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'MAKING GOOD': An Interview With Trevor Lloyd
by Alan Isaac

(AI) Trevor, I would like to start by asking you why it is that you seem to have taken on the mantle of raising the profile of restoration binders.

(TL) I think over the years I have seen many articles about bookbinders but very rarely have I seen any articles about period binding or restoration that have included photographs. I think also it was because I have felt for quite a long time that period binding and, to a certain extent, restoration, has been looked down on. It has been seen as a way to supplement people’s earnings from binding, almost surreptitiously in a sense. Too many people have said that they do either design binding or fine binding but, in order to just keep the money coming in or to keep the wolf from the door, they do a bit of restoration work or a bit of period work. They do not treat it professionally as they should do. It is more or less always seen as something people do on the side, so to speak.

Is your objection to this treatment the fact that you feel the skills involved are not given there due standing, as it were?

Yes, I think it is because it is seen to be copying things from the past, and because it is not seen to be forward thinking or new or innovative; that it is almost looked down upon. It does not have its own professional category in that sense, although having said that there are a few people who do earn very good livings from doing it.

Perhaps they are people who, for whatever reason, have not come to light other than within a small circle, but you feel that they are deserving of a richer reputation than they have?

Yes, I don’t see any reason for not being well known purely for period binding, for instance, provided that the work is of a sufficiently high standard. Most contemporary binders who are well known are known for design bindings aren’t they? There are very, very few people who are well known for their period work. And again there is this element of it being seen as copying things from the past and that, in a sense, it’s relatively easy work, that you don’t need a huge range of special skills to do it, which is in fact completely untrue. It is exactly the opposite, in my experience anyway.

How did you get into bookbinding in the first instance? Perhaps you could tell me something of your pre-bookbinding past.

I first encountered bookbinding in about 1976 when I was studying to be a teacher at the College of Ripon and York St John. I was studying to be a woodwork teacher and the secondary subject, which you had to do at the time, was art, which was broken down into several different areas. One of the modules that I did was a bookbinding course for maybe six weeks with Trevor Jones who was a tutor at the college. I think probably having done those few weeks I more or less knew that that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

What was it within that course, do you think, that, as it were, hooked you? You have no doubt given that a fair amount of thought in subsequent years?

I have. I have given a huge amount of thought to it. I just don’t know why. I just can’t tell you. Although I liked Trevor’s bindings, it was not his bindings which attracted me to it; it was the craft of bookbinding itself. I don’t know where my enthusiasm for books and bookbinding comes from. I am enthusiastic about lots of things. When you came in this morning I was espousing the virtues of the Scottish Wheel binding I had just bought, however I could have been just as enthusiastic about a painting or some furniture. Sad, isn’t it? (laughing) Bookbinding just caught my imagination.

But at that stage you switched across completely from your planned career - which was presumably woodworking either practically, or teaching - to bookbinding?

Yes. There’s no doubt about it. I was within a year of being a woodwork teacher. So I had a pretty lucky escape really, no offence to woodwork teachers. (laughing) But, yes I left college after the second year and I obviously needed a job so I worked for a while for a furniture restorer because I had woodworking skills. It was a part-time job and I rented a workshop with literally no equipment at all and I hawked myself around the bookshops in York and tried to persuade people to give me books to restore.

So you weren’t, as it were, guided at all by Trevor Jones?

No, I never felt the desire, having seen his work, to go off and become a designer binder.

No, but didn’t he give you advice as to how to pursue a career in bookbinding?

No, not at all. After I left college I don’t think I saw him again for about twenty years.

What would your skill base have been at that stage?

Very low. I am really pleased nobody gave me any books. (laughing)

So some gullible bookseller, or otherwise, did give you some books and said, have a go at these?

Yes, actually one bookseller did give me some cloth work to repair. I think I repaired them reasonably well.

As far as you could do without any tools?

