Deborah Evetts, or Synchronisity

For weeks I have been contemplating a post on Deborah Evetts, but Susan Mills beat me to it with a Bookbinding Now podcast  interview just this week.

I had been thinking about Deborah Evetts and had been scanning her bindings published in books and catalogs I own. The impetus was Hannah Brown‘s upcoming visit to New York City.  I offered to give her a personalized, idiosyncratic tour of the city, the highlight being a visit to the reading room at The Morgan Library. You can’t just waltz into the reading room at The Morgan. First you have to apply to be an approved researcher. I am one already, but you can’t bring guests. Hannah had to fill out a application form online. I know the head of readers’ services, John Vincler, so we corresponded about the research Hannah and I intended to do. While we awaited approval for Hannah (John does not vet potential researchers; someone else does that), I used the tricks John gave me to scour the vast bindings collection at The Morgan. One has to submit a list of books to be pulled several days, preferably a week, in advance. The reason is that, not only do the books have to be located and brought to the reading room, but also bindings are on “high reserve for binding study only.” We had to wait for my selections to be approved.

The plan was two-fold: find as many bindings as possible incorporating embroidered leather, Hannah’s specialty; and examine as many Deborah Evetts design bindings as possible. CORSAIR, The Morgan Library’s online catalog, is incredibly powerful and their catalogers are really good. However, since Deborah Evetts was the conservator at The Morgan for decades, when I did a general search for her name I got over 2000 hits. That’s because the catalogers are so good. The vast majority of the hits were because Deborah had made a conservation binding, repair, or enclosure for the book, a fact recorded in the correct field in the book record. Over 2000 mentions in The Morgan Library catalog. That is a monument to Deborah’s contribution to the field. Binders and conservators: if you work in-house at a library or museum, is your work logged?

I followed John’s advice (once again, always ask the librarian). Hours of strategic searching of the catalog resulted in only 3 bindings that may or may not have embroidery on leather. The catalog descriptions of bindings are precise in library terms, but not quite as specific as I needed. Keep in mind that library cataloging standards and practices have changed drastically over the last couple of decades, let alone oddities resulting from retrospective conversion of card catalog records to digital records. I requested the 3 most likely candidates. But how was I to extract any of Deborah’s design bindings out of the over 2000 records that bear her name in one field or another? It wasn’t easy, but I picked five. I submitted those requests.

Hannah and our books were approved and seats were reserved for us. Awesome!

I got together with Hannah and her husband, George, on Tuesday. Classic NY diner lunch. Lots of fun chit-chat about books, their trip, what they had done and seen so far in NYC, and plans for the rest of the week. I gave George my admission card for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and off Hannah and I went to The Morgan.

Here’s where I goofed: I thought the reading room was open until 5. We got the the Morgan at nearly 3:30. After checking in at the security desk, confirming our appointment, receiving ID badges, passing through two locked doors, being escorted by a security guard to the elevator where a key was used to allow us up to the reading room, being buzzed into the reading room foyer, locking up all of our belongings, washing our hands as instructed, and being buzzed into the reading room itself, we were informed that the reading room was to close in 20 minutes. Ooops.

Fortunately, John took a look at the embroidered leather bindings in advance, and immediately handed us the one he knew we would want to spend the most time with. It was a gorgeous thing. It was a Book of Common Prayer (1716) bound with the Psalms (1718), both printed by John Baskett of Oxford. I got that info from the library catalog; books for binding study may not be opened wide enough to actually read the title page. I’d guess that the binding was contemporary to the time of publication. The leather was burgundy and most likely goatskin. The entire binding, front board, spine, and lower board, was covered in silver thread embroidery. The leather must have been pared quite thick to handle so many needle holes, so close together, and not fall apart or tear. We took pictures, but you’ll have to use your imaginations. I am not allowed to post the images on my blog.

That left us with about 10 minutes to look at 7 more bindings. Not nearly enough time. I think I especially liked Deborah’s Black Sun Alice in Wonderland, but I didn’t really get a good look. No time, even though John was nice and let us stay until nearly 10 past 4. It turns out that he is a bit of a binding geek, too.

Since I can’t post any pictures from The Morgan, here’s what I’ve scanned or found in online exhibits:

Adam and Eve and Pinch me
Engelska bokband. 1966 exhibit in Sweden.
Fassam. An Herbarium for the Fair. London: The Hand and Flower Press, 1949 26.2 x 20.5 cm Handbookbinding today, an International Art, 1978
Fassam. An Herbarium for the Fair. London: The Hand and Flower Press, 1949 26.2 x 20.5 cm
Handbookbinding today, an International Art, 1978
Upper board of Ourika bound in 1981 Lewis. Fine Bookbinding in the Twentieth Century, 1984
Upper board of Ourika
bound in 1981
Lewis. Fine Bookbinding in the Twentieth Century, 1984
Eric Gill, illustrator, The Four Gospels, 1931 Bound in full black Morocco; top edge gilt and gauffered with fore edge and tail trimmed deckle; décor onlaid with black calf and decorated with gold tooled lettering. 35 x 24 x 4.5 centimeters. Created 1982.
Eric Gill, illustrator, The Four Gospels, 1931
Bound in full black Morocco; top edge gilt and gauffered with fore edge and tail trimmed deckle; décor onlaid with black calf and decorated with gold tooled lettering. 35 x 24 x 4.5 centimeters. Created 1982.
Evetts Ourika contemp am
Contemporary American Bookbinding, 1990.
Contemporary American Bookbinding, 1990.
Contemporary American Bookbinding, 1990.
The Grolier Club Creates: Book Arts by Club Members, 2009.
The Grolier Club Creates: Book Arts by Club Members, 2009.


