Sunday, November 3, 2013

Bind-O-Rama 2013 - Cut-away Binding Structure Models

The Book Arts Web annual online exhibition is now online. 

Click on graphic to view. 

Cut-away binding structure models are a unique challenge in bookbinding - they call for mastery of a technique, thoughful planning of design to best show the underlying structure, and extreme neatness - all to illustrate the complete essence of a particular binding style. Models may range from historical to proofs-of-concept for experimental bindings (something more binders should do). These theme was chosen as the 2013 Bind-O-Rama in response to requests from conservators and others among the members of this community.

May they be useful and inspiring to all.

Enjoy, Peter

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Book Art Studio Handbook

Stacie Dolin and Amy Lapidow. Book Art Studio Handbook.   Beverly, MA: Quarry Books, 2013. ISBN 78-1592538188. 160 pages. $18.74.

Reviewed by Laura Capp

As a soon-to-be graduate from an MFA program in Book Arts, I have officially begun to hoard reference books.  When the experienced binders, printers, papermakers, and calligraphers I’ve been privileged to learn from are no longer just down the hall, I suspect I will be relying much more heavily on my library for the guidance, advice and inspiration that anyone setting up their own studio will inevitably need.  This is chiefly why my heart leapt for joy at the title of one of the latest instructional manuals in the book arts world:  Stacie Dolin and Amy Lapidow’s Book Art Studio Handbook, published by Quarry Books.

This manual is organized into two parts.  The first, “Getting Started,” introduces the tools one will need to set up a home studio as well as the basic steps any bookbinding project will typically require, such as determining the grain and calculating the amount of paper necessary.  I was especially glad to see a technique covered for trimming textblocks since one of the major drawbacks of graduating, in my mind, is losing access to a board shear.  This section, totaling about one quarter of the book, is most useful for those new to bookbinding or new to working in a more modestly equipped studio.

Part Two, “Studio Projects,” speaks to a broader audience, offering step-by-step instructions for twelve different sample bindings, subdivided into sections on albums, books, enclosures, and advanced projects.  Each section opens with an attentive and intelligent list of questions that will help the user to make considered decisions about the binding and materials based on his or her intentions for the book, and every project is accompanied by thorough photo documentation as well as clear, concise step-by-step instructions.  A brief gallery of the projects presented in the handbook and variations on them concludes the manual.

I would call myself an intermediate binder, having taken three semester-long bookbinding classes, and most of the structures in Book Art Studio Handbook are happily either new to me or are significant enough variations on structures I’ve learned that I’m curious to try them.  Rather than treading on the familiar ground of pamphlets, accordions, basic case bindings, Coptics, and so forth, Dolin and Lapidow provide structures that offer different avenues of exploration, at least for someone with a few years’ experience, and that are accessible to a range of binders.

To test out the project instructions, I put together both the “5-Minute Slipcase” and the “Tacketed Book.”  I found the steps for both projects to be intelligibly described and the photos informative and ample in number – easier for me to make sense of, certainly, than the illustrations often accompanying bookbinding instructions.  The result for the 5-Minute Slipcase project is a sweet little case that is a cinch to put together.  However, while this particular project is meant to be more decorative than durable – as Dolin and Lapidow point out themselves – it is quite fragile, and I would have been glad to spend a few more minutes on the case in exchange for better sturdiness.  Or, given that the 5-Minute Slipcase is quite attractive as a concept, Dolin and Lapidow might also have offered some suggestions on modifications that would achieve other effects or objectives.  The project, for instance, calls for decorative paper; using stiffer paper that still scores and folds well would be an easy way to make the case sturdier.  Having used decorative paper for my version, I opted to slip some 10-point card into the sides of the case and add double-stick tape at the seams for a slightly stronger, crisper product that feels, to me, like it has better longevity.

The "Tacketed Book" is similar in construction to a long-stitch except that the sewing is not continuous; rather, it ties off at every pair of sewing stations, essentially creating staples out of thread.  For this project, there were some slight errors in the instructions that threw me off for a spell (it calls for five sections in the materials list and later refers to the model as having seven sections; it also says that one should “segment the width of the template by the number of sections minus one” [Page 74] when I believe it should be plus one), but I sifted through that and came out with a neat little structure I’m happy to have made.