That’s right, and then I met a woman called Jenny Aste. She had quite a long history in binding. She had been to, I can’t remember whether it was Camberwell, or the London College of Printing. She had been to work for John Smarts doing binding and restoration work. She had moved up to York and had set a workshop up on her own and had felt that she would quite like someone to work with her because she found it fairly solitary and had loads of work to do. So I went and worked with her. She was an excellent restorer and a good finisher. She taught me a great deal actually.

Is that where you trace your skills as a restorer?

Well, she was the first person I had ever seen who had either rebound an antiquarian book to style or had restored an antiquarian book, and it was a revelation to me. It was the first time I had seen really good period work and it was a whole leap forward. Suddenly from seeing a few students producing things that students produce to go and work next to someone who was doing it professionally and working on rare and valuable books and doing every single thing herself. It was a real eye opener. I suddenly realised that there was a future in this thing that I was scratching about at, but it was on a much higher level than I was at.

Where did you start with her?

Well, she stuck with me. She showed me how to re-back books. First of all I did a lot of re-backing publisher’s boards. Then I did some simple quarter bindings and then leather rebacks. I did a very small amount of finishing. Most of the work she did the finishing on. She was a good finisher there’s no doubt. She had the right temperament to be a finisher; methodical, calm, able to concentrate – completely the opposite to me! (laughing). I think there is also an element of having a feel for it as well – she knew where the tools went. You know, she was able to do that.

How long were you with Jenny?

For a couple of years.

And at that stage you felt that it was …

This would have been the very early ‘80s. There was a recession and there was a slight crisis in the antiquarian book trade. The work dropped off and there wasn’t enough to keep the two of us going. It was then I decided to go to London. My wife now – who was my partner at the time – got a job in London and I moved down there and took an example of some of my work to Stanley Bray, the owner of Sangorskis. He had had nobody really interested in doing the restoration work for a long time then. When I started, after having initially made four hundred quarter leather slipcases to get me into the feel of it, he showed me this huge pile of books in the corner of the workshop that had got a great dustsheet over them. He said you had better start working through these, and he flicked the dust sheet over and there was just a mound of antiquarian books with tickets in them. And I started pulling them out and some of these tickets were ten years old - they had '1969' and '1970' written on them! That was when the books had come in and it was 1980 now! (He laughed) "Oh", he said, "people don’t mind leaving them here". One dealer had said to him, "the longer I leave it with you the more it will be worth when it comes back". So there was just a mound of stuff and so I set to and did all that restoration work. It took about six to eight months to clear the backlog. As they had no reputation for restoration work, they had no on-going restoration work, so when the pile was finished I just dropped on to whatever was available; box making or binding and, again, that was another steep learning curve because suddenly I was in with people who had been binding for 10, 20, or even 30 years.

You felt comfortable with the restoration work?

Yes, well by that stage I was able to cope with it, and do it well – or well enough. The binding work and the box work took more time to get used to, just in terms of the through put of work – just to get yourself into a routine where you knew that everything had got to be done in the right way and in the right order at the right time.

Were expected to keep up with the old hands?

Yes, absolutely! It was very difficult because as the new boy in the shop I was under extreme scrutiny, I can tell you.

By whom?

From everyone! (He said, laughing).

Did the other workers try to make life difficult for you?

Well, they weren’t sure – they weren’t backward in pointing out my mistakes, I can tell you - like, "Can you gather round lads, look what he's done now!" (He laughs). No, to be honest most people treated me well there, and some of the people I worked at the bench with then are still good friends now. But I had to learn very quickly. But all the time I had been doing the restoration work I had been watching what was going on and taking it all in so when it came to it, which I knew it was going to, I had to knuckle down and do it.

So you felt that you held your own there, when you went in to the general workshop?

Yes, I had been used to covering full bindings, it was just that I hadn’t been used to the accuracy of full morocco work in the restoration work that I had been doing. I wasn’t able to do it straight away, no, but I worked very hard at bringing my level of binding up to the level of the rest of the shop as soon as I could.

