My most recently completed commissioned binding is a 1935 bibliography of The Ashendene Press. William Morris and Kelmscott was the first of
the major private presses, started as a way to counter the Victorian habit of producing thousands of cheaply made books. Alongside Kelmscott are ranked two other major presses from the same period, The Doves Press and The Ashendene Press.
The Ashendene Press was a small private press founded in Chelsea in 1895 by Charles Harold St. John Hornby. He was a partner in W H Smith & Sons, but he set up his own press to print books for his family and friends. It operated from 1895 through to 1935 with a break from 1915-1920 during the First World War.
Most Ashendene editions used one of two fonts which were specially cast for the Press: Subiaco, and to a lesser extent Ptolemy. Hornby was a friend of Emery Walker’s, and Walker and Sydney Cockerell designed these two types for the Press. Subiaco is considered the finer type, and is based on a half-Roman type developed by two German monks at Subiaco in Italy in the 1460s.
The press often produced books in very small print runs and not many of
the books were for sale – those that were sold were done so through a subscription service. The books were often illustrated and the Press employed Edward Johnston, Graily Hewitt and Eric Gill to design coloured initials for use in the books.
The bibliographer Colin Franklin writes in his 1986 complete bibliography, “The Ashendene Press” (published by Bridwell Library) about the 1935
“This must have been one of the most generous bibliographies ever printed,
providing examples set again line-for-line, and with many drawn initials, of most Ashendene books since the Press began. Hornby’s foreword, marred only by his modesty, was at once recognized as a valuable essay. Large leaves were folded and mounted on guards. Illustrations, initials, watermarks, bindings, bibliographic description are amply given. This may well be the first choice for a collector who wants to have Ashendene Press represented.”
There are many references to the different fonts used by the Ashendene
Press throughout the bibliography. I decided I wanted the design to
specifically focus on the fonts and lettering that were featured on several pages towards the end of the book. I had always wanted to do a binding incorporating lettering and thought that this concept would work very well for the design.
With this in mind I came up with two solutions, the first of which
focusing on the book title, “The Ashendene Press”, making up these words with letters of differing fonts and sizes. I envisaged each of the letters to be worked using a different method too including; leather onlays, tooled outlines, embroidered, wooden cut-outs and gold-plated metal, combining
both plain and “bordered” letters.
My second idea was to illustrate the letters of the alphabet running across the cover.
Each design used a combination of plain and bordered letters, the plain letters being intertwined with vines. The idea of using a different illustration method for each of the letters partly stemmed from the following written by the printer in the book, where there is mention of zinc and wooden blocks both being used to print onto the pages:
“The initial letters designed for the Press by Graily Hewitt and Eric Gill, examples of which are shewn on the following pages, were printed from zinc blocks made from the original drawings. Those designed by Louise Powell for Don-Quixote were cut on wood by W.M. Quick and George Ford and printed direct from the wood blocks.”
The client specified at the start of our discussions about the commission
that he would like to have a tool made to accompany the binding and for it to be housed in the same box as the book. The vines gave me the perfect opportunity to work in an ivy leaf-shaped tool to fit this brief. He also wanted the horn emblem of the press to appear on the cover, so this was worked in and placed in the space of one of the leaves.
The first task was to work on a sample board for the binding to better
illustrate my proposal and visualise the colour combinations. The book is printed largely in black with red and blue inks in smaller quantities. With this in mind I chose to bind it in red goatskin with highlights of blues, gold and cream alongside wooden elements (oak in this case).
Following discussions with the client, “The Ashendene Press” title was chosen over the alphabet design so the sample board was based on this. At the time of producing the sample board I was unaware that I had made a typographical error and written “Ashdene” rather than “Ashendene” – one really good reason to do a sample board before working on the binding itself!
The front of the board incorporated a selection of the methods proposed for the cover design.
Knots were added to the wooden “P” to add a decorative element, plus to enable me to physically attach the letter to the board by drilling through and attaching with the threads.
The edge of the wooden “P” was covered with very thinly pared red leather and gold-tooled lines applied around the surface.
I wanted to continue the fonts theme onto the endpapers and illustrate
them using the Subaico type due to it’s significance to the press. I drew inspiration from on of the printed plates in the binding showing the “Stages in the making of the Subaico type”.
Off the back of seeing this I printed the endpapers using the soft-plate off-set printing technique to appear like a test page of the font. It was not possible to get hold of any Subaico type to print from directly so this had to be recreated by hand as accurately as possible.
I thought it would be a fun extra touch to have the words “Ashendene” and “Press” added to the doublures by piercing out the letters from the endpapers and backing them with gold leaf so that they stood out.