Book Art Studio Handbook ultimately offers a nice range of bookbinding projects with strong visual and written instructions, but I do confess that the title itself feels imprecise for what the book sets out to do.  “Book art” is no doubt an umbrella term for a wide variety of material objects that utilize hand-sewn bindings, handmade paper, letterpress printing, calligraphy / handlettering, or any combination thereof.  As such, “book art” is not misused in this title, but given the wide-ranging meaning of the phrase and given the fact that the manual focuses exclusively on binding structures, Book Structures Handbook or Bindings for the Home Studio would, perhaps, offer a slightly more circumscribed description of the contents.  I had hoped that Book Art Studio Handbook might also be more focused on the “studio” part of that equation than it ultimately is.  While it does catalog the tools needed to set up a home studio, the title had me dreaming of photographs of actual binders’ studios. Dolin and Lapidow state, at one point, that they “know bookbinders who work in large studios and bookbinders who work in a dedicated corner of their kitchen” [Page 12].  I would have loved to see some examples, even briefly, of this range, but the details are regrettably left up to the imagination.  The first section of the book, “Getting Started,” might have been more beneficial to intermediate and advanced binders by going beyond an introduction to tools and techniques and delving into greater specificity about methods of storage and the organizational logic of experienced binders’ studios.

That said, what is offered up in the pages of Dolin and Lapidow’s Book Art Studio Handbook is well worth the time and exploration.  Offering instruction on the page rather than in a classroom no doubt puts teachers at some disadvantage, and yet Dolin and Lapidow manage to convey the expertise, enthusiasm, inspiration, and encouragement that students are always hungry for.  It is a manual I am grateful to have in my library, and when the impulse to hoard reference books becomes its own storage problem (as it soon will), Stacie Dolin and Amy Lapidow’s Book Art Studio Handbook is one that I will be hanging onto.

[The New England Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers held a virtual exhibition of bindings on or inspired by Book Art Studio Handbook. Click here to view.]

Laura Capp holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa with an emphasis in Victorian and modernist British literature and is currently an MFA candidate at the Center for the Book, specializing in calligraphy and letterpress printing. She is the recipient of the University of Iowa’s Presidential and Grant Wood Fellowships and has had her work featured in Letter Arts Review. Laura also has over ten years of experience teaching literature and calligraphy courses. For more information and images of her work, visit her online at

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bind-O-Rama 2013 - Cut-away Binding Structure Models

Historic Cut-away Binding Structure Models

Entries due OCTOBER 31
Details and entry form below

These can be historic or contemporary, complex or simple, but should be exquisitely and creatively crafted to reveal the layers of the book. Examples can be seen in the University of Iowa Library's digital collection from the conservation lab, or see below for an example of a German-style springback.

Happy binding and look forward to your entries by OCTOBER 31.. Details and entry form below

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Suave Mechanicals, Volume 1: Essays on the History of Bookbinding

Julia Miller (Editor). Suave Mechanicals, Volume 1: Essays on the History of BookbindingAnn Arbor, Michigan: Legacy Press, 2013-. ISBN  0979797454 9780979797453. 538 pages + DVD. $85.00.

Reviewed by Deborah Howe

Picking up the volume of Suave Mechanicals is serious business. Not only is it robust and heavy in physical weight, a well-rounded three and a half pounds, but it contains nine densely academic book history essays which take the reader into a detailed appreciation of what books can tell us when we pay attention and listen. Being a practitioner and not a scholar, I was a bit intimidated to agree to write this review (I thank Peter Verheyen for that), but none the less I was challenged and invigorated by the ways in which this volume creates new pathways and foundational research into our field of book history.

The title of this book is taken from the exhibition of the same name, Suave Mechanicals, held at the University of Michigan in 2003 and curated by the author. In Barlett's review of the exhibit posted 5/1/2003 she says:
The exhibit title is Julia Miller's riff on Shakespeare's characterization of the amateur actors in A Midsummer Night's Dream as "rude mechanicals." It sums up her view of these books as information machines with moving parts that are also objects of sophisticated beauty – that are "suave" – like Cary Grant... with a little age, a little patina, a real character of beauty.
Each chapter in Millers book represents a "Mechanical," with a unique story. Yet much of the research intersects, producing a multi-faceted narrative, many of the stories supporting each other in tangent fashion. Seven of the nine essays concern investigations into a specific collection of books; Evyn Kropf, Sylvie L. Merian, Consuela (Chela) Metzger, Julia Miller, Martha E. Romero, Jennifer W. Rosner and John Townsend, the other two essays, Robert J. Milevski and Jeffrey S. Peachey, focus on a part of book history production.