How long were you at S&S?

I was there about four years.

And then you decided that the time was right to move on?

Yes. We were touring Wales on holiday and the opportunity arose to move to a house in Wales and look after it for two years while the owners were away, and we decided that we would do it. So we sold up in London and moved.

So that was after 10 years of binding really?


Yes, something like that. It was in 1984 or 5. I had all the contacts of people that I had worked for with Jenny in York and I had made some contacts in London. I had been doing some work in the flat in London in the evenings, so I just wrote to everybody begging for work again, but this time quite a lot started to come in.

You had a set up at home in the London flat?

Yes, I was working in the kitchen, you know, in the flat in Tooting. While I was working at Sangorski’s I was working in the evenings at home. I am sure that most binders must do work at home as well. It is not well paid as a binder. It certainly wasn’t then.

So working on your own in Wales. You established your bindery and got under way with your contacts, and have been doing the same kind of work in the same areas since?

Yes, as well as having a family, doing up two houses and building binderies! While all the time developing the work that I do. The work has changed in the sense that each job is more complex and bigger. When you first start doing work you end up doing 10 or 20 rebacks or whatever, in a week, but now the jobs are such that probably it might take a week to do one book because they are much more difficult much more complex jobs. So the throughput of books is much less.

But they are higher value books that you are working on?

Yes, they are much more rare and much more valuable than the stuff I started with.

Do you feel the same way about the work as you did when you first started out? Is the work that you are doing as you envisaged it would be?

Well it has been a slow process. When you start out you are willing to do anything. When I started then I did not think that at some stage I was going to be working on books like, say, the Nuremberg Chronicle, Gould’s Birds or Newton’s Principia, but as things slowly develop and as you become better at the job and as your skills improve and as your knowledge increases you invariably work on rarer more valuable books. I would never have envisaged then that I would be working on the books that I am working on now. But I guess it is a natural progression. I mean if I was still doing…

You may have gone back to teaching had you not developed?

No, I don’t think I would ever go back to teaching (laughing). No, not at all!

But the progression has maintained your interest such that you have always found the desire to go on?

I have always wanted to make the product better.

Where do you see your inspiration as having come from to do that? You don’t seem to have any particular role model, or is there anyone that you particularly admire now that you aspire to emulate as it were?


What’s kept me going is the natural progression of more and more challenging work.

That you are seeing different books, ones that you can look at?

Absolutely,

They are more interesting books

Yes, they are more interesting books and the jobs are more challenging.

Well, perhaps you could tell me then about what you regard as a challenging current or recent project that you have worked on?

To me this is what I consider to be an exciting and challenging job. A very good customer of mine has a fantastic collection of books on optics and early science manuals etc. and he came in with a copy of Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, dated about 1550, that had been really badly rebound in buckram at some stage. So he presented me with this fantastic book and a torn out page of a catalogue (he held a coloured image of a binding). He said, "this is a copy of John Peckham’s Optics 1551, that is how Palladio’s book of architecture should have looked. Can you make it like that please? Could you make a binding like that?" So to me the challenge is to take what is a really poorly bound book and restore it and rebind it in a period binding that looks and feels and has all the charm of a book of that period. So from here I have got to enlarge it, copy the tools, get the tools made, match the colour of the leather, match the texture of the boards, do the whole thing so that it will look fairly similar to that when it is finished. The challenge is to make it as close to that as is practicable on a new binding without, I have to say, being passed off as a forgery. It is never intended to fool anyone that that was an original binding. It is for that particular book to fit into this person’s library and sit comfortably with other books of a similar ilk on the shelf.

So you’ll be able to achieve that on the basis only of the single photograph?

