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Welcome back for the second part of this interview with Hannah Brown.

If you missed the first part you can read it here.

What is the first thing you observe when you examine a binding made by someone else and why?

Definitely the overall visual aesthetic of the design and how it works across the covers, as well as how the design concept is carried through to the doublures and endpapers, plus the edges and the box. As I have never had any formal bookbinding tuition (I have learnt through observing, doing and partaking in short courses) my forte has always been the design of a book cover – it is just now that I feel my forwarding skills are catching up! The designs of my book covers are often quite literal, so I really admire binders that work well conceptually or in an abstract manner as that is very different to how my mind works.

On a similar note, which is according to you the most important aspect of a good forwarding and which of a good finishing?

Having learnt through doing, I have made mistakes along the way with some of my fine bindings and have endeavored to rectify these in each proceeding binding. For example, not quite adding enough paper layers and infills on the inside of the boards before the doublures get stuck down and seeing bumps underneath is a past nightmare of mine! Or not-quite-square squares!

I think attention to detail is absolutely key in both good forwarding and finishing. I have always been told that you have to perfect every step of the way with your forwarding as every mistake made will be magnified as you continue through the process. I have learnt from having my work critiqued on a number of occasions how small adjustments can make what would otherwise be a mediocre binding a fantastic one. When it comes to finishing it is also important to know when to stop too – a trap I often find myself falling in to!

I would like to focus on two aspects of your bindings: endpapers and bookcases.
You favor a particular style of wooden box with lid. Could you explain why is this your choice over the more “bookbind-y” ones, say a leather/cloth slipcase with chemise or a clamshell box?

During my time working at the Victoria and Albert Museum I spent all my time in the workshop making mounts for a huge variety of objects. These were made from a variety of materials including steel, brass, perspex and wood. I was surrounded by some very talented colleagues (everyone in my department seemed to have a crafty sideline of some description!). One particular colleague of mine was a brilliant woodworker and held a keen interest in my work so we often used to talk about options for boxes. He taught me how to work wood with the equipment we had in the workshop to make impressive boxes for my bindings and the habit stuck.

I love the way that the wooden boxes can become an extension of the binding and I think the look and feel of wood is wonderful so that would always be my preferred option to offer clients. I have the ability to make more “bookbind-y” ones though, just little need to do so! I always order pre-made cardboard conservation boxes to house the wooden boxes in for extra protection too on bookshelves.

Your endpapers really stand out by always being imaginative and an integral part of the design, while the cases appear as a discreet extension of it. There’s also often a playful attitude when it comes to both, as if they veer a bit off the strict planning required by your elaborate designs, lending themselves to various experimentations (f.e. feather painting in “British Birds”) or quirky little details (f.e. the bird figures in “Fables of Aesop”). Do you view them in this scope as well? Tell us a bit about them.

Yes I do! What I love about the whole bookbinding process is the amount of design scope a book allows you to have. Not only are you decorating the covers but you have the endpapers, doublures, text block edges and container to play around with too – it is a truly three dimensional object. To date all of the bindings I have made have had paper doublures, I have never chanced leather ones but that is on my list of things to try! I would love to learn some more print-making techniques to adorn my endpapers with, there are endless possibilities.

I find that I usually have to think about the endpapers design first as this has to be finalised before the book can be forwarded. The endpapers have to be made up and sewn to the text block before it can be rounded and backed etc. so they need to be completed early on in the process. I think the most complicated endpaper design I have attempted to far was the ones I did for “The Fables Of Aesop”. The reason for this is that I wanted to print a net that ran across from the front to the back endpaper, across the front edge of the text block, so this had to be meticulously planned so that it would all line up which was rather a headache!

Let’s get a bit dramatic: a major apocalyptic event or socio-historical period looms heavy upon humanity and threatens to -god forbid!- erase all your work. If you could only save 3 of your bindings, which would those be and why?

That is a very tricky question! If I had to choose I think I would go for the following:

The Fables of Aesops
I absolutely loved working on this binding. It was to a tight deadline as it was for the Designer Bookbinders 2017 International Competition on the themes of “Myths, Heroes and Legends”. I was doomed from the start having typed the wrong postcode down on the website I ordered it from so the text block went missing for a while – argh! I remember taking the partly embroidered leather and all my threads on a family holiday with me to France and sitting under the sun umbrella sewing away trying to get it done in time for the deadline soon after our return.

(Click on the photo and zoom-in for a detailed look in HQ!)

What I loved about this binding was the scope for the design. Given the number of fables to choose from I couldn’t just focus on one which is when I came up with the idea of choosing six, one for each of the following: front cover, back cover, front doublure, back doublure, the endpapers/front edge and the box. I had at the time been coveting someone’s work on Instagram (@paperandwood_ ), and this inspired me to make some little three dimensional birds to accompany the book. They were carved out of tulip wood before being painted then I added paper and gold feathers and little brass eyes.

I decided I needed to make these birds removable (I mean, it wouldn’t have been practical to actually read a book with little birds permanently sat on the top book board edges!) so I devised a way to add rods into the lamination of the book boards so that a pin on the bottom of each of the birds could be slid in to stand them up for display. I also had a lot of fun making the container for this one adding a removable row of “perches” for the three birds to sit on!

