Volume 49 - Spring 2020


Adventures in Bookbinding

One Determined Lady Bookbinder - by George Kirkpatrick

No-one ever really seemed to know how long Miss J. had been attending evening classes in bookbinding but even as first year art students, being introduced to the concept of binding as a core subject, our knowledge of her presence was firmly established. She consistently turned up twice weekly, spectacles inevitably awry, sometimes, as one or other leg went missing, attached to her face with sticking plaster or an elastic band wrapped round a scrunched up ear.

She was a diminutive but portly lady in her mid-sixties then, and that was over fifty years ago. Nevertheless we ought to call her Miss J for the sake of propriety.


Genesis by George Kirkpatrick

No more than a few days into our course we had a skin of Oasis goatskin displayed by our despairing tutor that twenty four hours earlier had been pristine. Now it bore a jagged hole measuring six inches by four right in the centre. Miss J. had apparently liked the grain of that part best. Now it wouldn't really have mattered which part of the skin she had used for all would have been subjected to the same battle conditions and ended up looking the same.

No one was sure either when exactly she had started entering for the City and Guilds certificate exam, it was an annual event for her and by the time it came our turn a year or two later there she was once more. We paid not a lot of attention to her progress for we were all fixated on our own goals and we knew to give her wide berth. That is, until we were arrested by a sudden scream as one candidate rushed to rescue her book, on top of which Miss J had placed a sheet of millboard and was nonchalantly hacking her way through it with a Stanley knife.


Crystals by George Kirkpatrick

We had to forward a book entirely from blank paper, creating sections, endpapers, sewing, rounding and backing, edge-staining, head-banding, quarter leather and gold title in the prescribed number of hours. Suddenly however we became aware of a crisis as Miss J discovered that having carried out all the tasks up to and including the application of leather, she had omitted the edge staining. Initial shock over, with characteristic buoyancy she fetched a 300 cc metal bowl which she proceeded to fill with enough ink to colour the edges of the entire collection of the British Library. Before our paralysed gaze, she grabbed a large, stiff bristled glue brush and, laying the book down on the edge of the bench, lightly resting a hand on top, proceeded to jab the edge with coloured ink flying in all directions. Rapidly the ink engulfed the headband and dribbled down the spine for several inches. Bright green rivulets also ran down the inside of the book. The invigilator wondered audibly to a few of us if he might just dare 'accidentally' lose it somehow. She didn't pass - again!


Autobiography by George Kirkpatrick

A few years went by and, having furthered my own studies in various places I once more returned to teach bookbinding in my old department. I inherited Miss J. She faithfully attended, two nights per week, always first to arrive and claim her territory which she marked by placing her large box of lettering tools, which were her personal property and badge of office, and which went everywhere with her, whether she intended tooling or not.

And so Miss J, it is now almost fifty years since our pathways crossed. The pain and frustration have been replaced by a rosy glow of affection and the odd chuckle at remembered things. I had so many talented and skilful students but somehow you have won the place in my memory and affection that might otherwise have gone to them. No, it wasn't entirely because of you that I changed my career direction but you helped. There were so many incidents each night: the time, for instance, when l tried in vain to dissuade you from covering that little book in white alum tawed pigskin.

Your determination was as usual insurmountable. So I just let you get on with paring it and even managed while helping you to cover it to push most of the holes together again but there was that rather large area in the middle. Even the most skilled plastic surgeon has some limitations. So together we devised a plan to onlay another colour on top and then apply a gold blocked decoration.

An artist friend had already designed quite a charming motif for you and so we got the block made. That was fine but then the following night you brought the book in again; you had left it overnight with a leaking blue biro pen on top. You simply refused to accept my verdict that nothing could be done. You were determined to prove me wrong, you always did; this was one of your charms. So the next time you brought it in you had indeed done this, well sort of...

kirkpatrick      kirkpatrick

Easter by George Kirkpatrick

Now, your methods would not be approved of by most conservationists these days but nevertheless it was a courageous effort. You apparently first soaked it, book and all, in a basin of hot soapy water, then scrubbed vigorously with a nail brush, but that didn't work. So you took it out and put it in an oven for some hours to bake out and become dry again. Then you tackled it with coarse sandpaper. Of course by now it was a long way from white and the blue colouration didn't stand out quite so much.

You see Miss J, what I really didn't understand in those days was how much you were ahead of your time. These days your work would be in great demand from Mr Saatchi.

It really was a nice little block we had made for it and of course there would have been no point in advising you just to start over again, no point at all. You were never one for going back on anything. So we pressed on and normally the experience of doing a bit of gold blocking would have been a good one. So, remembering how you had the habit of nearly always placing any decoration and titles and things upside down on the back board, I placed it carefully for you and even sealed in the blind impression, even glaired it for you and laid the gold leaf. But you had to get going doing part of it yourself of course and I did have a lot of other students to attend to.