Yes. The catalogue photograph of the book was taken obliquely. I mean that was not like that (referring to the photograph he held) it was taken spine first and foreedge a long way away. The first thing I did was to ‘phone Mel [Jefferson] up and ask for help. He advised me how to digitally bring it round so that I got a flat face. So that it becomes a drawing that I can work from. I will break down the design into all the particular elements and then those particular elements I will blow up and redraw and then I will get P&S or ABS to make the tools. [Finished binding]

The orthodoxy in restoration work would be that in trying to reproduce a period binding one would use period tools, but that is not your approach I think?

No, not at all. Not long after I had started working in Wales a good friend of mine brought in a book called Howard’s Structure of the Earth which was a late 18th Century binding, possibly by Edwards of Halifax, tree marbled, which was typical of the period. It had Greek vases on the spine, a Greek key round the outside of the boards, a milled roll round the outside, and acanthus leaves in the corners. I looked at the finishing in detail under magnification and realised then that the person who did that binding had done it with newly cut tools. Those tools were clear and sharp and accurate, and it was at that point that I realised I was never going to acquire old tools which were going to give the same impressions as newly cut tools. There is no question about it, and I made a decision then that I sold a lot of the old tools that I had acquired. I planned ahead every job that came in and I made sure that I could buy the tools or have the tools made to do the job. That is why virtually every tool that I have in the bindery now is newly cut or has been newly cut in the last 17 or 18 years. I think the chances of finding the right tools in any condition to be able to produce a good impression are very, very minimal.

Your approach is to tool the work accurately because you believe that is how bindings were produced, and then, as it were, to age the book, so that it does not appear as though it is a recently bound book?

Yes, that’s right. I do age them. They would stand out dreadfully if they were just tooled directly on to the leather base colour. Where these books are going, the libraries and customers who are buying these books don’t want to see that; they do not want to see a new brash binding, however well executed. It wants to be comfortable; it wants to be a nice comfortable antiquarian book, not a forgery, just in keeping.

You’re known as having made something of a study of period bindings. Is that something that began when you were working with Jenny?

No, not really. It was not until I had decided that I needed to have new tools cut. Where was I going to get all the patterns from to have all these tools made? A good customer of mine with a fantastic library of contemporary bindings in pristine condition, which he gave me access to in the late eighties. I would go down there and go through his library and study the shelves. I would photocopy the spine and the boards, make notes on the back about the colour of leather, the headbands etc. I took literally hundreds and hundreds of photocopies, which I keep in a file. Then what I would do is when a book came in which was dated 1750, I could flick through and find a photocopy of a book from that period. I could, if I needed, have the tools made. In conjunction with that, I started building a reference library and I acquired a lot of Maggs catalogues. The problem with a lot of the catalogues is that they are very often presentation bindings. They are highly ornate and do not represent the bulk of good, solid gentleman’s library bindings, which is how most people want their books to be bound. So that was the only source I had initially of finding patterns of what books were actually bound like at that period. When I was working with Jenny in York, a particular dealer there said to me "if at any time you want to see what books look like just come in and take the books off the shelves and look at them all, get a feel for them and see what books of the period feel like", and I think that is a golden rule actually, if you want to do restoration work, or you are going to do period binding, go out and find contemporary bindings and look at them and feel them. There is no substitute for it really. I think a lot of people try to do period work by just making it up or thinking that is what it should look like.

Is your collection still expanding or do you feel that you have now reached a point where you could say with a good degree of accuracy what a 1750 English binding would look like and so you don’t need to continue collecting copies?

Yes, I know the periods extremely well but you can’t just have one style for 1750, you have got to look at all the different nuances and be able to produce a dozen different styles of binding for that particular period. I am still drawing and having tools made. It does not matter how many you have the next book that comes in you will not have the one for it. I am just committed to that. It’s just an on going expense, but it is because of that that I have got the work, really.

Do you feel that your finishing is better using newly made tools?

