One of the treasures of our collection, Wine Women and Song, has a fascinating history. This elaborately bound first edition of John Addington Symond’s 1884 English translation of 13th-century medieval drinking songs was produced in England in 1907 by bookbinders Sangorski & Sutcliffe, renowned for their intricate bindings ornamented with gilt work and precious stones.
Originally commissioned from Sangorski by John Harrison Stonehouse, director of Sotheran’s of London, the world’s oldest antiquarian bookseller, this exquisite volume is encased in green Moroccan leather and features an all-over design of grapevines set against a gold stippled background. Bunches of grapes, each made up of 10 to 13 smooth-cut cabochon amethysts set in gold, hang from the hand-tooled vines. Upon its completion, Stonehouse declared it to be the most exquisitely beautiful modern binding he had ever seen.
He sold the book almost immediately to an unnamed buyer. Flush with the success of Wine Women and Song, Stonehouse made the fateful decision to commission an even more ambitious binding from Sangorski & Sutcliffe: a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Known as The Great Omar, this book was to become one of the most famous of all time, but for all of the wrong reasons. On April 14, 1912, this masterpiece, ornamented with jewel-encrusted peacock feathers and billed as the most expensive hand binding ever produced, sank on the Titanic.
In an eerie coincidence, only weeks later, Francis Sangorski died in a drowning accident. Over the years there has been much conjecture and many whispered superstitions about what sank the Titanic. Some even reckon that the ship sank because the eye of the peacock feather is very unlucky… here at Cooper-Hewitt we sometimes ask ourselves, “If Wine Women and Song hadn’t inspired a second commission…who knows what might have happened?”