Reading the table of contents, it appears that the chapters were ordered as an alphabetical list by author and I read them as such. But by the conclusion of the book I think it would better serve the reader to arrange them in a thematic fashion, ordering them so that essays that pair well together would be read succinctly. The similarities would have a continuous reflective flow and would give the book a more united cohesiveness by the conclusion.

In reviewing these essays I have associated them into my own sub groups as I saw parallels, overlaps and associations.

Three of the essays focus on collections that are outside of the American tradition.

Islamic, Armenian and Mexican:

In her essay Kropf focuses on the repair of the books as opposed to how they were bound. Her scholarly approach to the 245 items examined from a collection of 1,090 illustrates the “phenomena observed” in the repair techniques of her study group. The books are from the Islamic manuscript collection at the University of Michigan dating from the ninth to twentieth century CE with texts primarily in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. It is one of the largest collections of such material in North America. The current ongoing cataloging of this collection includes notes stating the types of repair and whether or not it was performed by a craftsman or layperson from the Islamic tradition. Kropf emphasizes the various nuances in describing this new nomenclature; such as the difference between an original wrapper made for an unsewn text block versus a previous cover being reused for a wrapper for a text block that has come unsewn. She references the use of Martha Little's "Evidence of Structure and Procedure in Books: Selected Examples of Potential Clues" as a helpful resource when trying to decode, record and establish the history of a book through physical evidence. This level of description is a valuable reinforcement of how important this detailed information is to the development and comprehension of the history of the book. Kropf and the cataloging team have approached this project in all the right ways.

For a student of Islamic studies or someone with a cursory knowledge of Islamic history, Kropf’s writing will be a delightful read; she highlights vocabulary for specific Arabic words often giving the English/Arabic equivalents such as: Mudarris, meaning teacher and a particular type of paper, Talhi, made in Egypt during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, named after a ruler of the time. These details enrich the essay and help establish the foundation on which her research is predicated.

A refrain that is reiterated throughout this volume is the awareness for the necessity of more research, continuing on the efforts presented here. Kropf solicits suggestions for new venues of research based on her preliminary findings. For the new generations of conservator/scholars or for those of us mature practitioners, who are so inclined, this direct call to duty is stimulating and reminds us of our critical role in perceiving and recording these clues to the past.

Merian’s article focuses on the unusual additions to the covers of Armenian bindings often found between the 17th and 19th century on Christian religious texts which were often gospels. She then explores the history, cultural background, and modern significance of these books. Then systematically illustrates examples of all the different shapes of amulets she has found such as: oval shapes, like that of an "evil eye," hands, faces, coins and engraved seal stones. As she goes through each type of amulet she vividly describes the text and books on which they are mounted, often connecting together the content of the books with why they may have certain types of amulets attached to them. We are familiar with crosses being attached to bindings but as Merian states, these are used as a decorative component. The items she is studying are inferred to be a form of votive offering, placed randomly over the covers, which makes these bindings so interesting.

Many of the mounted objects are in the shape of an eye, "the evil eye" that Merian explains extensively by delving into the Armenian culture and the significance of what it is to have "the evil eye;" it’s not something I would have expected to read in a book about books but it does provide a refreshing diversion to the focused and concentrated study of the books themselves.

She incorporates surveys done by doctors and ethnographers to ascertain current beliefs in the evil eye and reveals how these soldiers of power have been decorated to protect and fortress homes, bodies and even towns and are considered as talisman. The Red Gospels, Karmir Awedaran, hold special power and are thought to work miracles. One of my favorite notes of interest was an example of giving human attributions to these books in the form of kidnappings and then being held for ransom – if a book was kidnapped it was recorded in the colophon.

What I wish to know more about is where or who would have made these objects, and where one might have purchased or obtained them. Merian suggests that for the most part these are only appearing on bindings but could they have also been attached to other items that had power or reverence within the family or church. Some of the images reminded me of the Mexican Milagros found attached to altars to aid in healing.

Since I was not familiar with these types of bindings before, I found the accompanying photos rich in detail. They covered all aspects of her research, even showing these books in the hands of current owners. The footnotes are more than citations and provide the reader with additional relevant information and fascinating details of these amazing books.

In Romero’s chapter we learn that Mexico was the first location of a printing press on the American continent in 1539 with the aim to accelerate the evangelization of the indigenous people. Drawing on a collection of 47 books, printed in Mexico and located in a variety of collections, Romero forms a vision of what publishing and book production was like at the cusp of printing in the "New Spain."

