Monday, November 23, 2015

A Bookbinder’s Miscellany

Middleton, Bernard. A Bookbinder’s Miscellany. Alan Isaac Rare Books: Oxford, England, 2015. Octavo, 114 pp, 225 x 158mm, illustrated, colour plates and line drawings by the author, blue cloth, gilt. Edition of 500. Essays on Fine Binding, with an Introduction by Sam Ellenport. £27 + £9 s/h from Alan Isaac Rare Books.

Reviewed by Abigail Bainbridge

When A Bookbinder’s Miscellany by Bernard Middleton (Alan Isaac Rare Books: Oxford, England, 2015) came in the mail I was surprised to see that inside the little limited-edition blue cloth binding was a selection of articles that Middleton wrote between 1951 and 1976. I had assumed the “miscellany” in the title referred to a collection of recent reflections on his long and distinguished career as a bookbinder rather than a collection of articles mostly written in his mid-20s, just at the beginning.

One or two were familiar to me but for the most part these articles were new, and the overriding impression in reading the book is that of listening to a conversation that started without you. The themes are familiar—amateur vs. trade binders, English vs. French styles, the decline of skills and loss of the big bookbinding firms, worry over the future of the craft. But it’s quite interesting to hear them as they happened in the moment rather than, as I had assumed, in the form of present-day recollections. There’s no editing for hindsight nor, much to my delight, the youthful bravado and brashness of young Bernard compared to the unassuming politeness of present-day Bernard. I started writing down passages that made me laugh (from the page of the first article, on the subject of a badly-bound book: “If I had been so unwise as to exert myself in opening the book there is no doubt that I should have done it (or myself!) an injury…”) and in the end stopped because I was virtually copying down the whole book.

As I worked my way through the articles, fully intending to skim read but ending up lingering on each one, I kept an eye on the dates given at the beginning for when the article was first published. We were on 1951 for so long that I eventually went back to count up and saw that there were seven published that year – in Paper & Print and British Colonial Printer – and the pace doesn’t seem to slow in 1952; presumably there were others that didn’t make the cut for the book. Bernard was 27 then, and though they’re not generally very lengthy articles, one has the impression of a prolific early career in writing as well as bookbinding that set the stage for his later books, The Restoration of Leather Bindings (American Library Association: 1972), A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique (Hafner: 1963), and Recollections: My Life in Bookbinding (Bird & Bull Press: 1995).

An introduction by Middleton and Alan Isaac gives an overview of the profession and the process of bookbinding, illustrated with a few pages of color photos taken by Isaac that do help illustrate the points despite sometimes unhelpful angles (eg. from the side when trying to show an unevenly rounded spine, so that the unevenness is not very apparent) and distracting backgrounds. The introduction was a helpful orientation to someone who hasn’t trained as a trade binder or has limited experience, although one would probably need to have a certain level of experience to get much out of this book as a base level of knowledge on the part of the reader is assumed. Some interesting changes in perspective are visible here; when describing squares 2015 Middleton indicates that “Taste has historically dictated the dimensions of the squares… they should be proportionate, neither excessively large or mincingly small,” (5) though 1954 Middleton cautions that “Small square are neat and impart an air of refinement, whereas large ones give the binding a heavy ledger-like appearance” (71).

The articles that follow are in no particular subject order but one can nevertheless group them into a few categories. There are, of course, notes on technique: “The Supported French Groove,” “The Art of Covering with Leather,” “Notes on the Hand Sewing of Books,” “Facsimile Printing.” These are practical but still filled with notes that help explain why things might be done a certain way, or that give context to the style of the times, often with a nod towards how things used to be done either in terms of fashion or to lament a loss of skill or market for such objects. There are quite a few that focus on the differences between binding in England and elsewhere: “Notes on Craft Bookbinding in Paris,” “Two Bookbinding Exhibitions: Abstract Motif in Irish Work,” “Book Review: American Bindings of the Finest Quality.” In these, and in parts of other articles, Middleton studiously compares technique, aesthetic, and practice, often to comedic effect as in this description of a French binder using their typical paring knife rather than a spokeshave to reduce a whole skin, “The girl I watched … was working on it when I arrived and was still prodding away at it when I left the bindery 20 minutes later. … [The spokeshave] has come into general use in England only during the last 30 years, or so, and there are still a few members of the old school who prefer French knives and look capable of slicing human skin if it is suggested that they are out-dated” (49).

In “Controversial Thoughts on the Decoration of Fine Binding” as well as throughout other articles, Middleton argues for book design to follow all other household objects in becoming sleek, smooth, and modern. I was interested to see him advocate for a smooth spine, because raised bands lead one to decorate in the old-fashioned styles. There is much lamenting throughout that those with the money to pay for fine bindings tend to be older, thus (understandably, he says) tend towards old-fashioned styles, and this combined with poor education in design leads to books made with little imagination. I would have quite liked to see images of his bindings from the time, compared to those he does not prefer, and I wonder what he thinks now about the ideal style for a binding.

