Hans Mathæus Refsum (1859–1936) was a pioneer within the craftsmanship of artistic superior bookbinding in Norway and he became particularly renowned for his finer leather bindings and addresses (letters of honour). This e-book aims to introduce Refsum as Norway’s most prominent contributor to the art of decorated paper. Since Refsum was so prolific, it will by no means give a complete overview of his diverse production and activities. Rather, my intention is to give an insight into Refsum’s creative and technically highly innovative manufacture of decorated endleaves and bookcovers on both paper and textile. This will be achieved through rich photographic documentation and presentation of Refsum’s work.
The assortment of images represents private and library bindings from Refsum’s hand, which are mainly preserved in the National Library of Norway’s collection, as well as a limited selection from collections at the National Museum of Norway, the University Library in Bergen and some books in private ownership.
Photos: Nina Hesselberg-Wang, National Library of Norway (unless otherwise stated).
The images can be reused in accordance with the CC BY-NC-SA license.
Many of the images can be studied in a larger version by clicking on them.
Hans Mathæus Refsum was born on March 13th 1859. He was the son of a farmer with large land holdings and grew up in Romerike, some 50 km outside Kristiania (now Oslo). His greatest joy was outdoor life, he was a keen hunter and fearless rider, preferring to stand on two horses simultaneously! As the fifth of nine brothers and three sisters, a future on the farm was never an option for Hans Mathæus.According to the official farm census in 1865, the farm kept 11 horses, 42 cows, 6 sheep and 6 pigs. Referred to in Folkebladet Sørum, no. 28–29, 1920.
Even though the expectations towards a bright boy in a family of his standing, i.e. the landholding farmer class, would be that he pursued an academic career, Refsum instead followed his interests in craftsmanship. He started as an apprentice in the bookbindery of Thomas Christensen in Kristiania and graduated as a bookbinder in 1879. For a bookbinder seeking further education, it would have been natural at the time to go to Denmark or Germany, but Refsum was not impressed with the work of the bookbinders who had studied there. He was ambitious and chose to go to the USA. He spent six instructive years in the binderies of Donohue & Henneberry in Chicago and with Russell in New York, among others. He studied modern and effective production methods that were unknown in Norway and he was given the possibility to improve to perfection his skills in finer bookbinding.Sommerfeldt 1937, po. 9–13
Shortly after his return to Kristiania in 1887, Refsum achieved «borgerbrev» (trade licence)«Borgerbrev» was a trade licence which gave the applicant a legal privilege/right to run a business and to produce and sell goods and pay taxes. which gave him legal right to establish his own workshop. He started out with only one bookbinder and one apprentice.
At the time of Refsum’s return, Norway was a poor country (this was long before the oil-era), still in union with Sweden until Norway’s independence in 1905. Before that, 400 years of Danish reign, when as good as all scientific, cultural and artistic development in the country had been directed from Copenhagen, the kingdom’s capital. In the late 1880s, Kristiania had 135.000 inhabitants and there were 36 bookbinderies, so the market for costly volumes was limited. To begin with, Refsum had difficulties getting on – after two weeks the apprentice resigned – the young boy could see no future in a bindery without customers and he recommended Refsum to return to the United States. Refsum considered his advice seriously, but Mrs. Refsum refused to leave her family in Norway.Sommerfeldt 1937, p. 15
Finding himself in these challenging circumstances, Refsum took action by displaying his finer leather bindings and elegant ledgers made after American models in the workshop´s windows and he invited potential customers to his shop. Interested people turned up, not only private book collectors, but also representatives of institutions and companies. As soon as in 1888, Refsum was appointed to be the bookbinder of the University Library, a title he took pride in for nearly 40 years and placed prominently on his labels and advertisements. Within a year or two, orders began to pour in from the important publishing houses J. W. Cappelen and Gyldendal Norske forlag, the Nobel Institute, the Norwegian Government, the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Kristiania and the Norwegian Bible Company.
Eventually, Refsum also attached a hymnbook publisher to the company.Nygård-Nilssen 1952, pp. 349–351
Refsum was concerned with rational working methods that could provide both high quality and affordable prices for edition bindings. He despised cheap, garish bindings, which were poorly executed because of their low price.