She brings the reader into the streets and the times, where the mix of cultures blended and different races existed side by side, where all text printed had to be approved by the ecclesiastical and vice-regal authorities and every detail of commerce was recorded by the Casa de Contratacion, the agency that kept tight records on what was being imported. This useful information is critical for her study, as she can conclude from it what types of supplies were being shipped. This included types of books, details on how they were bound or not bound, paper coming from Italy and France, these supply inventories reflected what was needed in the new society. They establish what was cheaper to import versus making products from raw materials and considers the question whether or not there was available skilled labor to even produce products. Perhaps these accounts and supply inventories are recorded in ledger or account books which we learn about later in Metzger’s chapter, were they bound in Mexico or shipped over already bound? Once again these types of connections between the essays enrich and create a new broader understanding of the commerce and economic development of the book trade on the American continent.

It is assumed that a book carrying the Mexico imprint was also bound in Mexico. But not many books survived, since they would have been in high demand and received heavy use. Romero breaks the process of binding down step by step, so a reader only somewhat familiar with the binding processes will be able to follow along. The folding of signatures, beating (which we can reference Peachey), endsheet construction, sewing and then lacing on the covers with the variant patterns, all of this she examines with detail and links it with possible European influences, trying to decipher fact with what may be conjecture. Many of the books in the study group are limp vellum showing various styles of lacing techniques, which can help determine the different European influences. The techniques of binding were carried over on the ships by binders and publishers but since New Spain was a mix of all types of peoples there were varied influences on the bindings being produced. Once the book trade established itself in New Spain, there was a need for more bookbinders, this in turn allowed for more adaptations and permutation of technique as the new Mexican binders developed their own styles.

I think as more books are discovered that have been bound in Mexico at this time, Romero, or other scholars, will be able to form more conclusive and definitive facts on how this new society absorbed or rejected those traditions which were carried over from the establishing cultures. We see this same type of dynamic in Metzger, Miller and Townsend, where the examination of Colonial development in America reflects the development of the book trade, such as how printers had to play more than one role and were often the binders and sales men and how local materials were adapted (scaleboard bindings: Miller and Townsend) because other materials were costly to import. What is insightful is that Romero’s study puts Mexico on the map in the history of bookbinding development and is pivotal in examining how a new society grew and developed in regards to its book production.

The American Way:

The next group of essays focuses on book production in America, although there is ample background discussion on the traditions in London and Europe and how they swayed and influenced binding in America. The books examined in this group range from what I would call the street urchins of the time, (Metzger, Miller and Townsend) to the luxury elite society bindings of  papier-mâché or mother of pearl, (Rosner).

The unique world of account books is discussed by Metzger, who examined 63 account books from the Winterthur Library that were produced pre-1800. The beginning of the essay takes us on a brief journey into the history of accounting, where the significant influence of single or double entry or "In the Italian Fashion," was critical in how account books were designed and issued. Book keeping was an elementary aspect of the basic teaching principles, like that of reading and writing. Metzger does a meticulous job in describing the realm of blank book and stationers shops versus the industry of publishing. She uses and refers to standard references of definitions and defines these usages for the reader such as: a blank book is one intended to be written in. The overall sensation and essence of the climate in which these account books were bought, used, and passed on is aptly relayed to the reader through Metzger’s descriptions.

The second part of her essay summarizes comprehensive observations of a select few from the 63, introducing us to the owners and what they wrote, along with descriptions of unique physical attributes from the bindings themselves. These are divided into two groups: "bound in England or in America with the English technique" and the second group, those "likely to be bound in the Colonies." Metzger like Romero is developing the research and background on a pivotal point in the development of the book trade and commerce by studying books bound at this time. It is exactly this type of investigation that is needed to establish important contexts and connections in book history.

The descriptions are intimate, Metzger’s passion and admiration for these books is tangible giving the reader an opportunity to discover a new appreciation of these well-loved and used bindings. She gives as much detail to the contents and owners as to the bindings. Account books were often used for writing personal information, and through Metzger’s eye we see the beauty and grace of each binding and how it bears witness to its time and place. The fact that an account book may travel though many generations of a family and what that family did, as illustrated by Preserved Pierce, who had a boat selling house hold wares, stimulates the reader whereby they might be inclined to take a closer look and find out more about the people within the pages.