All in all this was a total delight to work on, from the heavily embroidered wings on the cover to the edge decoration that I had to match up with the endpapers (as mentioned in a previous answer) this binding had many challenges to overcome.

(Upper binding made in 2016 and lower in 2012)

Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden
It is a bit of a cheat to choose this one as I get two for the price of one having made two versions of this binding! It is rare for me to repeat a design (and I only did so with the permission of the owner of the first of the two bindings) and did so using a different variety of coloured leathers. In fact this was another binding that I did for a competition, in this case is was for the Designer Bookbinders 2013 International Competition on the themes of “Shakespeare”. I love flowers and purely for that reason alone I would like to save these two!

The Somme: An Eyewitness History
I think I would have to save my first ever design binding! In fact, this is the only binding I still have in my possession. There is so much wrong with it but I had no inhibitions in those early days of learning how to bind a book and just did what I thought I should do! I love looking at this binding to remind myself how far I have come since 2007. It was this binding that I was working on whilst I did a gold tooling course at City Lit in London with Tracey Rowledge. It was she who suggested I made sample boards to practice on so this binding will forever be the first sample board in my series!

Concerning Kelmscott Chaucer.

Before getting to the question I would like to take a moment and thank you for painstakingly documenting and chronicling the creative process behind this binding. To read how it came to be is almost as enjoyable as seeing the finished book, perhaps even more so; instead of just introducing us to your binding “child” you take us through its entire childhood step by step, sharing the techniques you used and the challenges you faced, the meticulousness and care you devoted to every detail.
  It’s ironic how bookbinding is one of the most ancient crafts, and with such an important goal, and yet there are so few documentaries or articles about the  process and its artisans in the public sphere. I certainly hope that you’ll keep sharing your work in this way and perhaps encourage more binders to do so.

So, to put it in your words: “The commission of a lifetime!“. Your 8-part post (links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) is a fascinating read I’d recommend to anyone, bookbinding-savy or not!

How is Chaucer different from the rest of your bindings?

When I was asked to take on this commission I was rather dumbstruck, how could I possibly do justice to the inner wonders of William Morris? I admit I was a bit worried, knowing that this text block had quite a value to it before I took it apart elevated it to a level of book I had not worked on before. The provenance of this actual copy had been traced back to 1934 – never before have I known such history of book I have worked on. This was all documented in the “The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census” by William and Sylvia Petersen.
Also, they are rare and there are not many available for rebinding so it was an honour to be chosen for this commission.

I always try and do as much research as possible ahead of working on commissions, in this case I read up about the Kelmscott Press, visited the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow and arranged to view some Morris objects at the V&A Museum. The prestige of this binding however made it different to the rest. I was really lucky to see two of the pigskin bindings, bound by the Doves bindery during a trip to the Wormsley Library. This was very timely as I hadn’t yet received my copy so was able to get a sense of the scale and grandeur of the book beforehand.

It was also rather humbling to think that William Morris had likely thumbed his way through the pages of this and all of the other copies that were printed – I hope he would have approved of the binding I did on it!

In which ways has it helped you to evolve as an artisan?

I was genuinely proud of the binding I did for this book. My initial reservations about the size of the binding and how I would forward the text block were overcome and I am very pleased to have added this binding to my sample board collection! Looking back at all my previous bindings this has probably been the one with the most “rigid” design but that is what I felt would work best to try and do this book justice.

And, now that a year has passed and the dust has settled, tells us which things have stayed with you from its making?

The grandeur of the book lent itself to a grand design. If I were to bind this book over again would I change anything – probably not! The design evolved along the way and I was really pleased with how the different floral and butterfly elements all came together. During the making process, after hours and hours of sewing, I definitely thought to myself, “why did I decide to do it like this again?!” and my fingers were very sore but this was a small price to pay to create such an elaborate work.

To wrap things up: what is that you’re most proud of after 15 years of bookbinding?

The thing I am most proud of is the way I have developed my bookbinding work to the point I am now a self-employed bookbinder. What started off as a hobby has become a career, albeit I do it alongside many other things. The fact that I have recognition within the world of bookbinding and have managed to form a “house style” to the point that my bindings can be singled out as a “Hannah Brown” binding is very satisfying.

Having never formally trained as a bookbinder I am also proud that I have overcome my lack of forwarding knowledge and have developed a way of working that suits me. I still have so much to learn but I am getting by with what I already know.

And if you could enter a time machine, meet yourself back in 2004 and manage to avoid the time-paradox, what advice would you offer Hannah based on your experience so far?

Just to be confident in what you are doing and learn from your mistakes. I would encourage myself to share my work as I have had such a positive response from doing so. I would also probably say don’t underestimate how long it takes to bind a book and don’t set yourself unrealistic deadlines!

I would like to thank Hannah for taking the time to share her story, bookbinding insight and of course her work with us through this interview.

Be sure to check Hannah’s site:
http://www.han-made.net/fine-bindings/2019-2/la-prose-du-transsberien/
and most importantly her blog:
https://han-made-bookbinding.tumblr.com/archive
where she chronicles in depth the creative process behind each binding.

If you enjoyed reading this I’d invite you to have a look at the blog section for Techniton Politeia, where you can find more interviews.
Till next time!