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At the Wyvern Bindery

April 14, 2011
by the gentle author

“We’re inspired by William Morris and by Eric Gill,” explained Mark Winstanley, self-styled “gentleman bookbinder” of the busy Wyvern Bindery in the Clerkenwell Rd - “Morris articulated the three crucial elements you need to run a successful bindery. You need a clientele with an appetite for hand made bindings. You need a skilled labour force to do the binding, And you need a nice rich city like London.”

Fortunately Mark has all three, and is ideally placed to bring the first two together in Clerkenwell, once the historic centre of London’s print trade and now the preserve of media and design companies. “Gill’s idea of a workshop was that everyone should own their personal set of tools,” he continued, recognising the need for individual autonomy within the workplace – a principle evidenced by the diverse group of young bookbinders working on different projects at the Wyvern Bindery, assisting each other and coming regularly to consult Mark whilst we were in conversation.

“There’s always been a bookbinding trade, but without Morris life for a bookbinder would be much more difficult today,” Mark conceded with an affectionate nod, “Hannah More, Rosie Gray and I started the Wyvern Bindery in 1990 in the Clerkenwell workshops. We got it going from nothing and we turned over thirty-five thousand pounds in the first year, with a little bit of luck and some hard work. And after five years, we took this shop at five thousand pounds a year.”

If you pause on the Clerkenwell Rd and look through the window of the Wyvern Bindery, you can witness the entire process of bookbinding enacted before your eyes. Among presses and plan chests, surrounded by racks of multi-coloured rolls of buckram and leather, and shelves of type and tools, the bookbinders work, absorbed at tables and benches, trimming pages and card for covers at guillotines, sewing and gluing and pressing and tooling, working with richly subtly hued canvas and leather, and finally embossing them with type for titles. In a restricted space, they pursue individual tasks while also engaging in an elaborate collective endeavour, sharing equipment and bench space as their projects require different areas of the shared workshop – all within a constant dynamic harmony.

“In the seventies when I started, the trade was opening up and it was easier to get into it without an apprenticeship.” recalled Mark, “I was one of the students on the very  first full-time year’s course in craft book binding at the London College of Printing in 1976. My teacher was Art Johnson and he taught me to make books that lasted and were well made, with honesty.”A principle apparent today in the unpretentious work produced at the Wyvern Bindery, creating bindings that do not draw attention to themselves – avoiding ostentation in favour of work that is neat and well finished. “People ring up and say, ‘This is what we want it to look like. Can you work it out in twenty-four hours and we’ll fly off on Monday morning to do a pitch to Coca-Cola with it,’ -not a fancy leather binding that takes six weeks.” admitted Mark, revealing how his ancient trade thrives amongst the new media that surround him “We apply craft skills to a commercial proposition. It might not be art but it’s clean and neat and it’s done on time.” he said plainly.

If you think Mark’s pragmatism is not entirely convincing, your suspicion will be confirmed when he admits to the irresistibly seductive melancholy of damaged old books that demand restoration. A magnetism that led him to Ethiopia recently, where he was invited to restore a sixth century testament, the Abba Garima Gospels written around 560, the oldest illuminated church manuscript in Africa.“Written in one day – because God stopped the sun for three weeks – it is still a living document,” he assured me, his eyes sparkling with passion, “A seriously holy book that people pay to have read to them, believing that it can cure the sick, this is one of the greatest church documents in the world.”And then Mark showed me snaps of fragments of the beloved book, explaining how he painstakingly unpicked the stitches that were causing tears to the pages and reattached them all to the spine with Japanese tissue.

Bookbinding emphasises a sense of time and mortality for the binder, because alongside the bindings that Mark creates to preserve the content of new books, old damaged tomes are coming in for repair, illustrating the fate of his predecessors’ works, a fate that will also come to his own in turn. “When you see the work of the great book binders, like Riviere, Morrells and Bumpus – all dead and gone now – they jump at you, the quality of the leather and gold tooling, the attention to detail, the hand-sewn headbands and good quality card.” Mark declared to me, confiding his sense of personal connection. And I understood that the care he puts into these repairs honours those who came before him, expressing a latent hope that his work will be similarly respected by generations yet to come.

