Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Met David Way of the British Library for a drink last night. He was enthusing about the BL’s acquisition of the St Cuthbert Gospel. This manuscript of St John’s Gospel was buried with Cuthbert and later retrieved from his coffin, and is the oldest intact book in the Western world. There is an exhibition dedicated to the book in The Folio Society Gallery at the BL and the original book can be seen in their Treasures gallery. Now there is talk of a facsimile . . .

Earlier in the day, we held an extraordinary meeting here at Folio to discuss the binding of our forthcoming facsimile of Edward Lear’s complete bird drawings for John Gould – mentioned in this blog on 2 November last year. The original binding of this very large book is a magnificent affair, with full leather boards intricately tooled, hand marbled endpapers, etc, and we were trying to establish whether it was remotely possible to replicate it today. Present at the meeting were representatives of all the different crafts involved – leather tanning, gold blocking, binding, hand marbling and reprographics, and they all had an immense amount to contribute. We learnt, for instance, about the problems of leather produced in the 1840s, when the traditional but incredibly slow, tanning methods of the 18th Century, using oak bark, had been superseded by the use of an extract from the Quebracho tree in South America. We learnt that the marbling style employed was the ‘Turkish’ or ‘spot’ – a popular style of the period. We discussed the details of the processes which would enable such large pieces of leather to be drawn on cases and retain precise alignment of the filigree blocking – well we hope so anyway!

I also had a visit from Emily Brett, the daughter of Simon Brett, the doyen of British wood engravers, who has produced so many brilliant illustrations for us over the last 25 years. He is planning a major retrospective exhibition next year to mark his 70th birthday and Emily had come to talk about the catalogue, in which his Folio work will play a major part.

Martin Morgan, the highly idiosyncratic publisher of Extraordinary Editions, called in to show me some of his books. These include a Survey of the Channel Islands, created for King Charles II in 1680, and the facsimile of a medieval manual of swordsmanship in which a scholar is instructed in the art of fighting with sword and buckler by a priest. The book I was most struck by was a fine reproduction of the SAS War Diary 1941–1945, a private history of the legendary early years of that regiment. Martin has published this in a range of different editions, including ‘The Originals Edition’ presented in a sand-blasted replica ammunition box which ingeniously converts into a lectern.

David Eccles has been hand numbering all the limitation certificates for the Leaves from a Psalter by William de Brailes, and I filmed him in the act, for use in a promotional video showing some of the production processes of this unique publication. Here is a sneak preview of David at work.

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  • Rex Harison says:

    I’ve always found the process of printing fascinating, I commenced work in newspapers when pages were still laid up “on the stone”, and leading really was lead (or maybe zinc)! I remember the noise and the smell of the linotype machines and the vibration and roar of the presses as they spat out the noonday edition. I knew when that happened I could relax a little since my deadlines had passed (editorial ones, that is, working in the advertising department was a different matter). It was an arcane world back then; today even the press floor has changed. Now, dalek-like robots carry the huge rolls of newsprint to the feeders and quality control looks like the deck of Star Trek’s Enterprise! Reading your description of binding processes, foil embossing, marbling, engraving and so on made me reflect on these crafts, now so endangered, and it occurred to me that here is a wonderful subject for a detailed, highly illustrated, beautifully bound book about the physical production of books, their history, the techniques, profiles of notable individuals, the changes within the print industry and so on. Of course, the fabulous Penrose Annual used to deal with aspects of all these things, but it’s sadly another victim of change. We are facing massive changes in how we view, read and generally absorb information. Now would be a good time to look back and reflect, before it’s all gone forever. Worth a volume or two?