Binding a book is often like a journey. One must traverse hills and valleys, cross bridges and reach unexpected turns, experience joys and struggles. So imagine binding a book that is about such a journey –literally- and happens to be one of your favorites… Isn’t that a treat for an artisan!
Watership Down is the story of a group of wild rabbits, Hazel and his companions, searching for a new home. It’s a journey with “small” heroes going through big adventures and overcoming obstacles relying on their camaraderie, wisdom, cleverness and courage, learning and maturing on the way.
There’s really no simple way to describe how lovely it is.
It was born from a story Adams used to tell to his daughters. When he first tried to publish it the manuscript was rejected multiple times (!), the reason being “older children wouldn’t like it because it is about rabbits, which they consider babyish; and younger children wouldn’t like it because it is written in an adult style”. Boy, were they wrong…!
It is now considered a classic and has been loved by people of all ages for generations.
One of those people is C.B. who contacted me with a desire to have her favorite story bound in a beautiful volume, a heirloom to be someday given to another lover of Adams’ story. This quickly became a personal challenge too: I love Watership Down and have a soft spot for lapines.
Finding a proper copy (one printed in folios) took a while and we ended up using the wonderful edition by Oneworld Modern Classics, with illustrations by Aldo Galli.
I own this edition and I fully recommend it for its excellent design, print quality and lovely numerous illustrations.
I talked a lot with C.B. regarding the design and we agreed on a concept. The idea was to produce a dreamy landscape that would represent the story’s downs when it comes to shapes but at also the heroes’ struggles and hopes when it comes to colors. The golden yew tree symbolizes their destination, a perfect home. It appears to be far away and yet within reach.
My sister Marianna, passionate about bunnies and talented comic artist, was called in to help since I can’t draw if my life depended on it. What you see before you is her version of the concept I and C.B. came up with.
She also assisted greatly in the layout of colors because I happen to suck big time at that too!
C.B. had two main requirements: to include a yew tree (from Fiver and his vision) and use a gradient effect on the sky region of the cover to simulate the coming of dawn. The rest of the colors would be based on that.
I’ve made three bindings in the past using this effect in a random manner. This time however I had to be much more precise as the effect had to have a direction and go through specific hues in certain intervals, which should also blend effectively.
I used an airbrush and aniline dye as I wanted the color to penetrate the leather instead of just sitting on the surface (as would be the case with acrylics). This caused some problems since the aniline dampens/darkens the leather surface when applied and it takes several hours before you can see the actual color, which meant I had to do the airbrushing in sessions, taking several days for each test batch.
After the tests I prepared the piece for the covers and filled with confidence I… botched it! After another botched attempt I was able to achieve something very similar to the image I’ve been provided as reference. However when preparing it for pasting on the covers I noticed the color smudged a bit when handled. This baffled me as I had sealed the colors properly with a dye fix and also applied a light finish to further protect them from the handling required to cover the binding. I’ve done all these in the past plus the tests specifically for Watership Down and never faced this problem.
It was barely noticeable; with very careful handling I could’ve have probably gone through with the covering and end up with very few/small imperfections. My main concern was what would happen after that, with the book being read time and again as the years go by. I didn’t feel ok with such a prospect, so the gradient was abandoned.
This meant the entire color layout had to be rearranged. To give C.B. a sense of the design in color and help her choose I scanned leather scraps and then Marianna photoshoped them in place, coming up with several different versions. The binding ended up being a mix between those.
Another important aspect of the design was it being comprised of many different colors, to enhance the sense of distance – plus the different grains and finishes make the binding more interesting on a visual and tactile level.
To do this the pieces must overlap by cutting the edges at an angle. It’s easier said than done though: too steep of a bevel and there won’t be sufficient overlap and thus a good bond between the leathers, too gradual and the leather on the underside will show.
It was my first time doing this and I had to do many (Many) tests to get it right.
When designing the starry sky I had two choices: random vs specific. I’m not good at improvisation when it comes to designs, plus you only have one go with a French leather binding, so I decided to use an actual star chart.
However that is not all: these are the stars and constellations the story’s heroes would see, and the way they’d see them, when travelling from Sandleford Warren to Watership Down! They are depicted realistically (at least as much as possible) regarding their relative position and brightness, the only difference being I added and removed a few to avoid empty or overcrowded spaces.
I took the liberty to use late June as the date, which was the time I made the design. That way I could discreetly blend something from my (crafting) journey with that of Hazel and his companions!
The stars were originally tooled in (genuine) silver leaf. However it’s been many years since I used silver and I had forgotten how quickly it can tarnish, resulting in a dimmer shine that affected the entire design. To rectify this I ordered some palladium leafs and retooled each and every star.
I felt that the title would look a bit out of place but didn’t want to leave the spine without an indication of the book’s identity/story. So I came up with an imaginary constellation, that of Elahrairah, to act as the book’s title in the absence of one and to guide the heroes to their destination!
I used genuine 22k gold leaf to tool these specific stars.
The upper endband’s main color is a light green, interchanged sporadically with yellow and bordeaux, representing a grass field with blooming patches; an ideal place for Silflay! The lower endband features the same colors but reversed in frequency.
The endbands were made with the original concept/colors for the covers in mind. However by the time the design had to change the spine was lined and it wasn’t possible to change them without starting the binding anew and so I kept them.
Since the binding itself has a lot of decorative details I decided to go really simple with the bookcase. That way binding and box compliment each other, plus the transition from simple to intricate feels more natural.
To spice it up a bit I made recesses and modeled the leather on/in them to give some depth to the burrow.
I trust you Watership Down fans will easily recognize the scene it represents…!
[No spoilers! Be respectful to the rest of the (potential) W.D. readers!]
Last but not least I used the amazing Aubergine design by Jemma Lewis for endpapers!
Before closing this post here’s a lovely photo of the binding with its new owner!
I feel grateful and privileged to work with people who are kind, passionate about their books, full of ideas, collaborative and patient, and C.B. has certainly been one of them. Thank you!
Hope you enjoyed reading about the making of Watership Down.
See you next year & Best wishes for 2020!