Jeanette Hewitt learns about a different kind of book technology from Judith Wiesner
In a time where digital technology appears to be taking over the world, I deemed it necessary to pay closer attention to a more hands on, artistic approach to our crafts, to find out if our paper bound books are a dying art or even if they still exist at all, and I went back to where it all began: bookbinding.
Scrolls and clay tablets go back in history as far as time, the Ten Commandments were written on two stones tablets in the Old Testament, Exodus 20:3. And as the centuries rolled on words, sayings and scrolls became more intricate with wooden covers and leather spines. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, books became more elegant with rounded spines and covers made of paper rather than wood. Different colour leather started to become more popular rather than what had been brown calf or pigskin. In the twentieth century adhesive replaced the sewn bookbindings and mass production is now fully mechanical.
As we can see, even going back thousands of years, the world was moving forward at a fast pace just as it does today, for only one century later bound books are being replaced by a small, hand held computer, upon which hundreds of books can be stored and read at will. Not a bad thing by any means; saving luggage space when one goes on holiday is certainly an ideal, and books available on the Kindle device are usually less than the cost of a paperback. Is the technology pushing out old ways of creating books though? My question led me to the small village of Rendlesham in East Anglia, and a meeting with Judith Wiesner, bookbinder and book and paper conservator.
As I entered Judith’s studio, all my notes and research flew out of my head as I looked around in awe. For a book lover such as myself this building was my idea of personal heaven. Books line most of the walls, beautiful, old books that must have seen so much history. I spied cases of tools that look suspiciously like the ones that my dentist uses, vice-like machines and a separate room that houses a huge bath for ‘washing’ the paper in the restorative work. Judith’s passion for her work was clear from the start, the day we met was a Sunday, the day of rest, yet she had been at the studio meeting with a client before my appointment.
As we settled down with tea and biscuits, Judith told me her story. From 1992 Judith was based in Prague, just after the collapse of communism, working with many cultural institutions such as Prague Castle, the Decorative Arts Museum, the Fine Arts Gallery and the Jewish Museum to name a few, all the while gaining invaluable experience into preservation and conservation. Although Judith would be far too modest to say, I could tell that she was rightfully proud of her work in helping these people raise and run their own companies, after being under communist control for so long. During the devastating floods in 2002, Judith told me how she watched the basements fill with water and ultimately destroy so many historical items. After doing what she could to help, Judith moved onto Florence in 2004. Ironically, Florence was another site that had been severely damaged by the catastrophic floods of November 1966. After my visit I looked at some photographs on the Internet of this time, and one would be forgiven for thinking they were looking at a photo of Venice. After Florence and the Institute of Art and Restoration, Judith returned to England and graduated from the Camberwell College of Art with a Distinction in Paper Conservation. Here she has remained in Rendlesham and her studio for the last five years.
Judith told me that when she first opened her studio it was quite hard to locally source the equipment that she needed, and how she actually found almost everything on the Internet. An interesting parallel here, I thought, the use of modern technology to enable one to save the historical items. Items such as the architect’s drawers would cost hundreds of pounds, but on the internet and the wonderful world of eBay, here was one in antique oak that was on the verge of being thrown out by the owner. The light table was another difficulty, as apparently everyone is now using Macs as a replacement, but again, one was eventually found. As they say about one man’s trash, it certainly can be another man’s treasure.
We broke off from Judith’s story and I asked about a particularly large book that lay on the side. It was slightly smaller than A3 paper with hundreds of pages and looked very old and fragile. It was, Judith told me, a Monastery Prayer Book, dated from the year 1489, only around 40 years older than the famed Guttenberg Bible. Judith showed me the painstaking task she faced, of cleaning up the spine, which had a chunk out of it, which she would restore using calfskin and Japanese paper, cleaning the pages, which were stained, and filling any holes in the pages. I asked her how long she anticipated this particular job would take to which she replied “two years”. At this point I had to sit down again!
Having a guided tour around the studio it quickly became apparent that this is not so much a lost or dying art at all. Judith showed me piece after piece of work, including numerous book restorations, and a picture from a church. It became apparent to me that here technology has not taken over, working by hand and eye, with passion in the heart, the art of bookbinding and restoration is very much alive. In fact, as I spied the up to date computer in the corner and the Blackberry that beeped with no doubt more requests for restorative help, technology and crafts are working very nicely side by side. However, Judith did admit that unlike when she started, there are no apprenticeships that are up and coming. In the world of ‘blame claim’ culture, the issue of insurance whilst using the different machinery and tools prevents the younger generation from pursuing what could be a wonderfully rewarding career. There is a student at the studio however, a young lady who has studied Greek and Latin, a helpful tool in identifying the books that they are working on. Judith’s workshop classes have also really taken off (I left the interview with full intentions to sign up for one myself.) Perhaps the reason that the studio is so busy is because years ago there were around twenty specialists in Cambridge alone, but today there are just three.
