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Monty Meth’s Bookbinders

March 19, 2014
by the gentle author

As a twenty-one year old photojournalist, Monty Meth visited Sangorski & Sutcliffe, traditional bookbinders, and took portraits of the craftsmen and women at their workshop in Poland St, published in ‘The Sphere’ in September 1947. Remarkably, Sangorski & Sutcliffe are still in business today, producing bindings in the time honoured-fashion and operating now from premises in Victoria.

Head of the firm, Mr Stanley Bray, works on the special binding for ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar  Khayyam’ a task which it will take him ten years to complete. Around him can be seen the original drawings of the two previous bindings which were lost – the first in the Titanic disaster and the second during the London Blitz. The covers will contain one thousand and fifty-one jewels inset into the leather, use five thousand pieces of leather and contain one hundred square feet of gold leaf. The completed book will be a fine and rare specimen of the English bookbinder’s art.

Cutting the edges of the book –  the instrument being operated by the craftsman in this picture is a miniature “plough,” whose accuracy and fineness of finish are essential to good work.

The sections of the book are sewn on a frame. This type of frame is essentially the same as those in use for hundreds of years in the bookbinding craft. Each section – usually of eight or sixteen pages – is sewn to the cords singly, until the whole book has been built up ready for the boards or covers to be added.

Sewing in the headband – this band, woven in at the top and bottom of the book will protect it against rough usage in handling on the bookshelves. In the finished volume, both the headbands are covered by the leather binding. The headbands are made up of silks in contrasted colours.

The cords which bind the sections of the book are frayed out so that they can be laced into the boards which form the covers. The smoothness of the finish of the leather depends upon this operation.

Cutting up a skin for leather back and corners. The original, rich, dark-red, native-tanned Nigerian goatskin, almost identical to the Morocco used by French and English master-binders of the eighteenth century, is now used for binding many books in this country today. The leather is usually British-dyed. Here it is being cut to size for back and corners ready for paring, as shown below. The grain of the leather adds to the finish of the book.

Before being pasted to the back and corners of the book, the leather has to be pared to a suitable thickness. The leather must be capable of being turned neatly over all the joints and it must also be of uniform thickness. Hence it is pared by an expert on a stone, a task which calls for great skill and sureness of touch.

The bands on the back of the book are sharpened. Before a book is lettered, the expert finisher secures as much definition as possible. Later he will add lines across the back which will add greatly to the general attractiveness of the book.

The leather margin of the front cover is decorated with gold leaf ornamentation. This work is undertaken by a finisher, who is responsible for all the tooling on the leather. He is the aristocrat of the bindery, and upon his invention in design and skill in execution the final appearance of the book depends. The craftsman above is considered by experts to be one of the best in the country today.

A very important feature of bookbinding is the restoration of old books – they come from rare bookshelves and most of them are old classics. Under an expert craftsman’s hand, they will regain all their old charm and use.

The completed volumes, hand-produced in every binding detail, receive their final pressing from twelve to twenty-four hours. After that, they will be ready to sustain the roughest usage. This massive press is over one hundred years old and is still in full use.

At one time, Britain enjoyed a great reputation for the craftsmanship of our hand bookbinders. From Cromwellian times onwards right up to the late-Victorian days, leather-bound books lined the shelves of our forefathers. Very few firms remain in this country to pursue this ancient craft, but amongst those which remain, Sangorski & Sutcliffe hold a very high place – in fact, amongst connoisseurs of bookbinding they rank at the very top. The binding of a book necessitates thirty-eight different operations – as yet, no machine has been invented which competes in skill and artistry with the art of the hand bookbinder. At their workshops in Poland St, craftsmen have prepared books for many exhibitions since 1904 – and as proof that this kind of bookbinding is still in demand by book lovers all over the world,  sixty-five per cent of theoutput is for export.

You may also like to read my profile  of Monty Meth

Monty Meth, Photographer & Journalist

and take a look at

At the the Wyvern Bindery

10 Responses leave one →
  1. March 19, 2014

    A very interesting read, hand bound books are so very special, and it is good to watch these skilled craftsmen working. Valerie

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    March 19, 2014

    I know no frigate
    Like a book
    To bear me to seas
    far away
    Nor any Corsair
    Like a a page
    of prancing poetry

  3. March 19, 2014

    Yes, I’m a booklover too, have hundreds on my bookshelfs, especially old English Children’s Books – mostly with gilt edge and cloth binding!

    Last weekend I visited the Leipzig Book Fair and “got lost” there … http://www.leipziger-buchmesse.de/

    Books will be forever!!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  4. March 19, 2014

    Although I never visited them, in a previous life I did get a small amount of binding done there. How nice to see pictures of a craft that even in the ’70s was only being carried out at this level of skill on an industrial scale at a handful of binderies.

  5. Libby Hall permalink
    March 19, 2014

    I studied bookbinding for several years. It’s lovely to have these excellent photographs to remember all the highly skilled processes involved.

    (In three years I managed to finish just four full-Morocco bindings – and those, of course, not even remotely of the quality seen in the photographs here. )

    True craftsmen and women at work is a beautiful sight. It is a fine thing that these images can be shared again.

  6. sprite permalink
    March 19, 2014

    ancient craft -
    spellbound by words
    enshrined in leather

    sprite

  7. Anne permalink
    March 19, 2014

    Mr Bray bound an original 1924 2-volume copy of The Book of The Queen’s Doll’s House for me in the 1970s. He used the same blocks and stamps for the binding decoration that Sangorski used to make the miniature books for the library in the doll’s house at Windsor Castle – there are curlicued MRs at every corner.

  8. Moy Peralta permalink
    March 19, 2014

    A beautiful post, much appreciated, and a privilege to see Monty Meth’s wonderful photos…

  9. March 19, 2014

    There are very few of us left who still practice the ancient techniques that Sangorski was the true Master of.

    http://periodfinebindings.typepad.com/

  10. March 21, 2014

    A lovely article.

    Thank you for sharing. As a new bookbinder fresh from Guildford College in 1993 I had the pleasure of visiting Zangorski and Sutcliffe’s in London before they were absorbed into what is now Shepherd’s Bookbinders.

    Now more than 20 years on from being a start up bookbinder, the pleasure derived from my craft never ceases to inspire and bring great satisfaction to me. I feel so fortunate to find myself working in such a fulfilled way.

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