Natasha Herman: Oh yes! This was one of my first full leather binding projects after having started out on my own. One of the big challenges for me at that time was paring the calf. Leather paring is a difficult skill for a beginning bookbinder and good calf is expensive, especially when importing it from the UK into Canada. I did not have two pennies to rub together at the time so there was little financial room for mistakes. The leather paring knife has to be incredibly and consistently sharp which is achieved by a dance back and forth between sharpening tools and paring stone. Now I can sharpen and pare with my (figurative) eyes closed but back then I remember becoming so frustrated I (literally) cried over the work. And it turns out that vegetable tanned calf skin has a chemical reaction when it comes into contact with salt. There is one copy out there sporting this provenance in the form of a distinct discolouration to the leather on one of the boards. I believe Dolly Parton once wrote a song with a line appropriate to this moment!
HM: Do you remember what I paid per copy, for full calf with sewn endbands? My memory is that I paid $100 per copy, which when totaled up was a large bill for me to imagine in 1999, but also verging on worker abuse when one considers all the effort that went into each copy.
HM: What has been your professional experience with books published by Aldus?
Natasha: Early exposures to particulars of antiquarian books have really stuck with me. I remember Aldus’ iconic publisher’s device being pointed out to me by Courtland Benson around the time he was binding the Aldines for Simon Fraser University, in the mid-1990s. Since that time, every Aldine that has come through the bindery for treatment – and there have been a few – has reminded me of those early days of book restoration in Victoria.
Natasha: I remember Courtland doing quite a bit of research on those bindings and even with my undiscerning eye at the time, I realized how unusual the early Italian bindings were compared to the more typical 18th century English bindings that came through Courtland’s bindery. The research aspect of making a period binding has certainly stuck with me. The ever-growing selection of online databases complete with high resolution pictures coupled with bibliographical information makes the research particularly easy. For this Griffo, I was able to find a binding online to copy which had detailed images of endbands, board edges and spine as well as front and back boards.
HM: Pretty early in your career, you chose to focus on restoration and conservation binding, instead of edition binding. Why?
Natasha: I can focus very intensely and for a long period of time on one thing but the thing has to progress in order for me to maintain that focus. Edition binding requires me to start from the beginning multiple times and I find that my mind starts to wander. I also have a strange fear of the bindings within an edition not being exactly the same, which is inevitable for a human-made object in series. I end up fixating on the small differences rather than enjoying the lovely repetition. If I weren’t managing the job but rather just lending my labor to a job managed by someone else, I would definitely enjoy the work more in a meditative sort of way. For a job I manage myself, five seems to have been the sweet spot. I remained fully engaged in all five bindings for this edition, lucky for all of us.
Truth be told though, I love working with old worn objects who’s creation was someone else’s responsibility. It is a bit like playing music with other people as opposed to playing solo. The challenge is not to be center stage but rather to blend in. I find this aspect of conservation work very relaxing and satisfying.
Natasha: Actually, from a reflective perspective, Griffo WAS a very interesting job for me. I will expound on that in the next question, though. As a book conservator, I get a lot of cool books and they are cool for different reasons. Sometimes their magic lies in their role as icons of real moments in Western history representing paradigm shifts in thought such as firsts of The Origin of Species or The Wealth of Nations. The coolest titles never coincide with the coolest bindings – a strange and true fact of the book object – and I mostly work on the bindings. The best bindings for me, therefore, are the early 16th century continental bindings because of the wonderfully durable materials.
But I think the most striking book object for me has been Het Achterhuis, the first printed edition of Anne Frank’s diary. I’ve had five or six copies come through the bindery at this point. The bindings themselves are cheap and the paper is of very bad quality. I lived for many years not far from the house where she and her family hid. Imagining her father finding the strength and foresight so shortly after the horrible death of his family to have his daughter’s diary published, printed and bound is an unbearable thing for a parent to contemplate. These very same books that I am handling now were neatly packed in a box 75 years ago as they were taken from the bindery to the bookshops where they went on to remind the whole world that thinking, feeling human beings, full of hope for the future were systematically murdered in the name of an ideology. That is the power of writing, printing and the book form.
Ironically, I recently got a request to treat a copy of Mein Kampf. I struggled with the ethical implications of the request for a few days and after getting some further context and some outside advice, I turned the project down.
