When e-books exploded onto the market a few years ago, it was widely speculated the inevitable decline of traditional paper books had been triggered. As somebody who has turned the pages of countless books over the years, I was horrified at this prospect. The pleasure of a proper book has been instilled in me from a young age – from the textures and shapes I traced with my fingers before I even knew what words were, through to the thrill of discovering messages scrawled in the margins of library books. There’s nothing quite like the enjoyment of opening a beautiful edition of your favourite book and measuring your commitment to the story by the number of pages that sit before and after your bookmark. The thought of eliminating all of this in favour of a standardised electronic format seemed heartbreaking to me. Therefore I was cheered to read in the Guardian this week that against expectations, e-reader sales have begun to dip as paper books sales are on the up. For once, it seems techsperts overestimated the public’s desire to digitize all aspects of their life – the charm of the paper book has won through.
If you, too, appreciate the value of print, then Clerkenwell’s Wyvern Bindery is a must-visit epicentre of traditional bookmaking. Founded in 1990 by Mark Winstanley with partners Hannah More and Rosie Gray, the bindery has since passed solely into the hands of Mark, who oversees a team of around 10 craftsmen and women who furiously cut, sew and press pages in the company’s East London workshop. The workshop occupies hallowed ground, as Clerkenwell was home to some of the first printing to take place in London, eventually into a thriving hub for booksellers in the 19th century.
Although many of the techniques used by the team have hardly changed in centuries, the nature of the commissions has. Mark tells me that customers approach the bindery looking for anything from thesis binding and restaurant menus to iPad cases and photo albums. They have also embossed bags, wallets, bicycle saddles and even a cricket ball, as well as repairing precious texts, undertaking bespoke commissions and crafting props for theatre and film – including the elaborate wizarding textbooks seen in the Harry Potter series.
Mark learned his craft as one of the students on the first ever full-time course in craft bookbinding at the London College of Printing in 1976. His tutor Art Johnson instilled in him a reverence for well-made books, carefully crafted to withstand years of use. 40 years later, this love of craftsmanship continues to inform Mark’s work. He is wonderfully passionate about his craft, and talking about special projects such as the restoration of a 6th century Christian manuscript in Ethiopia fill him with particular enthusiasm.
Mark is also keen to see the craft of high-quality bookbinding continue to flourish, and as a part of this legacy he continues to run the annual Designer Bookbinders Competition, where bookbinders from his own workshop and across the country compete to bind a set text to the highest possible quality. Entrants to 2016's competition (a binding of Dante’s Vita Nuova) will be judged on a combination of technical skills and artistic flourish and the outcomes showcase the astounding versatility of binding – illustrating how one text can be re-interpreted in countless unique and beautiful ways.
Much like Peter Layton’s London Glassblowing studio, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the Wyvern Bindery is the accessibility of the workshop and its craftspeople. It is a real a treat to wander straight off the pavement of a busy London street and into a hub of creativity, crammed full of fascinating tools and machinery. The Wyvern bindery has a sense of what my art teacher used to lovingly call ‘organised chaos,’ where bits and bobs have accumulated over the years to create a warm environment with a homely, creative energy.
Inside the bindery there is plenty to explore, from drawers of handmade marbled paper to vintage machinery used to press gold lettering onto book covers. Mark's team are exceptionally friendly – happy to talk through the intricacies of their craft, as well as the multitude of options available to each customer, from goatskin binding to edge gilding and hand-sewn headbands. For any bibliophile who treasures their library, it is an absolute haven brimming with all sorts of delicious possibilities.
The Wyvern Bindery are an exceptionally versatile group of craftspeople, with a real talent and love for what they do. If you are looking to commission anything from a bespoke book, a beautiful photo album or are even looking to restore a treasured family text, then the Wyvern Bindery will treat your project with the personal touch it deserves.