Miller and Townsend go hand in hand in describing the setting of the times and reviewing the style of books we know as scaleboard bindings. These are simple no frills simple bindings, using wood for the boards, often covered in plain, sometimes blue paper with very little decoration. These rough bindings have gone unnoticed in the past, not drawing too much attention to themselves. Miller has taken the initiative and has recognized the significance of these, true Sauve Mechanicals, and has brought them out into the limelight to expose their intrinsic value and role in the development of our culture. Describing the various nuances and styles she finds throughout her survey group of 858 books, which derive from six collections, she concludes that perhaps these bindings were mainly produced in Boston and then sent out to the surrounding environs. The number of accompanying photos is extensive and compliments her narrative. Within her essay she compiles a list of firsts; these citations earmark the first date of an example of a particular element, such as: stuck on end bands or gold tooling. There is also a "Scaleboard Binding Typology Survey Form" (long). This is not only practical as a reference guide but it is a tool which can be immediately incorporated into a conservator’s repertoire of documentation.

She acknowledges and evaluates the lack of truly important scholarly work that focuses on the aspect of bindings rather than the history of the decorations. In order to enforce these aspects she says "the history of the book trade in any country is of importance – what people read, what they wanted to read, what they were allowed to read – all enter into the development not only of the reading culture of a particular country but also the social cultural and political life and development of that country." Her goal is to teach and inform us and she asks the reader: "Do you know more about scaleboard binding than you did when you began reading?" I would emphatically say yes, and therefore am fulfilling her first goal.

Townsend’s study group is a narrow one, examining six bindings of the same imprint of the Mohawk Prayer Book, 1715, printed by William Bradford. He is able to establish provenance of some of the copies and comes to conclusions that these are original bindings done by the printer himself, William Bradford. Townsend's echoes much of Miller's descriptive narrative, but he examines some aspects in more detail such as how the boards were fashioned. (with help from Peachey’s research). What he brings to this study by examining such a defined group is the opportunity to really scrutinize a very particular moment in history. His writing is fluid and conversational; it’s easy to follow along his journey in tracking down and examining his books. He is pragmatic and yet engages the reader on a level that is both enjoyable and inquisitive; it’s a bit like solving a mystery.

From the plain everyday simple domestic life of the colonial books, in Rosner’s essay we are transported forward in time into the bustling streets of New York and Philadelphia, where the middle class is tantalized daily with exquisite imports and shimmering objects. These bindings are all about show and finesse. Rosner, started seeing these bindings at the Library Company, where she is the conservator, and realized not much had been written about them. Her essay gives us a thorough background into the development of these book covers, the companies which produced them and how they transformed from an object product to book covers. These could be considered gaudy by some, but I find them beautiful and the vast array of photos only reinforces their splendor. This is an essay about a very select type of binding that was produced for a very short time in the 1850’s for a targeted audience. Rosner takes her study a step further by producing a set of covers herself. Following instructions intended for "ladies" of the time, she explains step by step her experiences and shares the resulting papier-mâché covers. This particular aspect of her essay I find refreshing as it is something that I could envision trying myself and by doing so I would experience firsthand the complexities of such an item that is part of our historical story.

Process and Labels:

I had never really considered the beating process, one of the "three formative elements of bookbinding" until I took Peachey’s class on “Late 18th Century French Binding Structure" taught at the Paper and Book Intensive in 2010. We see the evidence of hammering and beating illustrated in the many images of historical binderies, which Peachey aptly shows us in his many photos, but this process is not taught anymore. The essay does an excellent job in portraying the history and reasoning behind this process, from the first days of hammering to the last days of pressing and rolling, he highlights in details all aspects of this critical process in our book production history. If you are already familiar with his blog,, you will know that he is our leading expert in all ways of the tools of our trade and his research on them has been an enormous contribution to the surrounding history and development of the book trade.

His descriptions are so vivid that after reading this essay I felt tired from imagining the amount of force and arm strength required to produce the required compression of signatures. As book conservators we are trained to handle these books with care and a gentle touch and yet knowing how they were produced under such harsh circumstances one gets a very new perspective. After doing this myself, it is amazing the difference in the feel of a text block after it has been beaten, I think we feel this intuitively because of all the books we handle, but to actually go through the process is to know it, and understand and see the affects it has on the finished product.

I think everyone interested in the production of books should try beating, as far I am aware it’s not taught anymore and I’m not sure why not. Perhaps my colleagues at North Bennet Street School may be able to change that!

What I enjoyed about Rosner’s and Peachey’s essays was the practical side of them. Each author took the time to investigate actually performing the task at hand.