A special field within bookbinding where Refsum became a highly sought-after practitioner was the execution of addresse-covers. Addresse meaning: «Letter of honour to a person or an authority declaring the sentiments of several people.» The three most common forms are homage-, thanks- and congratulatory (anniversary) greetings, as well as diplomas. For our context, it is the cover or the outer appearance of the adresse that plays the central role. The practice of handing over letters of honour started in the middle of 19th-century in central Europe, and in Norway, it can be traced back to the 1880s. This custom had an impact on the art industry owing to the work it generated for artists and craftsmen, and constituted one of the most interesting and varied expressions of modern book art. The external form of the adresse was essential to their design, the cover could be a folder or a roll, and book artists were relatively free when it came to the selection of materials and techniques. Cheerful character and appealing decorative significance were a matter of course.Kielland, Nygård-Nilssen og Sommerfeldt 1937, pp. 24–114
Refsum was a skillful draughtsman and soon began to collaborate with artists who could draft book-designs.
Refsum’s most important collaborators were the painters Thorolf Holmboe, Oluf Wold-Torne, Gerhard Munthe and the architects Henrik Bull and Carl Berner, among others.
The Association for Norwegian Book Art was established in Kristiania on May 14th, 1900.Munthe 1943, p. 67 The founders were the director of the Art Industry Museum, H. A. Grosch, and the head of the Norwegian Geological Survey, Dr. Hans Reusch, along with the painters Erik Werenskiold, Gerhard Munthe and Thorolf Holmboe, editor William Nygaard and book printer Herman Scheibler. According to Dr. Reusch, the association’s purpose was to bring artists and craftsmen together, and in his inaugural speech, Reusch stated that: «The artists shall spur [the craftsmen] by their initiative and guide by their judgment.» Beyond that, the association sought to attract anyone who had a deeper interest in aesthetically crafted books and thus to create an elite audience.«Foreningen for norsk bokkunst», the web site Typografi i Norge, www.typografi.org/dokum/ffnb/bokkunstforeningen.html
Refsum was favourably noticed in a series of exhibitions: he won a silver medal at the World Fair in Paris in 1900, and at the Nordic exhibition in Krefeld in 1902, the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum purchased one of his bindings. In 1903, he contributed to the exhibition Norsk Bogbinderkunst (Norwegian bookbinding art) at the Vestlandske Kunstindustrimuseum (West Norway Museum of Decorative Art), where he gained great enthusiasm for his floral bindings, with pressed flowers used as decorations on the covers. I quote some passages from the Museum director, Johan Bøgh’s, speech:
Refsum has devoted much of his time and his work to producing books characterized by artistic decoration and meticulous craftsmanship and solidity, which can claim their place beside foreign luxury bindings.
A separate space in this exhibition is devoted to flower-bindings, showing a completely new way of decoration.Bøgh 1922, pp. 16–18
Refsum was the first person ever to have his own separate exhibition at the Arts & Crafts Museum in Oslo in 1921. Later he attended the Leipzig exhibition in 1927, the international book exhibition in Barcelona in 1929, the Nidaros exhibition in 1930, «New Norwegian Bookbindings» at the Museum of Decorative Art in 1933, «Norwegian book art, printing and bookbinding» at the National Museum in Stockholm in 1934, to mention some of the events at which he presented his work. He boasted that you could find his bindings in every royal collection in Europe and as a curiosity, he would add: «even in Emperor Menelik’s Library in Abessinien!»Refsum og Cockerell 1910, p. 3
In 1919, when Refsum passed the bindery on to his son Hermod, it was a very well-run company; it had an outstanding reputation for its craftsmanlike quality work and with nearly 100 employees.
In the same year, the King Haakon VII of Norway awarded him a golden medal for meritorious services.
It was thanks to Refsum that old techniques for decorating paper were revitalized in Norway. He started his experiments in 1899 – initially with paste decoration techniques – and in 1903, he expanded with through-marbling techniques. He was clearly inspired and influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement, which had spread through Europe in response to the mass-produced machine-printed decorated paper which had dominated bookbinding for a length of time. The modern style of Art Nouveau obviously stimulated his fantasy and delight in colour. Refsum’s greatest source of inspiration was presumably Anker Kyster, an outstanding Danish bookbinder who made his own decorated paper.Kielland 1922, p. 35
Until 1919, when Refsum left the company to his son, he manufactured decorated paper in his free time – mainly on Saturday-afternoons and Sundays. He has been said to be very secretive about it, locking himself up in a small studio and keeping his recipes and remedies in a safe. He experimented with colours and techniques to produce original and technically highly interesting covering- and endpapers. During this time, he developed his unique personal style. After 1919, he devoted more of his time and energy to this activity.
He characterized his decorated paper as hand-coloured or marbled without going into technical details. «Marbling» is a definite term explaining the technique but has also to a great extent been used as a collective term for all kinds of paper-decorating techniques. Many of Refsum’s decorated papers are certainly not marbled and as long as he kept his innovative procedures to himself, is it quite tricky to define his techniques. What we are left with are visual descriptions.
