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Restoration Comedy: The Highs & Lows of Bookbinding

My bookbinder is also an old friend. Tony sidestepped paintpots and ladders to buy a copy of Vegetius’ De Re Militari from me, becoming my first customer in Cecil Court before I’d properly opened the doors. Bookbinding is enormously skilled and time consuming, which may be why good bookbinders are in short supply (people are often astonished by how much restoration costs, but there are far easier ways of making a living). A really great binder needs to be something of an artist. Stitching a headband competently is a rare skill, but if every book leaves the workshop looking more or less the same, from 16th century editions of Herodotus to first editions by Wilkie Collins, then something is going wrong. An even rarer skill is developing an appreciation for the appropriate materials depending on the age, place of origin and type of book: full or half leather? sheep, calf or goat? flat back or raised bands? And that’s before we even think about finishing… I’ve seen some stinkers, most notably the crimes perpetrated by a vegan ‘binder’ who refused to use leather to restore leather bindings. I still have flashbacks, but Tony took the nuclear option and spent ten years learning how to do it himself. 

Tony often sends me before and after photos, and I thought it might be fun to share the latest with you and write a little bit about why and how we interfere with old bindings. First of all, here’s the patient, a mid 18th century edition of a pocket road atlas by John Owen with maps engraved by Emanuel Bowen: Britannia Depicta or Ogilby Improv’d.

So, this is an ‘improved’ version of John Ogilby’s innovative atlas of strip maps, first published in 1675. Nobody had done anything quite like it before, and I do recommend Alan Ereira’s absorbing recent biography, The Nine Lives of John Ogilby. Dancing master, impresario, soldier, spy, translator of travels and the classics, and scientific map-maker with an agenda… too much to talk about here. However, the original Britannia was too large and valuable to make an obvious travelling companion, so Bowen and Owen produced something which was greatly reduced in size. Like modern sat nav, the point is keeping to the correct road (or the one dictated by the author, anyway). Using Bowen and Owen it’s easy to tell if one should be going uphill or down, passing a windmill on the right or a distinctive church tower on the left, crossing a river or passing through a wood. For many smaller towns and villages, road maps like these were the first time their layout appeared in detail on printed maps. The thing to remember is that these atlases were still intended for the people inside the coach, not for the person sitting on top of it who was doing the actual driving – he was supposed to know where he was going already. For that reason Owen included a wealth of topographical and historical information to keep the traveller amused, and in that respect the atlas most closely resembles the next generation of sat nav which is already in development, seeking to reassure and entertain passengers in driverless cars.    

Ours is a lovely copy, crisp and clean with generous margins. The binding is contemporary sprinkled calf – an effect originally achieved by flicking acid at it. Tony won’t do that, for some reason. However, the binding had stopped doing its job as the upper cover was almost detached.

There is a school of thought which says that the correct thing to do in this situation is to tie a piece of linen tape around the book and put it in an archival box. This is a complete reversal of practises which prevailed in many institutions until about 30 years ago, when whipping off shabby bindings and replacing them with something wildly unsuitable was very common. I remember seeing a John Speed atlas which had been rebound in a vivid green library buckram as recently as the 1980s; worse still, the text block had been brutally cropped on all four sides, losing about an inch from the centrefold of each map, so that ‘Maryland’ read ‘Marland’.

There are times when the binding might be more important than the text.   

An untampered with 15th century binding on yet another copy of the Decretals of Gregory IX might conceivably be of more interest for the stitching than the contents, and best left alone. However, if the book is going to be read it’s important that the binding works and does its job of protecting the text block. With that in mind, Tony tries hard to preserve as much as possible of the existing binding, whether it’s original or a good quality later binding put on for a bibliophile. The whole concept of preserving early bindings is fairly modern: a late 18th century bibliophile would have thought nothing of stripping a tatty old binding from one of his treasures in favour of smart, modern morocco. Where I draw the line is rexine, an artificial leather cloth. It may be part of its history that a 17th century book was owned by a cheapskate in the 1960s, but some acts of vandalism can be undone.

Back to Bowen and Owen. The leather on the spine was pasted down onto the spine and could not be lifted. It looked as though a crude external repair with tape and perhaps glue had been attempted at some point, discolouring the leather, and the leather on the boards was tricky to lift as it had been pared very thin. Nevertheless Tony was able to lift it and slide new calf underneath. Here’s a photo of how the binding looked tied down around the raised bands:

The spine had never had a label so we didn’t add one. We’re left with a plain spine, replicating what was there originally, carefully stained to match the rest of the binding. It’s very clear what restoration has been done, but it is unobtrusive, and the book works again.

Thanks to Tony this 250 year old book ought to be functioning in another 250 years. As a final aside, if you’re looking at a book which needs tlc, please take it to a good binder or leave it well alone. Don’t try this at home, and absolutely never get out the Sellotape or the Bostik a couple of days before coming to show me what you’ve done (it has happened). Regrettably, there are some books where it isn’t commercially viable to undertake restoration, but there may still be personal reasons for doing so. The Bryars family has never been conspicuously wealthy and the family Bible is as cheaply bound and printed as anything I’ve ever seen – even the lettering on the spine is askew. On the shop shelves I don’t think I could ask above twenty quid for it, but I still had to have it tidied up and put back together.