The last essay to discuss is "A Primer on Signed Bindings" by Milevski. This topic explores naming proprietorship of the binder of the book. The beginning outlines bindings that are signed directly into the cover; it takes a good eye to find the often hidden, signed stamp and Milevski shows us with detailed blow ups where these signatures are. As he moves forward in time he describes how these "signed" bindings become labels often used as advertising, and referred to as binders tickets. One significant binding ticket was found under a paste down and Milevski states this is one of the earliest known binder’s labels. He goes into detail of the many types of tickets with brief summaries of who the binders were and how the labels were produced. The many variations are wonderful to look at including his selection of foreign binders’ tickets. The more interesting labels are those which are quite explicit in an advertising sense, describing different services offered or "Likewise Books Bound after what manner you please."

Each chapter in this volume stands alone, however as a whole they complement each other so well that the cumulative information casts a wide and deep net. The chapters tie together within each topic and yet the cross over is thought-provoking and informative, going from beating books in Mexico (Romero), to the history of this step (Peachey,), both Metzger and Milevski use the same binder ticket image, and Townsend quotes research done by Miller and Peachey. What the reader takes away from this collection is so much more than what is detailed in each essay. It is the collection together with all the various background information and detailed supportive evidence, not only derived from the books themselves but from the times in which they lived and were produced. We are taken down the main streets of the topics at hand but we are then diverted down the side streets and back alleys to the nitty-gritty.

This book highlights the need for further and continued research in these subjects. Some of the research in this volume is predicated on previous established research, especially that of Szirmai, French, Spawn, and work done by Pickwoad that is referred to often, yet in this current generation there is a pressing need to establish new research. Drawing upon the practical knowledge of conservators and practitioners who have a trained eye into the observation of these books is critical to the advancement of our understanding and comprehension of how the book shaped who we were and now, as we face a new brink of changing book distribution and production it is even more critical to reflect on past historical knowledge. This book raises the level of investigative research with an eye towards merging related topics and opening up new ones. This book is definitely a critical addition to anyone’s collection, be it that of a scholar, conservator, or a student of book history.

Townsend summarizes it well as he states at the end of his essay:
"Perhaps the best way to pursue such investigations is to forget what we know, or think we know, and approach the evidence – documentary, bibliographic, physical or cultural – with a critical eye to gain a fresh look that may lead to new conclusions."
I have a great affinity and admiration for many of these authors, as they have become my close colleagues and friends over the years, generously sharing their expertise, knowledge and good will. With their practiced insight and professional standing they have brought new discoveries and awareness to the arena of book history. This book could be used as a quick reference or as a required text in a History of Book class. It establishes a new level of scholarly research and invites each one of us to become more astute and insightful when conserving and or observing these rough jewels.

Deborah Howe is the Collections Conservator at Dartmouth College Library. Previously, she headed the conservation lab at Northwestern University Library. In addition to her conservation work she has been actively involved in teaching book arts. She has taught at Columbia Center for Paper and Book, the Newberry Library, the Paper and Book Intensive and currently binding classes at the Book Arts Workshop at Dartmouth. She is a long-standing member of the Guild of Book Workers and is on the board of directors of the Morgan Conservatory in Cleveland, Ohio.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Insinuendo: Murder in the Museum

Miriam Clavir. Insinuendo: Murder in the Museum.  Calgary : Bayeux Arts, 2012. ISBN 9781897411384 1897411383. 287 pages. $15.56.

Dearest reader,
let me introduce this review by noting perhaps what is the biggest clue in the mysterious case of The Mystery Reader: I am not a reader of mysteries. Instead, I am a book conservator (among other things) who tends to stick to non-fiction and graphic novels.

In fact, I am certain that I read my very first Mystery (with a capital M, for officialness) just a few months ago. It was about a psychic who was an admitted fraud, but then who developed real psychic powers. I felt very smart for figuring out the identity of the murderer several chapters before All Was Revealed.

Insinuendo by Miriam Clavir, was my sophomore effort in the realm of Mystery Reading, and like many such efforts, I did not do quite so well at my second guessing-the-murderer attempt. I do believe this is also Miriam's sophomore effort at writing a novel as well, but I dare say she has made a much better go at it than my own feeble Gumshoe attempts.

The story takes place in the real Museum of Anthropology, part of the University of British Columbia. Our protagonist is Berenice "Berry" Cates, a 53-year old intern in the museum's conservation lab. New to the field, but not to personal hardships (such as a failed marriage as well as a failed internship), Berry finds herself thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight when a well-known antiquities dealer, Cuyler Foley, is found dead in the conservation lab and her boss, the head of the lab, is held for questioning by the Police. She starts examining, with methodical intent, the circumstances, potential motives, and possible suspects for the murder. The interpersonal politics, like the bronze statue of Pan that Cuyler was clutching when he died, turn out to be corroded in a very strange manner indeed. Many red herrings abound, and even when all is revealed at the end, the conclusion is not so much a package of loose ends neatly tied but a more realistic coda that leaves the reader to ponder: just who was the real murderer, after all?