La Prose by George Kirkpatrick

Nevertheless I took the precaution of carefully replacing the block in position and taping it down before leaving you to do the final impression. Well that was my mistake of course. I should have realised that the distance of six feet between bench and blocking press was quite far enough to enable you to drop the book, dislodging the block and to replace it upside down again, despite my having scratched 'top' and 'bottom' on the back of the block. Discovering your mistake too late, you thought to do something quite wacky so replaced it the right way up and blocked it again, then with the heady adrenalin rush thus produced, blocked it twice more at ninety degree angles in both directions. Well it was 'interesting' even if not quite what was intended.

You know there comes a point in some adventures when you are in it right up to the neck so you throw caution to the wind. Well we did that, after all the book having already endured, its sudsy bath and the baking process it no longer opened anyhow, so we decided to have one last attempt on the back cover pretending it to be the front. I really wanted to see what that block looked like in gold and I took you right through it this time, and despite the messed up leather it looked, well it looked, anyhow...

There then was still the title to do on the spine. I simply had to leave you to get on. There were all these other students who had also paid their fees. Once more though I had to 'admire' your handiwork and even refrained this time from commenting that most of the yellowish colour where the letters should be was in actual fact the kraft paper lining underneath. I had to agree with you though that there were a few fragments of gold still adhering to the charred edges. Remember how I always used to try to explain that if you overheated the tools, they didn't immediately hiss on contact with the damp pad. That one always caught you out, didn't it?

However nothing quite prepared me for what I was about to see the following week as you produced the book once more, this time with several two inch flat headed nails protruding menacingly through the front cover. You explained you had not had time yet to remove them but you had proudly shown your book at your local Women's Institute at the weekend and so that no-one could see the mess on the front cover you had simply nailed it down! Well that was enterprising and Mr Saatchi would have loved that too! Oh dear, this only one of so many similar incidents over the years. After five years I handed you over to the next tutor. You were, after all, part of the job description. I wonder what happened to him. You taught me so much you know; all there is to know about patience in the face of insurmountable obstacles. You taught me how never to be shocked by the mistakes anyone made and a certain pride in my ability to redeem almost any mess a student had got into, never yours of course, but everyone else's.

Oh and by the way, I really didn't mean to laugh that time you asked me about tools. You wanted to know what I would buy if I could only have one set of alphabet letters for tooling that would be all purpose ones. I reminded you that you already possessed such a set. However you told me that several weeks earlier you had placed it on the bonnet of your car while searching for your car keys and then driven off. Well I suppose it was fairly dark and a full set of lettering tools in its wooden box sitting on your bonnet is not really all that obvious, but when you then said you had heard the crash but just thought it was something falling off your engine so hadn't thought it worth stopping for: sorry, I couldn't help laughing then.

Anyhow I treasure all these memories now and if you are still binding books in some celestial sphere, I am sure it will be for its valuable contribution in teaching others all about patience and other goodly virtues just as you taught me so long ago..."

This article first appeared in the Designer Bookbinders winter newsletter (188)
and appears here with the kind permission of Designer Bookbinders and the author.


George Kirkpatrick - Born in Northern Ireland in 1938, George trained as a textile designer and bookbinder at the Ulster College of Art and Design and Leicester College of Art. In 1960 George was awarded a travelling scholarship by C.E.M.A. (now the Arts Council), which made it possible to visit all of the leading binderies in France, including those of Georges Cretté and Paul Bonet. Shortly after this George was invited by Roger Powell and Peter Waters to work and study under their tutelage. As well as personal projects, studio work included assisting Roger with the restoration of St. Chad Gospels.

George taught bookbinding from 1962-67 at the Ulster College of Art and Design, while working on many commissions and a series of television programmes on bookbinding. In 1967 George was one of the team of bookbinders along with Philip Smith and Faith Shannon, that attended the disaster stricken city of Florence where the team undertook in helping restore and save many of the flood damaged bindings. Upon his return, George entered the Royal College of Art as a graphic design student, graduating in 1970. From 1970-74 George was the Senior Publications Designer for the Natural History Museum in London and then a lecturer at the Kent Institute of Art and Design in Canterbury.

From the late 70s George has worked privately creating bindings and binding related artefacts and objet, for exhibitions and private collectors. This work in private collections include beautifully constructed and handmade items made from binding materials, for example meticulously hand dyed leather. Some of these items also include ceramics, one piece is even referred to as 'cabbage' and in particular one book called the Portrait of Canterbury by Richard Church. The study and detail of the 'Window of Thomas Beckett' in the Cathedral is incredible in its reproduction on the rebound book. It had been faithfully reproduced by silk-screen printing the 'window lead' on double layers of thin perspex with transparent colour sandwiched between, the idea is simple, but the effect when opening the book is breathtaking as the illuminated window comes alive.

The most recent work by George was exhibited earlier this year at the Yale Center for British Art at Yale University, New Haven, and is something George had been working hard on over the last year. This exhibition was the private collection of Margaret and Neale Albert which includes a binding of Kitty Maryatt's La Prose du Transsibérien as well as a set of miniatures by George, of which Neale is a big fan.

This biography has been kindly supplied by Troy Moore - Designer Bookbinders newsletter editor.


Skin Deep - Volume 49 - Spring 2020

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