La Charrue D’Érable (The Maplewood Plough) Part One: Design

~ The sample board and the finished book in the open maplewood box

I was shocked to look back at my last blog post to see that it was back in August of 2019, nearly one whole year ago, where did all that time go? I have found it is all too easy to get out of the habit of writing, unless I do so as soon as I have finished a binding or project it seems like a real effort to look back retrospectively and write a post. I have five outstanding things to write about, all of which with photos to edit which seems a bit of a mammoth task!

So, to kick start my blog again I am starting with a binding that I have literally just shipped off to France to a client, I hope it reaches him safely and is well received. In fact the binding itself was finished a couple of months ago but due to the global pandemic I was unable to order an outer conservation box for it, I get these from the University of Oxford, so the binding sat safely in its wooden container in my plan chest until I was able to place an order for a box of the correct size.

The binding is a copy of, “La Charrue D’Érable” (The Maplewood Plough), one of 116 copies printed in 1912 at the Eragny Press in France. The Eragny Press was founded by Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), the son of the Impressionist, pointillist painter Camille Pissarro. The press was named after the Pissarro family’s home village in Normandy. The Eragny Press specialised in small hand-made books in limited print runs featuring superior coloured wood engravings. The press was active between 1896 and 1914 and produced 32 titles in total, La Charrue D’Érable was the penultimate publication from the press. This is not only the most important book of the Eragny Press, but is also Camille Pissarro’s only substantial illustrated book.

The book is illustrated with twelve full-page, colour wood-engravings drawn by Camille Pissarro and engraved by Lucien Pissarro, primarily printed in shades of peach, green, and/or blue from multiple blocks. In addition, there are numerous wood engraved vignettes, initials, and the title-page border by Lucien Pissarro.

~ The title page of the text block

Taken from Via Libri: The World’s Largest Search Engine for Old, Rare and Out-of-Print Books;

“Camille Pissarro exhibited in the first Impressionist show in 1874 and continued his association with the Impressionists for the next dozen years. He then adopted the style of Pointillism briefly, before reverting to an Impressionistic style of landscape painting. It was during this last period of his life that he made the drawings that would eventually result in La Charrue d’Érable. Although the book was not published until 1912, most of the blocks were cut and proofed by Camille before his death in 1903. Lucien Pissarro was trained as a painter by his father, exhibited with the Impressionists, and eventually became interested in book making. After settling in London, he and his wife Esther learned the arts of printing and book design from Charles Ricketts. The early books from Pissarro’s Eragny Press were printed with type supplied by Ricketts. This book is printed in a typeface designed by Lucien Pissarro.”

~ The original limp cover of the text block

The original book was bound in full limp green calf with gilt titling on the upper cover. The leather had begun to degrade on the copy I was due to rebind, especially on the spine section. There were calf paste-downs inside the limp cover, stamped in gold with apple patterns and a central “Livre Contemporain” monogram. The client was keen to keep these paste-downs in the new binding so I had to think of ways to achieve this. I did also enquire whether he wanted me to try and retain the paper endpapers opposite these leather doublures, they had a sort of ‘halo’ of the leather doublure pattern on them due to the acid from the leather affecting the paper. In the end I though that they were too brittle and damaged to transfer to the new binding.

~ The original calf paste-downs and endpapers

In early 2011 the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford ran an exhibition entitled, “Lucien Pissarro in England: The Eragny Press 1895-1914”, I was able to buy a copy of the catalogue they published online with the same title in order to read up more about the Eragny Press. Lucien was sent to England by his parents where he fell in with a group of artists who were followers of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. In the 1890s, William Morris founded the Kelmscott Press to produce exquisite, hand-made books. Lucien and his friends wanted to do something similar, and so for the next 20 years he laboured over the spasmodic production of 32 hand-crafted books with his wife, Esther.

~ “Lucien Pissarro in England: The Eragny Press 1895-1914”

I found it interesting to read that Lucien Pissarro had to wait a long while for the text to be written, it was delayed due to illness and other reasons. He therefore ended up making the initials before the text was written so the writer then had to begin his chapters with words which began with the letters that had been cut!

Although inspired by the Kelmscott Press, the woodcuts are very different to those done by William Morris. There were no floral borders in this text block, although the title page had some floral elements like apples on a tree with one of the chapters actually being called, “Sous Les Pommiers”, or “Under the Apple Tree”. I really liked the way that these branches looked so began to think of ways of incorporating these into the design for the cover.

~ The contents page of the book

The book is a quaint representation of rural French farming life. I lived in France for 18 months a few years back although unfortunately I didn’t become a fluent French speaker so I required some help deciphering the, ‘Table des Matières’. I asked a French friend to help me translate the chapter titles which she did, although she was unsure about a couple of them as they were written in old French. Fortunately these gaps were filled by my French-speaking client. Alongside egg and cattle markets (Marché aux œufs/au bétail) and harvesters (Les Moissoneurs) the more interesting descriptions were:

Messidor: During the French revolution, the name of the months were changed. Messidor was the tenth month (from mid June to mid July).