At the beginning of the novel, Berry starts out as a self-effacing wimp who has to be reminded by her 15-years-her-junior boss that she can't just let the curators handle the artifacts any old way they want. In essence, she is still struggling to find her authority as a conservator, and I have to be honest, for the first 40 pages or so, I half-wished that she would turn out to be the murder victim just so I could be spared her whinging. However, as she is suddenly forced to take stock of the situation and avenge the reputation of the conservation department and her own highly-esteemed boss, she finally grows a spine, and becomes much more likable as a character. Her best moments are when she is completely out of her element, such as when she decides to tail one of the murder suspects in her car. She bumbles sometimes, but always in the right direction, and usually with a witty, self-deprecating internal monologue.

Museum (and library) politics can be be more heated than a Texan summer, and Clavir strikes it out of the park again for realism with her inclusion of bitter rivalries amongst departments as a plot device. The tension between curators and conservators is palpably taut. This is the part of a museum, much like the conservation lab (situated in the basement, another home run for accuracy), that most non-museum people never get to see. Because of it’s setting in a Native-art-focused museum, there’s also the added element of indigenous art politics thrown into the mix, which, as a former anthropology major, I found fascinating.

Most importantly, let me just say that this is the only novel I've read, thus far, that uses all the right vocabulary to describe the art and act of conservation. I've read several other novels featuring conservators-as-protagonists; some have been cringe-worthy, others acceptable (Robert Hellenga's The Sixteen Pleasures was my first foray into literary descriptions of the field). Given that the author is herself, a conservator, I'm not surprised about the accuracy of her portrayal of the profession. There's such a dearth of realistic portrayals of conservation and conservators in popular media that it's refreshing when an author uses "conservator" instead of "conservationist". Case in point, this quote by the protagonist herself, who mentally chafes when she is referred to as a "conservationist" by the police:
"What the hell? The "your conservationist" in question, me, Berry Cates - my lab stool was practically behind them, and they were talking as if I didn't exist..."That's conservator, by the way, not conservationist," I wanted to shout, "I have had specialized graduate training in the preservation of art and museum collections. Not trees."
All in all, I found “Insinuendo” to be a rewarding read, particularly since I didn’t have to mark up my copy with notes railing against the inaccuracy of the portrayal of my profession. It’s a compelling story, with a personable narrator, and an interesting setting that allows the reader to peek into the behind-the-scenes world of conservation, minus the rose-tinted glasses.

"The Mystery Reader," Suzy Morgan is a 2009 graduate of the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, where she received a certificate in advanced studies in conservation from the Kilgarlin Center for the Preservation of the Historic Record. She has had internships at Northwestern University, Syracuse University, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Ringling Museum of Art. She is currently the web developer at the Newberry Library and continues to work in private practice as a book conservator and preservation consultant.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

From Leipzig to London: The Life and Work of the Émigré Artist Hellmuth Weissenborn

Anna Nyburg. From Leipzig to London: The Life and Work of the Émigré Artist Hellmuth Weissenborn. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press 2012. ISBN 9781584563143. 192 pages. $29.95.

Reviewed by Stephanie Wolff

Anna Nyburg’s book, From Leipzig to London: The Life and Work of the Émigré Artist Hellmuth Weissenborn, was my first introduction to this early twentieth-century German artist and practitioner of the book arts. Nyburg, a lecturer in German at Imperial College London with a PhD in Exile Studies, explains that her book closely considers Weissenborn’s life as a whole, especially in the context of his time in exile. Weissenborn, who died in England in 1982, spent his first forty years in Germany before emigrating in 1938. He taught perspective and drawing at the Leipziger Akademie für Graphische Künste und Buchgewerbe, until he lost his job due to his wife being Jewish. Weissenborn had friends and supporters in England, including other German artist émigrés, but particularly the British writer Victor Bonham Carter. These connections proved instrumental in his ability to make a livelihood as an artist, illustrator, and publisher in his new country.

Nyburg takes the reader through a quick history of the book arts and publishing in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s and the influx of émigrés in these fields to Britain during the mid-1930s onward. Many exiles brought skills and knowledge that contributed to the cultural life of Britain, and Weissenborn was one such artist. The reader learns of his life and work, with asides concerning other notable people in the art and publishing fields.

