Cockerell, Katherine Adams, or possibly Sibyl Pye, who was her exact contemporary, I have to leave undecided. In her forty-year career as a binder she produced many bindings, as we can see from the surviving letters and especially from her archive, kept in the Bibliotheca Wittockiana in Brussels. It includes hundreds of large and small sheets with trials, designs, and rubbings, usually with notes specifying kinds of leather, endleaves, endbands, tooling, and inlays. This 'Nachlass' has still to be recorded in detail, and needs to be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle.32 In the present state of investigation it is not yet possible to pronounce with any degree of certainty on Berthe van Regemorter's stylistic evolution, as determined by tools and patterns. Yet an evolutionary tendency is apparent, moving from fioral to geometric motifs, from fairly abundant decoration to simpler abstract linear patterns. Prosper Verheyden's infiuence on her work was profound, especially in the early years of her career as a binder. His insight into and knowledge of books as well as of people had left him in no doubt that Berthe van Regemorter was a woman of great talent, technical as well as artistic, who was destined to be an asset to the binding profession and its history.33
1. Prosper Verheyden gehuldigd ter gelegenheid van zijn zeventigste verjaardag 23 october 1943, ed. by Willy Godenne, Luc Indestege, and Bert Pelckmans (Antwerp, 1943) (with a bibliography); Luc Indestege, 'Prosper Verheyden in memoriam 18731948', De Gulden Passer, 26 (1948), 128.
2. Marie-Laurence Adyns, 'La Reliure à l'École de La Cambre de 1926 à nos jours. Mémoire de licence en Histoire de l'art et archéologie', 2 vols (unpublished dissertation, Catholic University of Louvain (Louvain-la-Neuve), 1992), passim.
3. I am grateful to Mr Frederick Bearman for informing me that it was highly unusual for anyone to work for two years for the purpose of further training. There is no trace of Van Regemorter in the Sangorski & Sutcliffe archive, but this does not mean that she did not work there (cf. the memoir by Mies Jurriaanse cited in n. 5 below). Marianne Tidcombe does not mention Van Regemorter in her Women Bookbinders 18801920 (New Castle, DE, 1996).
4. There is no doubt that she carried out her own gold-tooling. This is clear from a number of the letters exchanged between her and Prosper Verheyden (Letters 8, 24, 26, 27, 82; for the letters, see below and nn. 7, 8); thus in Letter 82, dated 14 March 1936, she calls herself 'doreur'. In 1930 she was appointed 'professeur de dorure aux petits fers' at what is now the École de La Cambre, to which she had been appointed 'professeur adjoint', by royal order ('koninklijk besluit'), on 22 February 1927. However, the archives of this institute (dossier administratif Berthe van Regemorter) make no mention of edge gilding.
5. Mies Jurriaanse, 'Berthe van Regemorter in memoriam, 21 april 187931 december 1964', Het Boek, 37 (1965), 17884 (with a bibliography by Georges Dogaer). See also Georges Colin, La Reliure féminine et les arts du cuir en Belgique à la Belle Époque (Brussels, 2004), pp. 9094.
6. Letters from Berthe van Regemorter to Prosper Verheyden are in the archive, 'De Berderen', described in n. 8 below.
7. AMVC-Letterenhuis, V 394 (B).
8. The archive and the reference library form the core collection of a foundation, established at the end of 1999, called 'De Berderen'. This name refers to the Middle Dutch word 'berd', meaning a wooden board, here referring to the wooden boards of a medieval binding. The foundation 'De Berderen' is located in Dilbeek on the outskirts of Brussels. See Elly Cockx-Indestege, 'Van "Abrahams Offer" tot "Zwolle. Agnietenberg". Ontstaan, ontwikkeling en bestemming van het Wrijfselarchief Verheyden/Indestege', in Boek en letter: boekwetenschappelijke bijdragen ter gelegenheid van het afscheid van prof. dr. Frans A. Janssen als hoogleraar in de Boek- en bibliotheekgeschiedenis aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam, ed. by Jos Biemans, Lisa Kuitert, and Piet Verkruijsse (Amsterdam, 2004), pp. 53559 (with a summary in English).