In a lecture given at the opening of Refsum’s exhibition in 1921, the art historian Thor Kielland refers to Refsum’s style as sun and star marbling. He may have gotten some hints regarding the procedure from Refsum and describes his technique as based on dripping coloured or colourless fluids on to wet coloured sheets of paper, which make the colours migrate into shapes that resembles weird swimming seaweeds, misty starry nights, or mossy forest floor. Besides, he points out Refsum’s fanciful utilization of small cut-out stamps printed in the wet paste, either in endless plane designs or combined in compositions with motifs from flora and fauna.Kielland 1922, p. 37
A large selection of his decorated paper was applied to simpler library books. However, Refsum argued that library bindings should be solid and durable, which is why he developed paste-based decoration techniques normally performed on paper onto more durable textile covering materials such as canvas.
In some cases, he utilized silk for endleaves. Images of paste-decorated leather bindings are displayed among the books belonging to the University Library of Bergen. Independent of carrier material, he enjoyed sprinkling gold dust onto the finished designs.
Refsum was well aware that his successful manufacture of decorated paper was most appreciated by connoisseurs and professional experts.
Refsum frequently advertised in the newspapers:
Refsum was proud of his position as University Library bookbinder. He often used the title on book labels and in advertisements.
From time to time, he published books or catalogues with articles about book-art and took care to include advertisements for his works.
The books and catalogues were often equipped with different sets of endpapers, obviously a deliberate move on his part which had the aim to promote his decorated paper and make more samples visible.Samples are shown in the photographic display.
In addition, one or multiple original decorated paper-samples were mounted inside the books.
His production is massive – as you can see from this advertising leaflet – where he announces: «personally created by me – several 1000 different patterns in stock!»
Since Refsum was the University Library’s bookbinder for 40 years (National Library since 1999), there are plenty of bindings from his hand in the collection. Unfortunately, they were seldom catalogued as such. If, or when, the bookbinder is registered in a specific copy, this data will normally be in a non-searchable category in the electronic catalogue, making it difficult to find these books. In the private bindings, Refsum usually put a stamp or a label, but neither the private nor the library bindings are dated. The book’s printing year can give some indication – for instance four volumes written by the same author printed between 1905 and 1916 were bound to look like a series, using similar materials, with the top edges equipped with the same printed pattern. Moreover, these volumes were purchased from one collector. These are all factors which make it likely that they were bound simultaneously, probably sometime after the last book was printed in 1916.
Refsum’s advertisements and illustrated books and catalogues may also add information:
Apart from such evidence, we can only speculate whether variations of similar patterns might have been created in the same period or could also be something Refsum picked up later.
In addition to the important influences Refsum got from the States, he followed the European development in artistic bookbinding reforms with great interest and he made plenty of study trips to Europe, partly with public funding. He sought out the greatest bookbinders of the time, including Anker Kyster in Denmark (mentioned previously), Arvid Hedberg in Sweden, Paul Kersten in Germany and Roger Payne, W. T. Morell and Douglas Cockerell in the UK.He wrote about his travels in many issues of the journal of the Norwegian bookbinder masters’ association, see Bogbindernes blad – organ for Norges bogbindermestre, from 1911 called Bogbindermesteren.
Refsum´s greatest aim was to elevate the bookbinding profession in Norway in both educational, practical, as well as a technical and aesthetic manner.Tveterås 2021, nbl.snl.no/H_M_Refsum He developed rational working methods, some of which he even patented, and it was essential to him to deliver high quality at reasonable prices. He was preoccupied with and invested tireless work to promote his profession, whether by personal experiments or in cooperation with Norwegian artists.
Refsum played an entirely dominant role within the craft. In the Norwegian association for Master Bookbinders, he was practically permanent chairman for many years, he was a member of virtually all committees dealing with the craft, and his professional authority reached far beyond the country’s borders. Refsum was appointed commander of Det gyldne bokbind (the golden bookbinding).Haugstøl 1950, p. 184
Finally, I wish to quote the art historian Henrik Grevenor: «Refsum was to Norway, what William Morris was to England».Kielland, Nygård-Nilssen og Sommerfeldt 1937, p. 28 Indeed, he represented a renewal of the bookbinding profession in Norway. He had the necessary qualifications, a sense for artistic qualities and workmanship, and, above all, a steady and optimistic energy.
Hans Mathæus Refsum died in 1936. He is buried in Vestre Gravlund cemetary, Oslo.Tveterås 2021, nbl.snl.no/H_M_Refsum