Natasha: I rarely do full bindings or rebinds these days, so I was looking forward to having the chance to build a binding from beginning to end. At the same time, I wondered if I could still pull it off. I always tell my kids that the difference between an expert and an amateur is that an expert knows how to quickly and effectively solve all the mistakes they inevitably make. Apparently, there has been some improvement in that area as compared to when I bound the first Griffo.
Comparing an edition binding project to my bread-and-butter conservation work, it struck me that I have been so used to working under strict conservation ethics, that it felt a bit like I was misbehaving while working on these bindings. There was a certain feeling of freedom in that, but also a slight fear of that very same freedom.
Most interestingly, every phase of these bindings brought back specific memories of 20 years ago. It was as though the body movements required of the project are deeply connected to memories of that time in my mind. I don’t often indulge in remembering. My life has changed so drastically and so often in the last 20 years, it is frankly hard to remember every house and country I have lived in. This project brought me right back to that very formative time in my life as a young adult in Victoria. It was a slightly melancholic trip but luckily no leather was stained in the process!
A rebind entails removing any remaining part of the current binding and introducing new endpapers, boards and covering material/decoration. Conservation-restoration work would entail local repairs to any areas that are no longer functioning properly for intended use or consolidative work to material that is vulnerable to damage or loss. This work can range from paper or joint repair all the way to building custom preservation boxes to house the unadulterated book object.
This unadulterated book object instance has obtained an aesthetic in its own right. There is something to be said for the aesthetic of the archeological find, stored carefully in a container (in my case, a book box) that does justice to the historical importance of the thing. A ritual develops around opening and showing such a historical treasure. In fact, Stilt® was in part born of the need to not only store but also to showcase the antique book object in a safe, beautiful and ritualistic way.
I work in relatively equal amounts for institutions, private collectors and booksellers and there is also a small percentage of regular people who have a book that is dear to them that they would like to continue to use or pass on to family members. This last category has grown since the start of the pandemic, interestingly enough. Other conservation-restoration colleagues have noticed a similar trend of people shuffling around in their attics while on lock-down.
Natasha: I work really well when I have something to copy so I just copied the images I found on the internet as closely as was reasonable to do for an edition. The big compromise was tooling the interlaced pattern in blind rather than in gold in order to control for costs. I also decided against having the decorative finishing tools cut to the exact pattern, choosing instead to use tools in my own collection that were close enough in style. The leather is French morocco, hand dyed. The text blocks are sewn on thick raised cords which are laced into very dense acid-free, buffered pulp board. The aesthetic challenge was to find the middle ground impression between a new binding and one of this period. I erred on the side of keeping it crisp so as to blend the pristine quality of the text block to the binding style.
HM: When I first saw my copy – which I saw in person, I intentionally didn’t want to see photos until I’d held the actual book – one of my immediate thoughts was It looks so new! Which it is. The gold tooling is still very bright, and the leather has a lustre that will fade with time. It took me a few minutes to figure out what I was thinking: I simply wasn’t used to seeing this type of binding as it looked the day it was finished. I’ve only ever seen ones that are a few hundred years old. And of course when a book was delivered to Grolier in his day, it also would have looked brand new. I wasn’t smart enough to have anticipated this, and just going through that sequence of thoughts gave me an entirely new entry point to this book. Did you ever consider "aging" the binding, the way you would with a restoration binding?? If you had, I’m glad to you didn’t. As I said to one of the people who ordered a copy, Let it get there on its own.
Natasha: Yes, this is the dance I am always dancing. It’s hard to get it right and it is even harder to render explicit what the “getting right” is. It is a bit of a gut feeling, combined with the experience of having seen and handled so many old books. It also has to do with what is actually technically possible to pull off. In conservation-restoration philosophy and theory, there is a tension between visually minimizing any physical intervention so as not to detract from the “reading” of the object (which in itself can be a complex thing to determine) and allowing the intervention to show in a bid for material and historical honesty. Of course, with the Griffo, there were no ethical considerations, only aesthetic ones, but that didn’t make these decisions any easier. It’s still really hard to make a period-style object aesthetically convincing. It’s sort of like painting with time. For the Griffo, I decided to “paint time” using structure (laced in boards, tightback binding, raised cord sewing etc…) and style (interlacing pattern, hand letters) rather than by distressing the binding by toning down the gold and wearing the materials. The truth is, the contrast between pristine white paper and distressed binding would have been discordant. I love the idea of waiting patiently for an honest patina. I wonder if Griffo will last 500 years?