Other articles give portraits of great names in bookbinding, such as Sydney Cockerell, Thomas Harrison, Roger Powell, and Arthur Johnson: “Fine Binding: A Craft and its Craftsmen,” and “He Was a Good Man and a Friend to All (Thomas Harrison)”. One name that appears quite a few times throughout with a lot of respect is William Matthews, who I knew only as the “Mr Matthews” who taught Maureen Duke, who in turn taught me. In the way that when I now teach, my students hear Maureen’s familiar refrains (“Give it a bit of lick!”), I heard Mr. Matthews’ through her, like stories of my parents’ grandparents that I never knew. An inevitable positive aspect to working in such a small field is the persistence of ghosts, the passing of not only knowledge from generation to generation, but of people.

The best way to experience this book must be to sit with it and Bernard at the same time, so that after every other sentence one could look up and pepper him with questions. One has the feeling, especially in the concluding piece written for the book by Bernard, that there are still so many stories there wasn’t room to print.

Abigail Bainbridge is a book & paper conservator. She is the conservation science lecturer for the MA in book & paper conservation program at Camberwell College of Arts (London) and is Associate Tutor in the book conservation department at West Dean College. She is also occasional short course tutor at the London Center for Book Arts and Women's Studio Workshop (US). Abigail is a member of ICON and the treasurer of its Book & Paper Group. She can be found online at

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bind-O-Rama 2015 - Celebrating the Art of the Blook

Hanging Out by Dorothy Krause, Ft. Lauderdale, FL

From the Introduction by Mindell Dubansky

"... The thirteen entries in the blook-themed Bind-O-Rama are a diverse group of objects inspired by personal stories, real and imagined texts and historic book objects. While some are closely related to known book objects, others take a more abstract approach, reminding me of how artists see a single challenge from many perspectives. Some of the entries are more blookish than others. Barbara Hebard and Jana Pullman’s entries are traditional blooks modeled on the leather-bound rare book boxes made since the nineteenth century to protect precious bindings. Jana’s boxes are empty, awaiting something precious to protect worthy of the their beauty. Barbara’s box has a specific function as a reliquary in honor of St. Anthony, patron saint of bookbinders. Paula Krieg’s Phone Book is modeled on the traditional book safe. Her work carries a strong emotional and social message, as well as performing the traditional roles of protection, containment and secrecy.

Some of the works have been inspired by traditional multi-functional book objects. Anita Balkun’s blooks are shrine-like pieces reminiscent of cumdachs, medieval book-style reliquaries. Both contain relics and reminiscences of the men she honors in these sculptures. Two works emulate traditional book-style board and card games. Carolyn Leigh’s piece Al-quirq/Checkers and Draughts is an intriguing cross-cultural variation of the classic faux two-volume book-style game board, usually made for playing chess, checkers and backgammon; Charlene Matthews' Traveling Dominos is an elegant version of a traditional book-style card game enclosure and Dorothy Krause’s wearable book Hanging Out, a souvenir of her trip to Rome is reminiscent of many souvenir books, wearable and otherwise..."

See all the entries at

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Society of Bookbinders International Bookbinding Competition 2015

The Society of Bookbinders International Bookbinding Competition 2015, Edited by Arthur Green and Hannah Brown, Dorchester, UK: printed by Henry Ling, Ltd.; published by The Society of Bookbinders, 2015. GBP 22.50, available from the Society of Bookbinders.

Reviewed by Barbara Adams Hebard

In the age of electronic devices, on-line exhibitions have frequently become the chosen venue for displays of bookbindings. While I completely understand the usefulness of this mode – wider audience, less cost, global curators and exhibitors, possibility of showing large numbers and multiple views of books, running the exhibit for an extended period of time, and so forth – I still appreciate seeing images of books in print form. The Society of Bookbinders International Bookbinding Competition 2015 catalogue, printed to accompany a physical exhibit of the same title which ran from August 20-23, 2015, is a lasting legacy of that show held at Keele University. The award-winning books could later be seen through November 5, 2015 at George Bayntun, Fine Bindings and Rare Books, Bath, and then, in a final venue, at Shepherds, London, November 14, 2015 through January 8, 2016. If you missed the show in August and will not be travelling to London in the near future, all is not lost; this catalogue beautifully captured the eighty-five bookbindings in the exhibit. [Publisher's note: The online version of the catalog linked to above only shows the competition's award winners]

Since I am a bookbinder, I immediately began my investigation of the catalogue by poring over the pages containing the book images. Right off, I was delighted to find that prize-winning entries in all five entrance categories were shown with good-sized whole book images and a second, closer view of a detail of the book. At least one book in each of the entrance categories was given two images as well. The fact that there were five categories is marvelous, including fine binding, complete book, case binding, restoration, and historical binding. The judges must have had a challenging time choosing the prize-winning entries; the catalogue is filled with fantastic bindings. I have to say, though, that Andrew Sims’s sumptuous Harleian-style binding in Morocco covering the Book of Common Prayer stands out as a masterful example of hand-tooling, and so expertly resembles 18th century style that it is not surprising as the selection for the Fine Cut International Award for Finishing. This is the sort of binding that inspires the admiration of fellow bookbinders as well as book collectors.