Lavandière Nocturne: A ghostly spirit in the form of a washerwoman doing laundry in the river or pond seen at night. This is a bad omen, usually a herald of death. This is a widespread southern French folk-legend.

La Batterie Mécanique: In this context it is a mechanical thresher for grain.

~ Pulling the text block

The book was very easy to pull as the covering leather on the spine had degraded and the sewing threads were loose. The central sections therefore pulled away from the leather spine well and I carried out a couple of small repairs on tears using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste.

~ Some of the sections within the text block were ‘unopened’

Some of the sections within the text block were unopened, so the top edge of the sections had never been cut meaning that some of the ‘hidden’ pages in the original binding would have been hard, if not impossible, to read without tearing the paper.

Many books were sold with unopened pages, this may have been to save the publishers labour and money or to make the sections easier to sew as the pages wouldn’t move around like modern single folio gatherings if left uncut. The reason they were sold like this was that the purchaser/collector was supposed to take the book to a bookbinder of their choice (usually local) who would bind the book according to their personal taste, often the same leather and finishing for each book so that their library looked the same. This was the way books were brought on the market until well into the nineteenth century, until industrial bound books came into being, with their edges cut flush.

The original binding was simple limp calf, perhaps meant as a ‘temporary’ binding. Had the edges of the pages been cut, the bookbinder would likely cut them again when rebinding, each time taking more off the text block decreasing it’s size. I made the decision to cut the top edges of the sections in order to make the binding function properly, but left the foredge and bottom edge deckled.

In researching the reason why books were left unopened I was directed to an interesting article entitled, Uncut, unopened, untrimmed, uh-oh” from The Folger Library about the terminology behind it, having initially referred to the pages of my text block as ‘uncut’ I realise that they should have actually been described as ‘unopened’:

unopened: a book sold with the bolts uncut, to be hand-slit by the purchaser with a paper-knife. It is then said to be opened. Cf. uncut.

uncut: a book is said to be uncut if the edges of the paper have not been cut with the plough or guillotine. Cf. unopened. 

The difference between “unopened” and “uncut” is significant for the history of reading: unopened leaves are a pretty good indication that a book wasn’t read when it was new. Uncut leaves, on the other hand, only show that the text block was not neatened up by having the edges trimmed to the same size.

~ The chosen colour palette for the binding

I was inspired by the earthy pastel colours of the woodblock prints. I found a really interesting supplier of Bull skins in a wonderful array of colours, appropriately this was from a French supplier called Remy Carriat. The colour I opted for was a pale green called ‘Pistache’ which was the perfect match for the green on the title page and throughout the binding. 

I paired it up with some 80gsm Japanese machine made paper called ‘Satogami’ in the colour Apricot which made the perfect colour palette.

~ A repeat pattern based on the woodcut print from the title page of the text block

The design was based on a repeat pattern inspired by the apple branches on the title page of the text block.

~ Creating two mirror image patterns: one with apples and the other with apple blossom

Rather than having apples on the branches over the whole book, I decided to divide the design in two and have apples on the branches one side and apple blossom on the other. I traced the leaf shapes through onto a piece of tracing paper, changing the placement of the apples for flowers for the other half of the binding.

~ Preparing leather onlays by backing pared strips with lens tissue

With the colour palette chosen I searched through my bag of leather off-cuts and parings for a variety of pieces to use for the onlays. I chose a selection of greens, oranges and peaches in both leather and suede in order to have a nice selection of different tones on the cover. The suede pieces were backed onto lens tissue to keep them stable.

~ Colouring the centres of the vellum flowers

I chose to use thin vellum for the apple blossom, cutting out multiple flower shapes. I then stippled some acrylic paint onto the centres to add some colour.

~ Sticking down the leather onlays to the sample board leather

I first worked on a small piece of leather to make a sample board to test out the design. I make a sample board ahead of each of my fine bindings to test out colour combinations, this one is number 55 in my collection.

A piece of tracing paper with the design on was stuck on top of the pared leather at one side so it could be lifted up and down. The onlays were picked up with fine tweezers, PVA glue applied to the reverse and then they were stuck down in place using the tracing paper template as a guide for placement.

~ Embroidering the sample board

The sample board was then backpared on the reverse before being embroidered.

~ The sample board pictured against the woodcut print that inspired the design

The completed sample board was an excellent match for the title page so I was very pleased.

~ The sample board and the printed title page of the text block

Jumping ahead, but still on the subject of the sample board, the above picture shows the reverse of the board illustrating the endpapers and the doublures alongside the title page and the paste downs. Please read the next blog post for how the endpapers and doublures were created!

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