At the Wyvern Bindery
“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