An Arts and Crafts Challenge

In 1903, at the height of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, Charles Ashbee’s Essex House Press produced its most ambitious publication: The Prayer Book of King Edward VII. From its workshops in Chipping Camden in the Cotswolds 400 copies were printed in small folio format (just under 14 inches by 10.5 inches), 387 pages of watermarked hand-made paper with over 150 decorations. It was bound in oak boards with iron clasps and a pigskin spine and sold for 12 guineas, equivalent to about £1600 or $2000 in 2021.

Last week I was able to buy a copy at auction, for a great deal less than its equivalent original cost. These pictures reveal why:

Front board detached; pigskin leather spine badly decayed

The lower board had plaited leather clasps, presumably with an iron ring to hook over the catch on the top board. These were also completely decayed

Eight-strand plaited leather clasp, recessed into the lower board but badly decayed.

Powerful evidence of the damaging effect of a combination of chemical tanning of the pigskin and atmospheric pollution, most probably from gas lighting and coal fires in the house in which the book was kept.

The headbands also were affected, the original dark green silk having bleached to a yellow colour.

The original colour of the headbanding thread is revealed when you remove the decayed spine leather to expose the tie-downs

But the text is completely unaffected – pages crisp and clean, print sharp, sewing tight and sound.

So, the challenge is to rebind it, retaining the beautiful oak boards, replacing the bleached endbands and covering the spine in new pigskin stained to match the original, with new plaited leather clasps. I have begun to remove the decayed leather already (revealing, incidentally, that on the spine it had been glued directly to the text block, with no linings). Revealing also that the bands had been emphasised with an extra strip of leather so show more prominently on the finished spine.

I will post regular updates on progress. In the meantime, please ask questions if you wish.

2 thoughts on “An Arts and Crafts Challenge

  1. Hi Chris. Thank you for sharing this repair. I shall look at what you do with close interest. Unlike you I have very little experience but a great deal of enthusiasm. I started bookbinding during the first lockdown, largely out of frustration with not having anything to challenge me. I am a retired person who is also a calligrapher and artist in the painter mode. Lots of courses and hours of work on painting and writing did not prepare me for the close attention needed for bookbinding, so everything you do will be watched by me. Good luck with it may all your decisions be good and all surprises nice ones.


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