A Kelmscott Keats facsimile

‘The Poems of John Keats’ was regarded as the most popular of all Kelmscott Press books. Published in 1894 (300 copies on paper at thirty shillings each (nearly £200 at today’s prices) and ten on vellum at 7 guineas (£1400 today)) it was issued in a plain vellum binding with no decoration other than the title in gilt on the spine and dull green linen ties. A good copy of the paper version in the original vellum binding is currently on sale at about £8000.

The Nottingham Court Press facsimile is very well printed on paper of the right tone and weight, though it has a texture on one side of the sheet and is smooth on the other – not quite right. This is the opening spread of the completed binding.

It was frequently rebound, sometimes in extremely elaborate style. Sangorski and Sutcliffe bound several copies in their trademark ‘jewelled’ style.

The only facsimile edition that I am aware of was published by Nottingham Court Press in 1979. I bought two copies in unbound form at the time and a little later bound one set in half morocco with marbled paper sides. It looked quite handsome on my bookshelf. I sold it to a dealer three years ago and it is still on his website at £300. The other copy has been sitting, still in loose sections, on a shelf in my bindery.

So. it’s high time those loose sections are turned into a book. I have several skins of Moroccan goat vellum – actually directly from Morocco – bought from a trader here in Stroud a couple of years ago. They are quite small and pretty rough at the edges, but I did find a couple with clean areas large enough to cover the book – it is 230mm tall by 135mm wide and 40mm thick. The original vellum-bound copies were simply cut at the top, with foredge and tail uncut. No headbands, and the cut top edge neither gilt nor coloured.

First, sew the sections together. I used red thread just to personalise what will otherwise be a very plain binding. The text has red headings and side notes so it seemed in keeping. Three linen tapes, back lined with mull with further lining of Kraft paper. No endpapers, as the outer leaves of the first and last sections are used as the paste-downs.

Showing the cut top edge and uncut foredge

Incidentally, the plough I use has a circular blade which works much better than the normal chisel shape blade. I bought it at auction over ten years ago and have used it ever since. No maker’s name on it at all!

Early engravings of bookbinders’ workshops show ploughs with circular blades

The vellum binding is in fact a case, made off the book. First, I cut the spine stiffener/lining and glue it in the centre of the selected piece of vellum. This prepares it for blocking the title on the spine. You don’t want to block the title on the vellum first and glue the stiffener/lining afterwards as it would be extremely difficult to position it accurately. If you cut a couple of nicks at head and tail of the vellum piece, in line with one edge of the stiffener, you can position the cover accurately on the platen of the blocking press so the the title is stamped centrally and the right distance from the head.

The underside of the cover vellum with the stiffener strip in place and nicks to guide the placing of the cover face up for blocking the title. the creases are to help to position the thin boards later. Note the extra width of the foredge turn-ins to accommodate the yapp edges.

Next, cut the slots for the tape ties. As stated in an earlier post the slot positions are marked with small punched holes.

A screw punch (top of picture) is used and the slots cut with a scalpel between the holes

The tape ties are now threaded through the holes – just loose, no glue or paste.

Next, the head and tail turn-ins, but first the corners have to be cut so the yapp edges can be neatly formed.

Unless the vellum is quite thin and supple, it helps to sandpaper the corner area and the cut edges.

The boards are 1mm greyboard and are not glued or pasted to the vellum cover. This is the ‘drummed’ technique described in an earlier post. The boards are put in place and held there with a weight and the top and bottom turn-ins are glued down. Then the yapp foredges are formed by creasing the turn-ins against the edge of the greyboard and turning then up at 90 degrees. This creates sharp crease marks which are then lightly sanded on the inside to thin the vellum so that the actual gluing and shaping is easier. It also helps if you dampen the outside surface of the turn-ins.

The greyboard lining is on the right. After creasing the vellum against its edge the vellum is folded back and the crease lines sanded to make the final folding and gluing easier.

The foredges are then glued and shaped and allowed to set between weights.

That’s it – the case is made and simply attached to the book block in the normal way.

Offers over £8000 will receive immediate attention.

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