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Binding the Beautiful

By Wallerand Bazin and Elizabeth Darrobers

A colourful  print of two bodies, with a mosaic in between them.

Art by Agnes Halladay

Kate Holland on the future of bookbinding.


'Do you suppose any mortal has skill enough to make a butterfly?’ Daniel Hawthorne’s words flitted through our minds when holding Kate Holland’s binding of A Beetle Assembly, a meticulously bound entomological miniature. We felt like Owen Warland, artist of the beautiful, a feel of vellum wings fluttering in our palms; a sense of fear mounting that our clench might crush it just as young Annie had done to Owen’s butterfly.

Through the figure of Owen, Hawthorne opposes the mechanical to the organic; the crafts to the arts. Kate Holland takes on both sides of the dichotomy in her practice. ‘I’m an artist according to traditionally rigorous bookbinders but artists see me as a bookbinder,’ she told us when we drove down to her workshop in Frome earlier this year.

Whereas most bookbinders take on routine restoration work, Holland roots herself in the arts and crafts movement. It is not a coincidence that she bound William Morris’ Kelmscott Press edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer in a stained-glass-window-like leather cover, attempting to catch light in the way glass does. The embroiderer Bettie Burden, Morris’ sister-in-law, used patterns mimicking glass fibres in her work.

Alongside illustrators and graphic designers, the bookbinder explores new relations between text and image. Reading each book closely before binding, Holland ensures graphic elements carry the potency of the book’s message. When commissioned to bind Damon Galgut’s The Promise, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she chose a thunder bolt hitting a last-standing tree to echo apartheid. The contrasted South African landscape imitates Jacob Hendrik Pierneef’s painting Rain; lightning scarring the leathery sky, hitting the ground with a thud.

Holland materialises literary tension through the visual form of her bindings. Her cover of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur boasts firmly rooted pine forests, while an inlay of radical expressionist art on the inside cover reflects the author’s conflicted character.

Well-aware that binding is a powerful vector of social recognition, she does not only work with literary texts. By binding Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food with a pallet of spices sprinkled on hand dyed turquoise alum tawed goatskin, Holland pays tribute to the influence this 1950s cookbook had on a deprived and rationed post-war English society.

A new binding is like varnish. It can give a fresh shine to old books, bringing up to date those that felt dusty. Holland uses this power of binding for political messaging. The front endpaper of her Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s classic evoking the harshness migrant farmworkers faced in the wake of The Great Depression, opposes Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph Woman Washing, Migrant Camp to that of a

contemporary counterpart: a reflection on the historical continuity of economic deprivation.

Meticulously crafted, the binding balances thought and impulse: the day before the exhibit, Holland drilled a hole in the Steinbeck cover to imitate a blasting bullet. ‘No time for regrets’ she smiled.

Given the time needed for binding, with some projects taking years, there is always time for a reappraisal. While working on the Booker Prize shortlisted For The Trees, a tale taking direct aim at racism and police violence, Holland reconsidered her initial choice of using a raised clenched fist to represent Black Power. ‘As a white English woman, I did not want to appropriate the struggle and preferred a posture of withdrawal'. Creating some space for the bookbinder to pay tribute, she wrote the names of victims of lynchings and police killing on the last ten pages of the book.

And yet, ‘bookbinding is dying,’ Holland despaired in a lecture she gave at the Bodleian library last summer. There are no longer any full time bookbinding courses on offer in the UK. The once popular annual Designer Bookbinders’ competition is no longer occurring at the British Library as most exhibitions are now expected to fund themselves.

‘Maybe we are in a vicious cycle,’ sighs Holland, ‘since there are fewer binding exhibitions, it is thought that there is no call for them’. Colleges want digital as they adapt both ideologically to the zeitgeist and pragmatically to funding cuts. A row of computers is less cumbersome than ‘keeping all this kit,’ she is told.

Holland retorts by stressing the importance of manual practice in exercising the left side of the brain, negatively affected by the omnipresence of screens. She witnesses the therapeutic powers of craft, the boost to self-esteem it provides to wounded servicemen and women, whom she teaches on a regular basis. There is a glimmer of hope however. Through the Transferring Design project, funded by The Printing Charity, Fellows of Designer Bookbinders have been going into art colleges to give introductory workshops and Holland is now intimately involved in establishing courses at West Dean College and Bath Spa University.

A finely bound book is a multi-sensorial experience. The ‘intimacy of reading’ a bound book is a totality of sound, taste, smell, touch, but also proprioception, giving the reader a sense of self-movement and body perception.

But Holland turns to a different type of language to generate interest: bookbinding offers profitable ventures in a growing international market. At the biennial Codex bookfair in San Francisco, around 3 million dollars changes hands over the weekend.

The digital boom has paradoxically expanded demand for fine bindings, especially in China where she was recently invited to an online exhibition on WeChat. ‘How queer to praise the materiality of an object on a dematerialised platform’ she noted. Holland does not shy away from anything that can generate attention for the profession however.

Her latest project is a case in point: a signed first edition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s provocatively set in a platinum and diamond cover. She has used precious materials before – wave-like pearls and crystals for Hesse’s Siddhartha – but nothing on this scale: rows of diamonds map the streets of Manhattan with a large blue sapphire set on the location of the iconic Fifth Avenue store. ‘Like William Morris,’ she says, ‘I use crafts as a protest against the conspicuous consumption of mechanically produced goods’. And while Holland admits that her new project is itself somewhat conspicuous, she hopes it will end up being ‘so ridiculously over the top for the mainstream media to take notice’. Let’s hope this will not be her swan song.

By Wallerand Bazin and Elizabeth Darrobers


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