Bookmarking Book Art – The British Library & Maggs Bros Ltd

The British Library and Maggs Bros Ltd (with Designer Bookbinders) have separately delivered a profusion of book arts and book art events for the month of May: from the BL, talks associated with the exhibition “Writing: Making Your Mark” and the series “Artists’ Books Now”; from Maggs Bros and DB, workshops and displays associated with London Craft Week (8-12 May).

At the British Library, I peered through the glass at the Diamond Sutra (868 AD). The distinctiveness of the portraits and the density of the carving rival that of 15th century Renaissance frescoes and Durer’s prints. Even if photography had been allowed, the vitrine and lighting would not permit my camera to capture the details, and reduced in size from the original, the postcard below barely does. Alternatively, a visit to the BL’s website yields a zoomable image by which you can judge the distinctiveness and density yourself.

Postcard. The British Library. Diamond Sutra (868), 2009.

If, counting from the time of Lucy in the Olduvai Gorge, the 5000 years of writing and reading makes for only a tiny sliver of the anthropocene, the era of reading books represents so far a sliver of that sliver. Belinda Jack, a Fellow and Tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, talked for a brief hour about the history of the reading “half” of the equation. Jack’s Reading: A Very Short Introduction is built on the premise that, unlike the writing half with its artefacts of bone, rope, clay, bamboo, stone, paper and screens, this other half’s history proceeds only through indirect evidence of what we do with the written, by speculation about our reaction to it.

9 May 2019

Although she did not mention making art in, with or from books, it was impossible not to think of the “glass free and photos allowed” exhibit of bookbinding and book art at Maggs Bros Ltd, Bedford Square, only 20 minutes’ walk from the BL.

Hawthorn (2019)
Midori Kunikata-Cockram

Two works by Midori Kunikata-Cockram were on display: Hawthorn (2019) and African Grey Parrots (2010). You can find other examples of her bindings in the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings. The two examples shown here, however, could be pulled from the shelf, opened, closed and examined. If you zoom in on the left-hand panel above, you might see that one of the stamens of the hawthorn blossom floats above the petal. That kind of attention to detail makes this work of otherwise muted colours a vibrant thing you can feel with your eyes.

African Grey Parrots (2010)
Midori Kunikata-Cockram

Meeting Mark Cockram at the exhibit was welcome serendipity. Not only did he tell me about African Grey Parrots’ being Kunikata-Cockram’s response to their keeping a parrot during a friend’s vacation, he pointed out the meticulous registration within pages and across the recto to verso pages. The feel and appearance of the cover’s vellum is just as breathcatching.

Nightmare (2018)
Mark Cockram

The pages of Cockram’s oversized contribution to “psycho-geography” feels like they had been pulled off hoardings to be bound in the sidewalk-grey leather. At a more textual end of the spectrum is his on-spec binding of this edition of A Clockwork Orange, signed by Anthony Burgess. The way the title spreads across the back cover, spine and front cover almost forces a handling of the book — turning it over from front to back then back to front — and, in the process, feeling the collaged textures of the boards bound to the spine.

A Clockwork Orange (1962)
Anthony Burgess
Binding, Mark Cockram

The weight of the garish boards holds the book open for a comfortable reading of the 1960s text block — as if they were saying, “Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well”.

The BL’s exhibition continues through 28 August. Exhibitions at Maggs Bros Ltd are shorter lived but can be spotted by following them on Instagram.

Bookmarking Book Art – Kintsugi

Photo: Agnieszka Czeblakow, University of Texas at San Antonio Special Collections

Staff in Special Collections at the University of San Antonio libraries caught this sudden slant of sunlight on insect-damaged pages. It makes a good start for a serendipitous trek across conservation, book history and book art.

Those dry tunneled pages tear easily with turning, compounding the loss with further damage. To forestall such damage, the areas of loss could be filled page by page with Japanese paper (kozo or gampi) or with paper pulp. The Smithsonian’s book conservation lab illustrates the former method here:

Before
After
Katie Wagner, “The Fix — Manuscript Conservation“, Unbound, 21 April 2016. Smithsonian Libraries. Accessed 31 December 2018.

and the latter here:

John M. Keeling, “The Fix — Flawless Fills with Paper Pulp“, Unbound, 23 September 2015. Smithsonian Libraries. Accessed 31 December 2018.

The mending with Japanese paper reminds me of passages in A Degree of Mastery, where the author describes mending rare books with kozo paper under the eagle eye of the late Bill Anthony. The mending with paper pulp though recalls the painstaking art of Pat Gentenaar-Torley.

Working on pulp painting from the front to the back
Photo credit: courtesy of Pat Gentenaar-Torley

Three centuries before the paper in the San Antonio book was printed, bound and readied for damage in the centuries to follow, parchment — sturdier as it was — had its inherent flaws and elicited peculiar remedies for tears and loss. Erik Kwakkel’s site and books illustrate and celebrate several examples of what he calls “the beauty of the injured book”:

Tears repaired with thread
Loss repaired with thread.
Augusta Strand, “A medieval book mended with silk thread“, 17 October 2013. Uppsala University Library. Accessed 31 December 2018.