Growing up in Leipzig, a center of publishing and book production in the early decades of the 1900s, allowed for a young Weissenborn to learn by exposure to the rich cultural life in the city. His father taught at the Leipziger Academie, where Weissenborn studied, and where he later became a professor. Many practitioners of modern graphic arts were affiliated with this school during these years, including typographer Jan Tschichold.

Weissenborn’s artistic talents included typography, drawing, painting, and printmaking, such as woodcut, linoleum, and wood engraving. His drawing and art practice appears to have been an important part of his daily life, even during his service in World War I and in his six-month internment in 1940 as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. When released, Weissenborn taught art and created illustrations and fine art. He and his first wife divorced, and he eventually began the Acorn Press with Lesley Macdonald, his second wife. The Acorn Press produced illustrated books, all with close attention to fine design, printing, and craft.

Within her narrative of Weissenborn’s life, Nyburg includes his early bookplate typography in relationship to early graphic arts and design, his art experiences in the war and internment camp, his work as a teacher, and his publishing ventures. Weissenborn used what he saw in his art: the landscape scenes in the villages through which he traveled, common objects from the routines of internment such as garbage cans and vegetables, and the bombed-out buildings in London. While his post-World War II artwork took on less dramatic subject matter, Nyburg tells of his war sketches as source material for the book illustrations in The Diary of Edward Thomas (Whittington Press) some sixty years later.

Weissenborn’s life in internment reveals his commitment to his art and craft and, as Nyburg states in her introduction, a man resourceful and adaptable. She explains how Weissenborn devised alternative materials and methods for creative expression. His printmaking involved using margarine and graphite as ink and floor covering as a printing block. The painted-over windows of his quarters became his canvas, with scratch marks revealing light and image.

Weissenborn’s teaching commenced again after his internment. Nyburg interviewed former students, and these lengthy quotes from those who knew him bring a welcome new perspective to the narrative. His excitement with the work was something he wanted his students to feel. Lola Quaife recalls, “He said, ‘Never draw unless you are excited by what you see.’” And it is a lesson she hasn’t forgotten. (p. 123) Weissenborn himself seemed to find excitement in both the remarkable and the quotidian, as his war and internment artwork demonstrates.

Nyburg portrays a man whose temperament seems to have contributed to his ability to deal with the challenging life circumstances he faced. She draws on what appears to be an extensive family archive, as well as interviews with family and friends, to do so. However, in her attempts to explain the complex nature of his personality, she includes quotations or information that complicates my understanding of him. These often occur in the examination of his familial relationships, such as with his second wife, Lesley. (p. 153). Nyburg tries to explain Weissenborn’s comments and personal feelings, but I am not sure how well this works in every instance. For example, in her discussion of his World War I journal, letters, and sketches, she compares his comments in these materials with the novel of the same war, All Quiet on the Western Front. While I appreciate her attempt to understand Weissenborn’s reaction to his war experiences, I think a comparison of a teenage soldier’s diary to a fictional story somewhat of a stretch. (p. 37) In such a short work, perhaps omitting some of these details or suppositions would have made for a clearer understanding of Weissenborn’s life, if not his character.

Despite these instances, I enjoyed this book and came away with knowledge of people and episodes in history I would like to further explore. Exposure to an artist’s work, life, and process can both inspire and teach. Contemporary practitioners of the book arts can benefit from knowledge of the historical figures in the field, even as they work in the modern practical aspects of the craft. Weissenborn lived through periods of difficult circumstances and great change, in society and technology. Whether a reader has an interest in the European book arts, or in an interesting life of the era, this book would be a good step into that world.

Stephanie Wolff is Assistant Conservator and Book Arts Instructor at the Dartmouth College Library. Her Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) degree from Dartmouth College focused on the book, including its historical, cultural, and artistic aspects. She shows her artist's books in exhibitions around the country.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Bind-O-Rama 2013 - Cut-away Binding Structure Models

While 2013 is still no longer so very, very young I would like to introduce the Bind-O-Rama theme for this year...

Historic Cut-away Binding Structure Models

These can be historic or contemporary, complex or simple, but should be exquisitely and creatively crafted to reveal the layers of the book. Examples can be seen in the University of Iowa Library's digital collection from the conservation lab, or see below for an example of a German-style springback.

Happy binding and look forward to your entries at the end of the summer OCTOBER 31.. Details and form will be out early summer real soon HERE.

Cheers, Peter

[Edit 6 July]