What to Bind Next: The Rules

I’ve noticed a fundamental problem in the world of design binding. Please correct me if I am wrong.

The problem I perceive is that, other than commissions and set book competitions, binders often do not know what to bind. At the moment, the world of design binding has a very tenuous connection to the much wider world of book collecting. This situation puts the design binder, and the future of designer binding, at a distinct disadvantage. As the pool of collectors of design bindings has shrunk (I have been told that this is the case), the number of book collectors has increased.

I imagine that design binders must constantly experiment and refine techniques in order to execute commissions and show their work with confidence in their craftsmanship and design skills.  Presumably, one’s bindery is also a laboratory. Most binders I know have a shelf of books they want to bind “when they have time,” books that were successful experiments, or books that have been returned once an exhibition has ended. The problem with experimentation and practice, no matter how successful, is that it represents a significant expenditure of time and materials that a binder cannot really afford. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to recoup some of those “losses” by selling your books? I’m sure this has occurred to every binder on the planet.

I may be able to help a bit by providing a different perspective.

What I propose is a set of general guidelines (The Rules) to help a binder select books to bind, and an on-going series of posts on specific titles and editions that might be appropriate. The selections I make will not be based on my personal taste, but on my experience selling antiquarian and collectible books for well over a decade. I know what people buy. We can like the books or not, but we all have to make a living.

The Rules

  • Bind books in English if you live in an Anglophone country
  • Follow the flag: an axiom in the book trade with few exceptions. Ex. US author, book must be published in the US.
  • Is the author still in print? You’re on the right track.
  • Were you forced to read the book in school? This is a good sign.
  • Is the author or illustrator alive? Don’t risk it.
  • Do not bind books on books, collecting, reference books, or anything of the sort.
  • Avoid Franklin Library and Easton Press.
  • Is the book signed or inscribed by the author? Do not bind.
  • Does the book have the original dust jacket? Do not bind.
  • Is the book collectible in original condition?

It is the last item on the list that flummoxes anyone not deeply immersed in the antiquarian and collectible book trade. I hope my series on that topic will be helpful.

Another axiom in the book trade is to buy the best condition you can afford. As binders, you have a distinct advantage over collectors in this regard. You are looking for copies of collectible editions in virtually unsalable condition. No dust jacket (often 90% or more of the value of a modern book); no problem. Original binding a mess, shaken, cocked, sprung signatures, hideous bookplates, or unsightly inscriptions? No problem. You’re a binder. You’re going to take the book apart anyway. You know what you can fix and what you can’t. As long as the text block is really clean, including the edges (no library stamps or remainder marks), and the book doesn’t smell (seriously, this is a deal killer), you are golden. Best of all, because the book is a mess, it will be really inexpensive.

Then all you have to do is design and execute a fantastic binding. You know. In your spare time.

Sonya Sheats

Sonya is French, but was raised primarily in the United States. Sonya became a bookbinder almost by accident. While working in her college library, a friend in the preservation department gave her a little tour. Thus, she became vaguely aware of binding, preservation, and conservation. After finishing college in the United States, she and her now husband decided to spend 4 months in Brittany. Casting about for an activity where they would be speaking French only, they managed to enroll in an over-subscribed two-week-long bookbinding course with Anne Vion, a well-known binder and teacher. Sonya was smitten. When the course was over, Anne asked Sonya to continue her studies. Working intensely side-by-side with Anne for the rest of her stay in France allowed Sonya to complete the requirements for the French diploma for bookbinding. It is my understanding that, in France, one cannot practice as a professional bookbinder without this certificate.

Sonya returned to France every summer to continue as Anne’s apprentice. During those ten years she was also teaching elementary school art (and, of course, binding on the side) A one-year sabbatical from teaching allowed Sonya to spend more time with Anne and study with master binders all over France and Belgium, learning new skills, honing her craft, and experimenting with unusual binding materials.

For more details, Erin Fletcher did a wonderful series on Sonya in her blog A Flash of the Hand.

Sonya is now a full-time binder. She teaches small classes (her bindery is tiny) and also teaches once a year at North Bennet Street School. I recently spent an afternoon with Sonya in her bindery, and observed some of her teaching at NBSS.

Sheats binderySonya at NBSS

I don’t think I could possibly spend enough time talking with Sonya and looking at her work. As far as I can tell, her training and work are so different from other bookbinders practicing in The Americas. As gorgeous as they are in photos, there are only hints of the true beauty and craftsmanship of her work. The subtlety of the materials and binding structures are apparent only in person.

Sonya is not only an extremely talented and accomplished binder, but she is also really fun. We had a truly hilarious conversation translating binding terms she knows only in French and correlating bookbinder-to-bookseller vocabulary. There was a lot of pointing, laughing, and note taking. Fortunately, I can read a colophon in French and can usually make my way through a French booksellers’ bibliographic description. Unfortunately, I’m still struggling with certain binding vocabulary in English; forget about French! I learned how to say airbrush in French: aérographe. We still have to work on leathers. How do you say ostrich shin in French?

Here is a sample of the wide variety of styles in which Sonya binds:

Sheats-PaperRad full Sheats-brevaire Sheats-vent