The Grasses of Great Britain Part One: The Book and the Inspiration

Back in 2020 the theme for the next Designer Bookbinders International Bookbinding Competition was announced, ‘A Gathering of Leaves’. The chosen theme of plants, gardens and anything connected with flora was to help celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the founding of the Oxford Botanic Gardens, the oldest Botanic Garden in Great Britain and one of the oldest Scientific gardens in the world.

“Plants play a central role to life on Earth. They have provided food, clothing, shelter & medicines for many centuries. Plants have many symbolic uses in art, mythology and literature and gardens have provided employment, leisure and enjoyment throughout history. There are many and varied texts available on this expansive subject.”

There was no set book which gave a great opportunity to search for a text of my own choice to work with. I have always been fascinated by the variety of grasses growing around where I live, and given my penchant for embroidery thought that this would make a very interesting subject matter for a cover design.

Looking carefully at grasses picked on our country walks I loved the intricacy of the colours and seeds found on them, they are so textural and pretty in their structure so I made it my goal to find a book of grasses to bind.

I searched online and found a book called, The Grasses of Great Britain for sale on ABE books, it was in perfect need of a rebind as although the text block was sound, the covers were loose and the spine was degrading. The book itself is an important English herbarium with 144 colour plates by John E. Sowerby. Not only did it include the history of grasses but also their uses as medicines, edible plants and for healing.

John Edward Sowerby was a British botanical illustrator and publisher active in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Coming from a family of botanical painters, his father and grandfather both published books on English plants, it is likely that he began illustrating at a young age. He inherited a taste for botanical drawing, and in 1841 produced his first work – the plates for his father’s Illustrated Catalogue of British Plants. His life was later mainly spent illustrating botanical works for several books, in collaboration with Charles Johnson, and his son Charles Pierpoint Johnson, who contributed the text such as this volume on The Grasses of Great Britain.

~ The original text block

Interestingly when the book arrived I found various dried grasses pressed in between the pages – one previous owner must have enjoyed searching for and identifying the grass species found in the book.

I loved the clear illustrations of the grasses throughout, coloured in subtle shades of not just greens but also purple, yellow, orange, pink and blue – who would have thought grass would have so many variations to it!

~ Dried grasses pressed in between the pages

To any bookbinder’s dismay, when I began to pull the book I realised that the original binding 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 and torn so I decided to start afresh and trimmed a strip of paper off each page to tidy them up.

~ Trimming off the edges of the pages which were stab bound in individual sheets

I also methodically cleaned each of the pages with a smoke sponge to remove the surface dirt, especially where there had been dried grass pressed between the sheets.

~ Cleaning all of the pages with a smoke sponge

As the book was all in single sections I thought hard about how best to rebind it. The options to rebind a book that starts off as single pages aren’t great. One option is to glue up all the single sheets and to saw-in cords into the spine and then create a case binding which I didn’t want to do for this book. The second option was to make up the single sheets into sections by tipping each of the pages onto extra strips of paper to be folded centrally. Again, I didn’t feel this would work for this binding as the book was made up on over 100 pages and I didn’t want to add extra thickness to each sheet.

After a bit of deliberation I decided to try something new to me, therefore rather than creating a sample board for this binding I planned to mock up the whole binding structure as a sample book. I will go into detail about this trial binding method in the next blog post, but the structure ultimately ended up as a normal text block allowing for the leather to be prepared as for a fine binding.

The sample book measured the same as one of my sample boards in its height and width: 125mm x 75mm, but the thickness differed at about 18mm in comparison to 5mm. The pages of the sample book were blank, perhaps in due course to be filled with details of the catalogue of each of my design bindings that I am still yet to do.

~ The reverse of the sample board leather after embroidery

I wanted to work with negative space embroidery, planning the design so that the sewing was concentrated outside of the central area. I used the grasses illustrations from within the text block to build up the design. I traced various grasses and placed them in a pattern that emanated from the blank central space of the binding. My vision for the larger book was to use this central space for a title panel.

~ The front of the sample board leather after embroidery

This isn’t the first time I have made a sample book rather than a sample board ahead of working on a binding. In some cases it makes sense to do so, for example if the binding is smaller than the sample boards I make it its overall size, in the case of the Monet binding below. Alternatively if I need to test out a structural idea, in the terms of the La Prose du Transsiberien or The Grasses of Great Britain beneath it.

~ Three miniature sample books stacked on top of each other

I end the first part of this blog post with an atmospheric picture of the finished sample binding showing the textures of the embroidery applied to the leather. One of the wonderful things I am starting to discover about embroidering onto leather, especially when it comes to designs such as this, is the subtle way the threads create height above the surface of the covering leather.

~ Detail of the sample book embroidery

The second part of this blog post describes how I trialled out a method for binding this book made up of individual sheets rather than sections.

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