From The Society of Bookbinders NEWSLETTER, Dec 2005
What a life
by John Westwood
Our editor, Nigel Jury, asks me to recall my life as student, bookbinder, designer, teacher, typographer, studio director, model-builder, editor, and bookbinder, and to predict the future of bookbinding.
When I was a lad in the 1920s, Bromley, only ten miles south of London, was still a country market town in Kent. My home had a stone sink with a single tap; gaslight. Horses drew the carts delivering coal, bread, milk; open top buses with solid tyres took us for a few pence into the country; grimy steam trains took us in half an hour to London. Cat's whisker wireless was new. I read books avidly, and built Meccano models, Deafness was no handicap when in 1936 I went on from grammar school to Bromley Art School, with its high standards-and pretty girls! At that time, England had over a hundred art schools, some quite small in towns like Carlisle, but all offering training for career or hobby to the whole local community.
Then, machines for folding, backing and case-making made shoddy hardback books in flimsy cloth for sixpence. However, Douglas Cockerell was already training craft bookbinders in the sound methods evolved since William Morris had protested against degraded methods in industry. One of his students, Katharine Pountney, was teaching at Bromley Art School on Thursdays, And so I chose to train in drawing, design for printing (with typography under John Biggs) and bookbinding.
But bindings tooled with Arts and Crafts twigs and flowers all over seemed to me archaic. In contrast, the bindings by Paul Bonet and others in Paris were too wildly revolutionary in design, or even somehow unrelated to ‘the architecture of the book’.
How should I design for binding, where graphics in England were led by Edward Bawden, RaviIious, McKnight Kauffer? I had to satisfy examiners, and maybe compete for a place at the Royal College of Art. Then, by good fortune, I saw an illustration of a binding by John Mason and was at once inspired. From then on, I felt able to work on, maintaining regular correspondence with John Mason. Later, when teaching at Coventry Art School, and had set up a bindery in an attic of temporary premises in Radford Road, I went over to Leicester and enjoyed meeting John Mason.
Art schools helped: my father (an artist in the printing trade) met my mother at Bournemouth Art School; I met my wife while on a short course at the Central School. She and I toured France and Italy with rucksacks. In 1948, noisy double-header steam locomotives took us over Shap Fell to Carlisle, where we raised a family. By now ARCA qualified I helped Harold Shelton modestly for eleven years to develop the small art school into a regional college. Busy times. Teaching, house maintenance, binding, writing and illuminating, designing for The Folio Society (as noted inBookbinder ), showing bindings at theFestival of Britain in 1951, writing on typographic design forPrint in Britain magazine, and with my family in an A.C. two-litre saloon touring Cumberland, and then to Mallaig, Holy Island, Brittany.
The Carlisle College served the whole community, including day release training for trade apprentices. My own teaching programme for the advanced art diploma courses was sandwiched with sessions teaching humble printing apprentices, and even a couple of bookbinders (again in an attic bindery!) for City and Guilds exams.
Printers were receptive to creative typography ideas, in Carlisle jumping straight from 1920s styles, but by then the bookbinding trade was dying, as machines elsewhere displaced skill. Carr's Biscuits still employed a bookbinder to make their special account books in house — no computerised accounts in the 1950s — and together we made traditional spring backs. In London, the trade binders still showed antagonism towards the 'amateur' Douglas Cockerell school of thought and method. My spell as a student under the elderly Douglas at the Royal College may be described in the detail it deserves in another article.
Typographic design led me astray from bookbinding (and lectureship in graphics) in 1960 to Her Majesty's Stationery Office in London, to take charge of the team founded by Harry Carter and Alan Dodson, under guidance from Sir Francis Meynell. They designed everything from fine illustrated hardbacks to letterheads and official forms. Fine posters for the V&A Museum appeared, when Peter Branfield joined the team. I dined with graphics enthusiasts at the Double Crown Club, and edited newsletters for the new-bornPrinting Historical Society . In my fifth home bindery, over the years, I still undertook some binding commissions. A grand time, in London.
By the 1970s, my interest in fine books was attacked externally by the onset of computerisation, with offset litho killing off hot metal and letterpress. HMSO began the move to Norwich, and (sadly) has since been privatised, ending half a century of official government sponsorship of fine book typography. SeeFrom Layout to Graphic Design , a copy is in the Victoria and Albert Museum Library, to read how UK government publications gradually became presented with readable modern typography and attractive cover designs.
At Principal level as divisional director, I retired from HMSO in 1978 and years on still practise The Craft. In 2005 I have enjoyed rebacking in leather and restoring a woebegone but extremely heavy broken-jointed tome: Gerard'sHerball , 1633, with thousands of woodcuts.
As to the future? We live in an unstable world. Government has reduced support for art and craft education: the hundred art schools of the 1930s are now nearly all lost, or merged into often unsympathetic multi-faculty colleges, Few private enthusiasts (with money) now sponsor creative arts, and architecture, compared with those in the 18th century. How will print on paper (and bookbinding) survive, when all records are put into computerised archives?
Maybe I am allergic to electronics but the continuity of our technology (with mains electricity and computer factories) could be catastrophically broken one day, as happened previously to the less vulnerable technologies of ancient Greece and Rome. Electronics could cease to exist.
But we know that well-bound books can survive through dark ages: the ages when a few cloistered scholars kept the book arts alive. Our craft began then, and continued in medieval monasteries and churches: master craftsmen made great and minor works of art. I still find Herbert Read'sThe Meaning of Art worth study.
The monasteries evolved into our universities, who regrettably have now mostly almost forgotten the guiding medieval principle, that respect for (and sponsorship of) the skills of the eye and hand are just as important to the maintenance of civilisation as the skills of the brain alone.
Just as universities still employ a few humble craftsmen to rebind their books, they ought surely to have advanced studies in bookbinding craft and history, and ought also to engender creative design and practice likewise, I hope that the Society of Bookbinders will find a university to nurture our art, to give it a future in the dark age which already seems to be creeping upon us.
The ingenious mechanism of the opening and closing of the joints of a rounded and backed sewn book will not easily be improved, but there is endless scope for research. Remember, the binder is the architect of the book: what goes inside is just interior decoration!
POSTSCRIPT: And, to cover the later years: I like making things — model-building — from 1988 to 1999 I helped to foster worldwide friendships by founding, editing, and publishingInternational Meccanoman magazine, single handed, in a field now with advanced adult technology and (continuing under my successor) with readers in 32 countries worldwide. My years at HMSO could not have got far without the wonderful support from John Pitson, John Saville, Philip Marriage, Fred Stubbs, and so very many others including Reg, Jack, Bobbie, the two Davids, Peter, Vera, Dee, Nodge, Gerry, John, Ken, and others I am going to find in my memory! . . .
Happy Christmas, JW