The first printing in London was done in Clerkenwell, while in the nineteenth century it became a place of booksellers and now Mark Winstanley has found an elegant way to make the artisan skills of the bookbinder serve the current inhabitants. The Wyvern Bindery with its hand tools and glue pots may appear the anachronism in Clerkenwell today, yet the truth is it carries the living spirit of the culture that has defined this corner of London for more than five hundred years.

Wyvern Bindery, 56/8 Clerkenwell Road.

Pages from the Abba Garima Gospels dating from before 560.

The Gospels restored with pages mounted on Japanese tissue by Mark Winstanley.

Mark Winstanley at the Clerkenwell Workshops in 1990.

Photographs of the bindery copyright © Nicola Boccaccini


17 Responses leave one →
  1. April 14, 2011

    this post is all the more alluring given the fact that books are almost a luxury these days, what with the internet age well set in

    i dont recall reading about libraries in the blog: is it too much to ask for a post giving us a glimpse into the workings of a modern library working within the wi-fi connected world, somewhere close to spitalfields?

  2. JohnB permalink
    April 14, 2011

    I’m so glad you got to this place; this was always the jewel in Clerkenwell’s crown for me. Impossible to walk past without gazing inside and watching the magic of treasured books being given new life.

  3. melbournegirl permalink
    April 14, 2011

    These words and images would make any booklover swoon. Long may these amazing skills live.

  4. Jill permalink
    April 14, 2011

    I love books, and I love this post. Thank goodness people still care about these crafts – and care enough to write about them.

  5. Joan permalink
    April 14, 2011

    We ventured in here last year having been attracted by the painted shutters. All we bought was one of their canvas shopping bags but it was fantastic to go in there and smell the smell of all that activity. Showed this post to my children and we were discussing how much the Ethiopian bible looks like the Book of Kells – the latter being the subject of a recent (deservedly Oscar nominated) animated full length film. Those amazing colours.

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  6. April 14, 2011

    I went in there for something once…and they are truly the loveliest people you could meet…glad you featured them

  7. Eliza S permalink
    April 14, 2011

    Once again you have opened our eyes to more dedicated craftsmen and women working in this magical area. Your blog is a delight and I never know what I am going to learn about next….

  8. Gary permalink
    April 14, 2011

    Fantastic to see the skills and equipment there.
    Customers often ask me if I know a good bookbinder – I do now!
    Gary

  9. jeannette permalink
    April 15, 2011

    lovely to see the young people working at this, and so many people well-employed. lovely pix of hands and fingertips working. ethiopian treasure — wow. give them all our regards and thank them just for keeping the light on.

  10. April 16, 2011

    a hive of busy binders …a lovely post gentle author :)

  11. April 17, 2011

    My near neighbours and wonderfully skilled preservers of many of my much-loved but hitherto battered volumes. Every publisher who constantly proclaims how much they ‘care about books’, while rushing ever more enthusiastically to toss more of them onto the digital pyre, should come to this place and see what the phrase actually means.

  12. Andrew permalink
    June 12, 2011

    As a life long book collector, I am somewhat concerned about the sixth century Ethiopian manuscript. No doubt this bindery is one of the more admirable, useful and skilled crafts houses in London today, a place I would be happy to bring an 18th century book for restoration.

    However an early mss of this period should probably be assessed not only by a bookbinder, but by a scholar of paleography, who could contribute expertise in its conservation. Perhaps this was done prior to the binder’s intervention.

    Thank you for featuring this reminder of our current debt to the traditional crafts, especially deep for those of us who love old things.

  13. October 11, 2011

    This post made me smile….thank you so much for featuring the Wyvern Bindery! Mark and his colleagues are really very sweet people with awesome design and bookbinding skills!

  14. November 5, 2011

    The Wyvern Bindery is great, wonderful pics, thank you, this post , this blog is awesome

  15. July 30, 2012

    What beauty in the work ethic and in the works themselves.

    To have the honour to be the one who’ll repair something from the 6th century, and for it to look like that even after all this time (just look at the vividness of colours!) – amazing!

    I always shudder at the mention of Eric Gill, though.

  16. isabel savage permalink
    September 29, 2012

    I have just had a phone call from Germany from my friends Maria & Marinus Van AAlst to try and trace a Margaret Winstanley who they have known for 48 years and she had a son Mark Winstanley who had a bookshop on London. they would like to know if Margaret is well can you be of help?

  17. Roger Tiller permalink
    March 19, 2014

    Fantastic Place, visit there and you will be amazed, so much to see.

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