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Walking into the studio in the garden of Rosy Gray's home is like stepping back in time. ; Picture essay Suzanne Savill [Western Daily Press (UK)]
[January 18, 2014]

Walking into the studio in the garden of Rosy Gray's home is like stepping back in time. ; Picture essay Suzanne Savill [Western Daily Press (UK)]

(Western Daily Press (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Positioned around the room are various oldfashioned metal and wooden devices that look like instruments of medieval torture.

There is not an electrical cable, computer, iPad or digital tablet in sight. Instead, rolls of coloured leather fill the shelves, and paper pages are stacked carefully upon a table.

Here at the Black Cat Bindery it is as if the digital age - complete with e-books and Kindle - never happened.

Instead, there are beautifully-crafted embossed leather covers to open, and pages to turn, in books that have been made using the traditional skills of bookbinding.

The metal and wooden machines - some of which are over 100 years old - are used in the creation of the bespoke books, albums and keepsake boxes that Rosy makes at her studio, in a Somerset village near Castle Cary.

"This is a finishing press," she says, indicating a device with two substantial blocks of wood that screw together to produce a pressing effect.

She continues: "The equipment in here is all pretty old. My board chopper dates back to Victorian times.

"Those two machines over there are nipping presses, and this is a guillotine for cutting. I also have a standing press which is too big to keep in here so it is housed nearby.

"The newest machine in here is a Germanmade blocking machine, which is used for putting letters on the front of a book or the spine." While the machines enable certain bookbinding techniques to be undertaken, they all have to be operated by hand.

"There's nothing high-tech here," Rosy declares, licking her finger and watching steam rise as she places it on the metal head of a scraping tool which she had been heating on a hot plate.

The steam indicates that the tool is hot enough, and she begins a delicate technique called 'gold tooling', in which gold leaf is applied to the raised letters and bands on a leather book cover.

Her next task involves paring a piece of leather that will be used for a cover, and watching Rosy at work brings a new appreciation of the attention to detail required to ensure it is possible simply to open a book properly.

She places the leather on to a flat, smooth paring stone and begins working on it with a sharp knife.

"The reason for paring the leather is to make it thinner in areas around the spine so the book can flex," she says, as shavings of leather fall on to the worksurface below.

"The stones I use as paring stones are actually old litho stones from the days when printing would involve etching on to the stone and then printing a page off it." While printing techniques have changed over the centuries, the skills and tools that Rosy uses as a craft bookbinder have changed little over the years.

Even the selection of slightly rusty metal weights on the windowsill of the studio turn out to have a practical purpose, rather than a decorative one - they are used to weigh down boards put on top of newly-made book covers overnight as part of a technique to stretch the covers and stop them from bending.

However, while the tools of the bookbinding trade have remained the same, the bookbinding trade has experienced significant change in recent decades.

"In the Eighties there were lots of big binders which would have about 40 or 50 employees," says Rosy, 47, who started learning her trade at the London College of Printing when she was 19, after previously taking a Foundation Art course.

"Then the recession came and a lot of bookbinding businesses went under, as you need to be getting so much work in to keep about 50 people employed. But while they ceased to exist, a few small, independent binders like us began to develop." Rosy set up Black Cat Bindery about 15 years ago, after moving to Somerset with her husband and children from London, where she had worked in bookbinding for about a decade. Did she name her business after a family pet, I ask, recalling a dark coloured cat that bounded along the garden ahead of me as I made my way along the path to the studio.

"No, I named the company before we got the cat," replies Rosy. "A lot of bookbinding firms have names related to the people behind them, and I could have gone for a name like Burgess and Gray, as my husband - David Burgess - is also a bookbinder.

"But I wanted something a bit different, and Black Cat Bindery seemed like a good name." A glance around the studio at some of the books Rosy is presently binding reveals the remarkable variety of commissions that come in, each with a fascinating story.

Piles of yellowing pages turn out to be around 18 volumes of pressed British wildflowers, which are to be bound in covers with leather spines and corners.

"It's a collection belonging to a family from Devon. Some of the volumes date back to Victorian times, and others are from the early 20th century.

"Every page has to be handled with the greatest of care because the flowers are so old and brittle," says Rosy.

Another book being worked on is a poetry anthology of some 300 pages that is to be letterpress printed and bound in leather, in a limited edition of 100.

"The customer has selected a range of poems, from classics to funny ones, and will be giving them away to his friends. It is something that people will be able to enjoy for ever," says Rosy.

She continues: "This book is a limitededition leather-bound history of a family business, which will probably be presented to clients and staff.

"We do a lot of handmade wedding albums, and we can also do restoration work on old books. "Books do not always have to be bound in leather. We also do suede, vellum, linen and silk covers, as well as wooden covers, which are popular among some customers and would have been used on books long before leather covers." In addition to bookbinding, the Black Cat Bindery also makes presentation boxes and keepsake boxes.

"Although we are bookbinders we do not only bind books. A lot of our work involves making boxes, such as print boxes in which photographers can store prints," says Rosy.

"We also do work for a cartographer who does all the maps for the Royal estate, which involves us making little leather folders that the maps can be placed inside.

"One of the most interesting projects undertaken recently was a bound book for the National Maritime Museum to be presented to the Queen, which contained photographs of her first visit to the museum when she was aged about 12." For further information about Black Cat Bindery, go to (c) 2014 ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.

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