Well, there is no question that in twenty years my finishing has improved a million per cent. I was never really taught finishing. Although I did a small amount with Jenny, I have never been on a course or been taught finishing. Everything is self-taught. I have learnt a huge amount about finishing from reading the early manuals and early journals. I consider myself to be a good finisher. I am not a great finisher in the sort of tradition of turn of the century finishers for Morrells or Zaehnsdorfs or Bayntuns.

I have experimented with different types or ways of finishing but I have reverted to a very traditional style of finishing; paste wash, coats of egg albumen and straight in with the tools. Most of these are marked out just simply, but they are never blinded in.

They are put in by eye straight on to the book?

Absolutely.

Is that because that is a successful method?

Well, no, it’s because the most important factor in brightness and adhesion of the gold is the moisture content in the leather. The moisture content of the leather, particularly now in warm, dry environments is low and you have a very short working time, so I prefer to paste wash, get glaired up and tool in the shortest period of time. Those big spines on Johnson’s Dictionary were tooled in less than an hour and a half, from first paste wash to completion. That is a big spine to do in that period of time. That is how they were done in the 18th century; there is no question about it. If they were complex designs on the boards they might be marked out but the spines were just, I hate to use the word, but whacked in, very competently and very accurately, but by eye.

You are still studying and collecting books on binding and early trades books?

Yes, I have built up a large collection of books on binding, including a lot of the rare early manuals, Books of Trades and Trade journals, which contain articles and descriptions related to bookbinding.



Is that with a view to writing or speaking? How do you see your role in the wider context of education for future generations of bookbinders?

As you get older your family responsibilities are slightly less you become aware that you have more time in order to be able to go out and contribute to, say, the SOB education programme. I lectured at Birmingham this year and enjoyed it enormously and I will be doing it again at the Conference next year, where I hope to combine a lecture about a particular historical aspect off binding and a practical demonstration of finishing which will tie in with that.

Do you have any view as to what action may be taken to encourage younger people to take up bookbinding? Were your son to be interested, I don’t know whether he is or not…

No, he’s not; no one in my family is interested in bookbinding (laughter).

But were he to be …

My biggest asset really is my enthusiasm for it. I think it is very difficult to interest young people.

Bookbinding is, arguably, in decline and, some might say, it is in terminal decline, do you see that being reversed in any way?

I think it is a huge question. I think that the people coming into bookbinding now are radically different to the people who came in to it 30, 40 or even 50 years ago, because their father’s put them in as apprentices or whatever. People are coming in to bookbinding now in their middle age when they have decided that it is something they would rather do than the job they are doing at the moment. In other words they have decide to pursue an alternative career. There are a lot of people like that who come to [the Society of Bookbinders'] Conference to extend their skills base, and that’s a good thing, probably coming to Society’s events is the only opportunity they will have because they are not going to get to work in firms.

Do you think that the decline in bookbinding, if that is the case, has any wider implications for the book trade at large?

Well, yes, of course it does. If in 50 years time there are no people who possess the skills to be able to restore and rebind books then the book trade is going to be in great difficulties because it is only going to get work done at the level that is available. If the skills are lost this level will decline further over time. There is no doubt that the book trade is worried about it, they can foresee a time when there won’t be people who have the skills to be able to restore books that need proper restoration. That’s a big worry really. I certainly spend a lot of time restoring books, which have at some time already been to other binders, not only recently, but also in the 50’s and 60’s and have been made a terrible mess of.

So, to sum up, perhaps you are personally optimistic but for the profession as a whole you are rather pessimistic, would that be fair?

I am worried about the decline in skills particularly finishing and I think the Society really is going to have an increasingly more important role to play in education and training. One of the things we can do is show people what is attainable, what good work is being done, what the level is that they should be trying to reach.

A benchmark

Yes, a benchmark for people to achieve things, to say I have reached this particular level and I want to go on and do the next bit. But it is not easy. It has taken me 25 years to get to this level (laughing).


This article was originally published in Vol. 17 of BOOKBINDER,
the Journal of the Society of Bookbinders

 

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