The large picture that had been left for restoration intrigued me. Bought to the studio from a church, it appeared to be very old and I asked Judith what work needed doing. She pointed out to me the paint spatters where somebody had decorated the church and had not covered the picture, bat poo adorned it in places and apparently spiders lived within the painting as well as damage through general wear and tear. She mentioned taking it apart and I was keen to know how one would go about this, as I had presumed that one would work simply on the surface. With a gentle but firm hand and the ‘dentist’ tools, Judith showed me that the painting, although only half an inch thick, is actually made up of several layers which will all need to be taken apart, restored and preserved before being put back together. Restoration is not just putting a pretty face back on the object; it takes it back to the heart and bones of the piece, working from within and not just a cover up.
We moved on to the materials room, where I was shown the Japanese Paper that features so heavily in restoration work. Fine rolls, wafer thin cotton wool-like paper that must demand a steady hand to work with that is delivered straight from the mountain regions of Japan. Marble Papers, decorative material that is used for detailed book covering is all made in England. Here again, we see an art that is being whittled down. Judith told me that there are only three ladies left in England who produce the Marble Paper, in Somerset, Norwich and Cambridge.
As well as restoring books, Judith also makes books from scratch of which I was privileged to see all of the stages that the book goes through. The pages, which are all sewn together at the spine (everything is sewn by hand, there is no mass producing here), the paper used as the pages is an art form in itself, from thin pages to the highest quality paper, thicker sheaves suitable for watercolour painting and paper ordered directly from Italy. Quality is of the utmost importance, as Judith explained whilst showing me the Italian paper. She used to get it from Devon but was never quite happy enough with the quality. The covers are then bound with the marble paper, or one of the many rolls of different leather that are stacked up in the material room and one can witness the precision that is involved; how the book should be entirely straight to the human eye and should be able to stand up on its own. The finished products are flawless, and are for sale at Browsers Bookshop in the neighbouring town of Woodbridge, and also direct from the studio. These items are also what the workshop students get out of the session, mastering everything that they learn throughout the course of the days training and each goes home with a beautiful notebook that they have made with their own hands.
The recession doesn’t really seem to have hit here. Looking around at all the work in process I can see why the studio needs a student in house to help. Book collectors, museums and church patrons all bring their restorative work here. I asked Judith if it is mainly recommendations and she assured me that all of the work she receives is through word of mouth. In this industry, which is more work of art than fix and repair, books, culture and handmade crafts are very much alive.
As we went back into the main studio I asked about the bookcase that held some beautiful books, not the sort you would find in Waterstones, but hardback leather covers in greens and red, original first editions of A.A Milne and the like. These are books that Judith has collected over the years or rescued from being thrown out during a house clearance, or that have been passed down through generations. One that caught my eye was a gorgeous Hebrew bible encased in a metal jacket. The thought that the Kindle might take over such an object of beauty sprung to mind, and although it may turn out to be a space saver for my holidays, it can’t replace such a work of art like the ones I saw today.
As I prepared to return to my technological world of the internet and 50-inch televisions, I was somewhat comforted in the knowledge that here, in a small corner of England, our history is all wrapped up in materials that come here from across the globe in the form of Japanese and Italian paper, the finest leather, the greatest books and religious icons. And it was nice to know that if I needed to return back to a more aesthetically pleasing place, I could, as Judith urged me to keep in touch and I left with three invitations, one to the Woodbridge Book Fair, where she assured me there would be books aplenty, old and new, second hand and collectors items, and also the Woodbridge Metro Fair which houses anything from vintage clothes, antique furniture, books and retro items, and the workshop day where I will experience a small part of the wonderful world of bookbinding.
And as I thought back over the day and all of the beauty that I had seen, I realised that sometimes, it is absolutely okay to judge a book by its cover.
Judith Wiesner can be contacted via her website: www.bookandpaperconservator.com.
Jeanette Hewitt is author of Freedom First Peace Later, available from BlueWood Publishing.