Monograph of the Meropidæ Part One: The Book and the Design Inspiration

I am delighted to share my latest binding commission for the Athenæum Club in London, which I completed and delivered in May of 2022. Over a series of five blog posts I will provide information on the the commission, how I came to choose the book and how the final binding was made.

~ Selecting the text block for binding

I was first contacted by the Athenæum in 2019 about a binding commission. The Athenæum is a private members’ club in London, founded in 1824. It is primarily a club for men and women with intellectual interests, and particularly for those who have attained some distinction in science, engineering, literature or the arts. The clubhouse is located on Pall Mall at the corner of Waterloo Place in London. It was designed in the Neoclassical style, by Decimus Burton, who was a founder member of the Athenæum. The clubhouse has a Doric portico, above which is a statue of the classical goddess of wisdom, Athena, from whom the club derives its name. The club’s facilities include an extensive library, a dining room known as the Coffee Room, a bar known as the Morning Room, a drawing room on the first floor, and a suite of bedrooms.

“When it was founded in 1824, the Athenæum broke the mould. Unlike other pre-eminent clubs, members were chosen on the basis of their achievements rather than their background or political affiliation. Public rather than private life dominated the agenda. With its traditions of hospitality to conflicting views, the club attracted leading scientists, writers, artists and intellectuals – Charles Darwin and Matthew Arnold, Edward Burne-Jones and Yehudi Menuhin, Winston Churchill and Gore Vidal.”

~ ‘The Athenæum: More than Just a Club’ by Micheal Wheeler

The Athenæum has a private collection of around 70,000 books, housed the building, most prominently in the Drawing Room, the South Library off the grand Drawing Room (visible through a glazed door), and two other smaller library spaces designed as book-lined cubes. With floor to ceiling bookcases in some of the rooms, shelving for books has always had precedence over space for pictures.

“The Athenæum is symbolised, not by its large plate-glass windows that look out onto Pall Mall and that were smashed from time to time by the London mob and the Luftwaffe, but by the steps and portico of its entrance on Waterloo Place, features to which reference has been made throughout the club’s history. For it is the traffic between the interior, with its unique facilities for reading and informed conversation, and the exterior, where members of the Athenæum have been influential, that the genius of the club is defined.

~ ‘The Athenæum: More than Just a Club’ by Micheal Wheeler

The library has a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century illustrated books which were in need of rebinding. Instead of having them rebound in a traditional library style, the Library Committee wanted to commission design bindings as works of art to be admired by this and future generations of members of the club. I was invited into The Athenæum to meet with some of the Committee and choose between a few books, all selected as contenders because they had visual appeal as well as a bibliographical interest.

I was shown five or six books in total, but I was immediately drawn to a book with wonderful brightly coloured illustrations of birds – this had to be the book for me! The book was called, A Monograph of the Meropidæ or Family of the Bee-eaters by Henry Eeles Dresser and was published by the author between 1884 and 1886. The author was a Member of the Athenæum, from 1885, and donated this copy to the Library. This copy was bound in blue cloth with a gilt top edge and tooled title.

Henry Eeles Dresser (1838-1915), was a businessman who worked as a commission merchant in the Baltic timber trade in London, but he nursed a lifelong interest in birds and collected bird skins and eggs from his early teenage years. Through the 1860s, he travelled widely through Europe and sought out ornithologists with whom he could exchange birds and eggs. He became a leading figure in ornithological circles and was the author of more than 100 scientific papers on birds. This book on bee-eaters was based upon examination of the leading collections of the day, most notably his own. The book contains 34 hand-coloured lithographed plates by the Dutch bird illustrator John Gerald Keulemans, who lived for most of his working life in England.

I was told that the Committee’s intention was to allow me to decide what design would be most appropriate for the book, permitting me the freedom to be inspired by the text block. I was asked to bear in mind when coming up with a design, that the book may be handled and shown around, with respect, significantly more than most other binding commissions. It was therefore important that it would be sufficiently robust to stand up to years and, hopefully centuries, of enjoyment.

The first stage was to pull the binding and when I began to do so I realised that the original book had been printed on individual sheets that had been stab-bound and joined at the spine. Stab binding is when individual sheets of paper are ‘stabbed’ down the left hand edge with a tool and then the pages are sewn together by passing thread through the holes that have been made. These gathered sheets were then further sewn together to create the whole text block.

When pulling the book, the edges of the pages were left damaged so I decided to start afresh and trimmed a strip of paper off each page to tidy them up. I also methodically cleaned each page with a smoke sponge to remove surface dirt that had built up on the paper over the years. Part two of this blog post will go into more detail about the method I used to rebind this book from single pages.

Throughout the binding were these beautiful and vibrant hand-coloured lithographic prints that I was so inspired by. The bee-eaters are a group of birds in the family Meropidae, containing three genera and twenty-seven species. Most species are found in Africa and Asia, with a few in southern Europe, Australia, and New Guinea. They are characterised by richly coloured plumage, slender bodies, and usually elongated central tail feathers. All have long down-turned bills and medium to long wings, which may be pointed or round. Male and female plumages are usually similar.

~ The hand-coloured lithographic plates

I found an absolutely fantastic website with a database of feathers on it. From these I was able to select the following birds and printed out sheets of their feathers: Blue-tailed bee-eater, Little bee-eater, Blue-throated bee-eater, Northern Carmine bee-eater, White-fronted bee-eater, White-throated bee-eater and the Red-throated bee-eater. From each coloured sheet I chose a selection of feathers, ranging in size (from about 1cm long up to about 15cm long) and colour (greens, blues, browns oranges, pinks and everything in between!).

I traced the outline of each one, making sure I labelled them so I knew what sheet to refer back to for the colours of each feather. My intention was to create a cover design with a scattering of these different feathers on it, laid on top of one another in a random pattern.

~ Design work based on feather imagery

The next step in the design planning process was to choose the leather colours I wanted to use for the binding. The bright coloured plates within the book inspired my choice of a vibrant teal-coloured leather for the boards, with the spine piece of the binding to be bound in a contrasting fair calf. I additionally prepared thinly pared strips of leather in a rainbow of colours for the leather onlays to be cut from.

In addition to choosing the leather I needed to select some threads for the embroidery! I wanted to make sure each feather was embroidered in as close a match of coloured thread to the actual colour of the feather, which ended up being far more of a variety than shown here – in fact almost my entire range of colours!

~ Choosing a colour palette of threads for the feathers

The feathers were each laid out and traced onto a master sheet, to build up the design of the binding. I opted to use a larger quantity and density of feathers on the front cover and fewer on the back. I also wanted to title the spine, which was traced from the title lettering inside the text block to match and would be applied to the fair goat.

~ The design drawing for the binding cover

As with all of the fine bindings I do I create a sample board for each. This one was to be number 61 in my collection. I selected a small section from the design to fit the size of the sample board (measuring 78cm by 124cm). The feathers were cut out of leather in a shade to match their actual colour. I then applied extra colours and shading using acrylic paints.

Once the glue was dry I then started to add embroidery stitches to each of the feathers, starting with the central shaft followed by the barbs (the finer lines of the feather emanating from the central shaft).

The threads were each built up gradually, changing the threads where required to vary the colour across each individual feather.

Once the embroidery was complete, the leather was then stuck to the board. I was really pleased with the look of the piece and the way that with the stitching, the feathers appeared slightly three dimensional off the cover.

Part two of this blog post will explain the technique I used to bind the single sheets of this book into a text block. You can read it here.

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