The book was pulled by applying paste to the spine to soften the old glue so that it could then be removed more easily.
The sections could then be separated in order to be re-sewn on new tapes.
The original sewing stations were used and endpapers made up and attached to the text block.
The book was forwarded and the boards attached and bevelled. At this point I was able to start work on the cover design. I began by cutting out the letter “E” from brass sheet using a jeweller’s piercing saw (the small “R” pictured was for the sample board).
Brass posts were then soldered to the back so that the piece could be physically attached through the board and grooves filed in at the points where the vine was to pass across the front of the letter. Once this was complete it was cleaned up, polished and gold plated.
I then worked on the “bordered” letters which could be done off the book as they were due to be inlaid once the binding had been covered. Firstly I used paper templates to work out the colour scheme for the inlays.
And then used corresponding coloured threads to add details to the letters.
I then pared and embroidered the red covering leather with the vine stalks and other detail, pricking holes through a template to ensure I knew where to place the stitches.
The “H” was outlined in metallic thread and then extra diagonal stitching detail was added using the same colour thread.
COVERING THE BOOK
Once all of the embroidery was complete, it was then time to paste the leather to the binding.
Once the leather was on the book, the edges were turned in and the headcaps were formed. It was then left to dry overnight, changing the blotting papers regularly.
Once dry the leather could be tooled. The client had asked for a finishing tool to be made to be used on the binding. I had spent some time previous to this binding turning some wood for bespoke tool handles in a variety of woods, pictured below from left to right: oak, tulip, beech and mahogany.
I chose to use a mahogany handle so added a brass shank into it (pictured on the far right in the below image).
The brass shank was then filed into the shape I wanted, in this case an ivy leaf which was to hang on the embroidered vines.
A stem was added to the tool by filing a central line into the tool face, and then I tested the shape on a piece of scrap leather.
Once I was happy with the final shape and finish of the tool, I was able to blind-tool the ivy leaf shape onto the book itself.
Once I knew where all of my gold leaves were going to sit I was able to inlay the bordered letters by firstly marking their placement out on masking tape.
The red leather was then cut away and the inlay glued in place so it lay flush.
I then moved on to applying gold to the blind-tooled leaves.
When the leaf impressions didn’t quite get the solid coverage I wanted with the first application of gold, I marked them with some masking tape in order to do a second gold impression.
Once the binding had been tooled it was time to add the wooden letters to the front and back covers. Before doing so, I edged the letters with very thinly pared red leather, and then stuck tiny strips of gold leaf that had been mounted onto Japanese paper, at equal distances all around the edges.
I also added green threads around the letters where the vines were due to cross the front of them. These were drilled through the letters and the ends of the threads glued down on the reverse.
To attach the wooden letters to the boards, holes were drilled through at certain points in order to physically fix them. I used brass pins to fix the “P” – the end of which were bent over into a channel on the reverse of the boards.
On the front of the letter, the heads of the pins were placed to create a decorative feature.
The gold-plated “E” was also attached to the front board by passing the posts that had been soldered to the back of it through some drilled holes.
And the “A” fixed by a series of knots formed on the top of the letter.
Once these elements had been added it was then possible to infill the inside of the boards in preparation for the paper doublures to go down. Before gluing the doublures down I pierced out the title letters using a scalpel and backed the cut out with gold leaf that had been adhered to Japanese paper.
This made the title letters catch the light and stand out against the other black font.
Finally, once the book was complete I was able to work on the box. Oak was machined for the sides of the box and panels cut for the lid and base. The wood was machined so that there would be a compartment for the finishing tool to sit it.
In order to secure the finishing tool into the box I soldered together two brass mounts that were then cleaned up, padded and fixed into the box.
And so, after months of planning and working on the binding I can now say it is finished! It’s all been photographed and handed over to the client so I’ll end with some photos of the completed work – more photos and details of which can be found on my website too…
DETAIL OF “A”…
HEADCAPS AND ORIGINAL GILT TOP EDGE…
BOOK IN THE BOX…
(NB. There was some debate at the design stages about whether when looking at the front cover of the binding on it’s own it would be confusing, just reading “E Press” due to the layout of the wording. To try and counteract this I designed the box so that only “Press” was visible through the frosted acrylic and the title in full could be read by the placement of “The Ashendene” to the left-hand side of the lid.)
THE BOX WITH THE ADDED COMPARTMENT FOR THE FINISHING TOOL…
(NB. In addition to the two mounts holding the tool in place, I added a magnetic closure hidden in a leather strap to keep it secure.)
DETAIL OF FINISHING TOOL…