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The Wyvern Bindery Is Moving

February 6, 2020
by the gentle author

The Wyvern Bindery has been a fond landmark on the Clerkenwell Rd for as long as I can remember, but now it is moving east on 13th March to 187 Hoxton St, N1 6RA

“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

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Monty Meth’s Bookbinders

13 Responses leave one →
  1. February 6, 2020

    Pah, bookbinding – a mere timeless craft! I eagerly anticipate the (urgently needed) boutique hotel that will grace the old premises hereafter (while hopefully preserving the present frontage in situ).

  2. Joan permalink
    February 6, 2020

    I am sure it is a wrench to leave an established home but their new location looks such a good fit. Just round the corner from the Geffrye (Museum of Home) and in the same street as the wonderful Ministry of Stories and its Monster Supplies. And I’m sure it won’t be long until that wonderful smell of leather and glue that has seeped in to the walls of the Clerkenwell Road bindery is transferred to its new spot a bit further east. All best wishes for the move.

  3. February 6, 2020

    A wonderful piece and photos – thank you, GA, and best wishes to all for the move! I was delighted to see a Harrild press in use: you might like this –

  4. paul loften permalink
    February 6, 2020

    A great loss for Clerkenwell. Hoxton 1 Clerkenwell 0

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 6, 2020

    I used to do some work for an antiquarian bookseller and so I had access to lots of beautifully bound old books. And so it is very interesting to see the photos of the Wyvern bookbinders at work to appreciate just what a skilled craft it was, and thankfully still is.

    Long may they continue, and good luck with the move!

  6. February 6, 2020

    Happiness!! Any blog post that begins with “William Morris” and continues on, showing us
    these specialized artisans and their unique work environment — well, my nose was right up to the computer screen. (And bless you for including the photo of the metal dies. ) I can imagine the aromas of glue, leather skins, parchment, stacks and stacks of blessed paper, the chunky wooden drawers, and the trade secrets housed in this structure. Frankly, I’m bewildered to think of the task of actually MOVING all this stuff, but these folks look tenacious and ready for the next chapter.
    Onward and upward, People of the Book!

  7. Judy Coleman permalink
    February 6, 2020

    It’s wonderful to see so many young people in the workshop who’ve taken up this craft. Gives me hope for the World!

    I’m intrigued by the tantalising glimpse of the shutters that presumably roll down over the front of the shop at night. A dragon? Could we beg a photo for those of us too far away to visit please?

    And for anyone like me who simply has to know these things (another glimpse) – the framed poster on the wall is for the 1948 film noir “The Big Clock”; I’d love to know the relevance (it’s a jolly good film btw).

  8. February 6, 2020

    Good to see they’re hanging in there. They did some wonderful work for us back in my brune street days.

    A note to the gentle author, I feel it’s long overdue, to include alongside…

    Animal Life
    Criminal Life
    Culinary Life
    Cultural Life
    Human Life
    Literary Life
    Market Life
    Night Life
    Past Life
    Photo Life
    Plant Life
    Spiritual Life
    Street Life

    …long overdue to include:
    Maker Life

  9. John Campbell permalink
    February 6, 2020

    The great Michael Faraday was an apprentice bookbinder at a business in Blandford Street back in 1806. His employer allowed him to take a book home each evening and this is where his self education began with long nights of candle – lit study in his room. Amazing to think that a boy with no education could become such a giant of science. Great article.

  10. February 6, 2020

    Great article and lovely photos. Thank you.
    I think Hoxton is the place to be. A good move in my opinion.

    Just for your information Judy Coleman the framed poster on the wall of the 1948 film noir “The Big Clock” came with the premises. I was one of the founding members and when we moved to this premises the poster was left in a corner, presumably by the previous tenants. We thought it deserved to stay.

  11. Lorraine Naidoo permalink
    February 7, 2020

    Thank you for the interesting article and pics. It has provided food for thought for me. My family lived in Holborn and I remember my grandmother telling me that she had worked as a bookbinder in her young days. In the 1911 Census, the occupation of my grandmother, aged 15, and her sister, aged 12, is given as ‘Book folder’. As Clerkenwell is near where they lived, I’m now wondering whether they worked at the Wyvern Bindery.

  12. February 9, 2020

    There are so many unsung heroes, beavering away at incredible crafts of whom many don’t give a second thought to. Thank you for this wonderful insight into the Wyvern Bindery, and all those skilled people who work there. May they be as happy and successful in their new location – and an equally interesting resident move into their old premises.

  13. David Green permalink
    February 11, 2020

    “We’re inspired by William Morris and by Eric Gill,” is all one needs to hear to know that this is a shop of artisans and skilled craftspeople. I’ve been in the printing business 30 years, and the handiwork of bespoke bindery workers is incredible. Must pay a visit on my next trip to London.

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