9. Huldebetoon aan Frans van Kuyck, 20 october 1912. Gedenkschrift (Antwerp, 1913).
10. Letter from Buschmann to Verheyden, dated 8 July 1913, now in 'De Berderen', Dilbeek (see n. 8).
11. See G. Degueldre, Huldealbums, guldenboeken en gedenkboeken (18551960): inventaris (Antwerp, 1997).
12. A rubbing of the upper cover is in the archive of the Bibliotheca Wittockiana in Brussels, reference F4.P1.
13. See Elly Cockx-Indestege, 'Une coutume bibliophilique oubliée: Berthe van Regemorter, relieuse d'adresses et de livres d'or', in Bibliophiles et reliures. Mélanges offerts à Michel Wittock (forthcoming).
14. In 1935 Verheyden sold the manuscript in its binding to the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in Brussels, where it is now MS II 6906.
15. Colin, La Reliure féminine, pp. 9094.
16. This book, once in Verheyden's possession, is now in the author's collection in Dilbeek.
17. P. Verheyden, 'Cattistock', in Beiaardschool te Mechelen. Jaarverslag en mededeelingen 19261927 (Mechelen, ), pp. 2124.
18. They are described in the exhibition catalogue Boekbanden gemaakt door Berthe van Regemorter en ten toon gesteld in het Museum Plantin-Moretus te Antwerpen, 15 februari15 maart 1923 / Reliures faites par Berthe van Regemorter et exposées au Musée Plantin-Moretus, Anvers ([Antwerp, 1923]), nos 10, 20.
19. I am grateful to Mr A. Flausch of Brussels for this information.
20. Cockx-Indestege, 'Une coutume bibliophilique', item 27.
21. The college still exists, now under the name of Stedelijke Academie voor Kunstambachten 'Roger Avermaete', after one of the founders who died in 1988. Correspondence about the Vrije Akademie is in the AMVC-Letterenhuis in Antwerp (B: R2931, A493, and A23).
22. As the École de La Cambre. See also nn. 2 and 4 above.
23. Prosper Verheyden, 'De paneelstempel van Wouter van Duffel, priester, boekbinder te Antwerpen (12491285)', De Gulden Passer, 15 (1937), 136.
24. Φ B.4.1, containing the first volume of Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum doctrinale (Strasbourg: [Adolph Rusch, c. 1477]) (Dennis E. Rhodes, A Catalogue of Incunabula in All the Libraries at Oxford outside the Bodleian (Oxford, 1982), no. 1809).
25. Meanwhile it has been established conclusively that panels of this kind were sometimes cast and not engraved. Casts could have been made at later dates and widely distributed. See E. Cockx-Indestege and J. Storm van Leeuwen's reassessment of the Wouter van Duffel panel in Blind bestempeld en rijk verguld: Boekbanden uit zes eeuwen in het Museum Plantin-Moretus / Estampages et dorures: six siècles de reliure au Musée Plantin-Moretus [catalogue of an exhibition held at the Plantin-Moretus Museum, 15 October 200515 January 2006] (Antwerp, 2005), pp. 4146.
26. Prosper Verheyden, 'In memoriam Edmond Denie Ý 14e december 1944', De Gulden Passer, 23 (1945), 23742.
27. Catalogue of an Extensive Collection of Decorated Book Bindings with a Few Manuscripts Formed by a Well-Known Continental Collector [Edmond Denie, Antwerp], Sotheby's sale, 67 February 1951; see also Jan Deschamps, Middelnederlandse handschriften uit Europese en Amerikaanse bibliotheken (Leiden, 1972), pp. 22930.
28. Letter to Verheyden, 4 June 1945 (De Berderen, BR, 14B, 26).
29. Berthe van Regemorter, 'Un compte de relieur de 1475', in Studi di bibliografia e di storia in onore di Tammaro de Marinis, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 4 (Vatican City, 1964), pp. 1923.
30. The journal was intended to be the Flemish answer to the francophone La Jeune Belgique and L'Art Moderne.
31. In 1992 the Bibliotheca Wittockiana in Brussels published a selection of her articles as Binding Structures in the Middle Ages: A Selection of Studies, translated into English and annotated by Jane Greenfield (Studia Bibliothecae Wittockianae, 3).
32. An inventory of this material is in progress.
33. Editor's note: An abbreviated version of this article, in Dutch, was published in De Gulden Passer, 82 (2004), 16177. The above translation is by Lotte Hellinga, edited by Mirjam Foot.