The Book of Common Prayer by Andrew Sims

Visite au Petit Matin by Ingela Dierick

Sims’s binding featured a number of floral decorative motifs; several other books also had floral themes, albeit very different in style. Ingela Dierick created a lovely, delicate bouquet of onlaid leather flowers in a design that charmingly sweeps from the front board to the back, suggestive of a guest handing flowers to a hostess, as in the theme of the book, Visite au Petit Matin. Abigail Bainbridge’s journal, Herbarium, covered in a vellum binding entrapping pressed flowers and foliage, dramatically evokes lavishly illuminated 15th century manuscript leaves or early embroidered bindings.

Herbarium by Abigail Bainbridge

Pan by Peter D. Verheyen

Bainbridge was not the only one who imaginatively used vellum to convey a theme in deceptively simple-appearing binding style. Peter Verheyen, whom I have long considered a master of subtle, elegant bindings, has achieved this with the natural-toned vellum covering Eight Wood Engravings on a Theme of Pan. The variation of color on the surface of the vellum reveals the markings of the fur originally attached to that skin, quickly reminding an observer that Pan, the subject of the engravings, has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat. Additionally, the use of snakeskin with a pattern boldly resembling vertebrae on the spine of the binding, and the placement of the sewing supports, make this a pleasingly proportioned design. Karen Hanmer, too, exploits the character of vellum in a limp binding used to encase The Anatomical Exercises of Doctor William Harvey: Concerning the Motion of the Heart and Blood. While she used only four illustrations from the text to embellish the cover (arms with accentuated veins), the prominent veining on the vellum surface completes the message.

The Anatomical Exercises of Doctor William Harvey by Karen Hanmer

A Midsommer Nights Dreame by Dominic Riley

In bright contrast to the vellum bindings, books in variegated hues are represented in this catalogue as well. Using black goatskin with multicolor onlays and gold tooling for the cover of A Midsommer Nights Dreame, Dominic Riley skillfully put together a bookbinding which is both eye-catching and displays admirable control of technique. The gold-tooled lines forming the shape of the palace arches introduce depth to the flat plane of the boards, causing the bright colors of the trees and banner to appear to hover dreamily over the surface. Erin Fletcher, the only North Bennet Street School Bookbinding Program graduate whose work was in the exhibit, did her school proud with a nicely executed binding for The Nightingale and the Rose. An inlaid scarlet goatskin line visually pierces the book’s spine, and the embroidered feathers of the bird onlaid to the upper board add dimension to the cover. You can read about it being bound here.

The Nightingale and the Rose by Erin Fletcher

One could go on describing other excellent books, but the truth is, bookbinders need to see the catalogue for themselves. The bookbindings, made using multiple techniques and materials, signal that this is not a dying craft and that binders are still experimenting/experiencing new ways to use their skills and design arts to create unique books.

Once I had savored the books, I returned to the beginning of the catalogue to discover that, in addition to the beautiful images of books, there are other enjoyable features to this catalogue. The warm-hearted tone of the introduction draws the reader in, and the brief history of the society will be useful to those who are not bookbinders. Listing sponsors up front is a good move and having the entrance categories spelled out is very helpful. The images of the tools of the trade tucked in the gutters and margins of the introductory pages nicely balance out the text. I had a couple of minor quibbles: the Contents page repeats the case binding category and the names of the bookbinders in that category, which is confusing; and the countries of origin of the binders are printed in faint grey tone—since it was an international exhibit, I thought that should be emphasized more.

The Society of Bookbinders has produced a great catalogue to accompany their 2015 international bookbinding competition. It will remain a record of that show and those who enjoy bookbindings or books about bookbinding should consider adding this volume to their collection.

Barbara Adams Hebard was trained in bookbinding at the North Bennet Street School. She was Book Conservator at the Boston Athenaeum for 18 ½ years and became the Conservator of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College in 2009. Ms. Hebard writes book related articles and book reviews, gives talks and presentations, exhibits her bookbindings nationally and internationally, and teaches book history classes. She is a Fellow of IIC, a Professional Associate of AIC, and an Overseer of the North Bennet Street School.