Dreamcatchers spring to mind. What were the thoughts caught in words now missing on these pages, words slipped from the dreamcatching pages? Our medieval “dreamcatcher” conservator seems to have in mind more than the principles of modern conservation — perhaps something more akin to kintsugi.

Kintsugi (or kintsukuroi) is a Japanese method for repairing broken ceramics with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. The philosophy behind the technique is to recognize the history of the object and to incorporate the repair visibly into the new piece instead of disguising it.

Several centuries later, confronted with an 18th century volume of Horace, UK bookbinder Kathy Abbott was similarly inspired. Her story is recounted in Flash of the Hand (13 December 2015) and Skin Deep (Spring 2017).

Q. Horatii Flacci Carmina Expurgata (1784)
Conserved binding ‘Kintsugi’ style, 2011
Hand-dyed alum tawed thongs, hand-gilded hand-made paper
Kathy Abbott
Photo from Skin Deep (Spring 2017). Accessed 31 December 2018.

Whether this is “conservation binding” is a debated point. According to Jeff Peachey, it is “very creative repurposing of existing binding elements that
add a new layer of meaning to old books, which is, I submit, more properly
considered book arts” [Correspondence with Books On Books, 13 August 2018].

The extensive and well-documented work of Mark Cockram, book artist, master bookbinder and founder of Studio 5 Book Arts in London, bridges the debate. Cockram’s first venture with kintsugi occurred by accident, falling out of a separate, deliberate experiment to collaborate with nature — by burying books with the help of friends around the world and by submitting them to tanks of insects with the help of forensic entomologist Amoret Whitaker. Marc Webb (Park Light Pictures) captures Cockram’s original intent and results in this video created to accompany Cockram’s and nature’s works of art displayed at Pestival (2010). Cockram’s first kintsugi work, entitled Kintsugi (2013), came as a response to cracks appearing after freeze-drying the cover of one of sketchbooks buried in a garden in Bangkok.

Kintsugi (2013)
Mark Cockram
Unique. Buried book with 23.5 ct gold leaf inclusions. 15cm x 20cm.
Courtesy of Maggs Brothers Ltd

So pleased with the outcome of the accident, Cockram produced Kintsugi 2 (2018).

Another work of kintsugi-by-accident is Michele Emerick Brown‘s Miscellany, which began as an entry to the 2016 Guild of Book Workers’ binding exhibition. Sewn with a link stitch and of German paper case construction, it consists of printing examples from the bookbinding and restoration program at the Camberwell School of Art and Crafts, as it was known back in the 70s. Of more interest, its boards are made of Rockite (a concrete mix) and marble dust.

Miscellany (2018)
Before breakage
Michele Emerick Brown

After its not being accepted to the GBW exhibition, Brown writes,

I decided to enter it in the Artistree exhibit. I have a cottage in NH and thought I’d drop it off the same week-end I was meeting some friends. I took it out of the bag to show them, turned, tripped and dropped the book. Each board broke in several pieces. Very traumatic. It seemed like this book wasn’t meant to be exhibited.

After a couple of weeks I decided to glue it back together using construction adhesive and thought I would use gold leaf to highlight the cracks. While I was thinking about how to do it (what kind of glaire to use etc), someone told me about kintsugi. I ended up using gold acrylic (Golden). I went ahead and submitted it and it was accepted.[Correspondence with Books On Books, ]

Miscellany (2018)
After breakage and “kintsugi” repair
Michele Emerick Brown
Miscellany (2018)
Inside view of concrete boards “before” breakage
Michele Emerick Brown
Miscellany (2018)
Inside front cover after breakage and “kintsugi” repair
Michele Emerick Brown

Another “kintsugi book artist” is Lorenzo Perrone. Much like Werner Pfeiffer, Perrone has focused on the book as unreadable object and, as his site called “Libribianchi” implies, almost completely white.

Kintsugi (2018)
Lorenzo Perrone
Mixed media: book, plaster, white and gold pigments
42x26x16cm

Evident from this video about Perrone and this one about Pfeiffer, Perrone’s work is more romantic in a literary sense. His recent adoption of bronze and installations adds an elemental, alchemical, even phenomenological feel to his oeuvre. As he puts it, “Before, water was enough to make paper malleable, now I need fire to make bronze compliant.” Despite the disappearance of text in Perrone’s works, they still perform that ekphrastic act of book art and send me back to re-read — this time Bachelard’s Water and Dreams and Fragments of a Poetics of Fire.

Like the pleasure of kintsugi, an increase of enjoyment in something elemental, something fusing the past with the present, the broken with the re-created and the head with the heart.