A look at the traditional materials and craft in bookbinding

Moroccan goatskin journals finished in modern colours.

In the age of the electronic reader, Carol O’Callaghan looks at traditional materials and craft in bookbinding.

A friend recently gave me a beautiful hand-bound notebook of creamy sheets of paper encased in a tactile red linen cover, with a contrasting blue bookmark.

It’s far too lovely for scribbling shopping lists and notes to self, and more suited to a topic with lasting value to honour the time, effort and lovely materials used in its making — and the thoughtfulness of the gift.

Indeed, it would be easy to think that in the digital age demand for bookbinding no longer exists, but tucked away in unexpected places are skilled people keeping the craft alive and creating retail temptation for those of us who love paper for reading and writing.

Paul Curtis, conservator and bookbinder, at work in the Muckross Bookbindery, Killarney, Co Kerry
Paul Curtis, conservator and bookbinder, at work in the Muckross Bookbindery, Killarney, Co Kerry

It’s a long way from the 19th century when there were around 400 bookbinders in Ireland, but they, and others from centuries prior, have created a legacy which keeps dwindling modern-day bookbinders busy with conservation projects.

One of these craftsmen is Paul Curtis, a conservator and bookbinder who was working in Florence in the 1980s when a return to Ireland was prompted by an invitation from the trustees of Muckross House.

Today he runs the Muckross Bookbindery in Killarney where he and his team bind and repair books and conserve paper using old, if not ancient, techniques and materials.

A copy of The Chaffhausen Adamnán, a work detailing the life of St. Columba from the late 7th century, was produced by the Muckross Bindery for presentation to Pope Benedict XVI.
A copy of The Chaffhausen Adamnán, a work detailing the life of St. Columba from the late 7th century, was produced by the Muckross Bindery for presentation to Pope Benedict XVI.

Among them are vellum, which speaks of ancient illuminated manuscripts; Irish linen threads; calf skin and goat skin; along with silk, handmade paper and gold leaf, all designed to give the book longevity.

“Materials have to be archival quality,” Paul says, “so they will last for up to 500 years.” It’s a surprising thing to hear, living as we do in a throw-away society.

“Conserving something means saving everything,” he explains. “All processes are reversible so in future, with new science, they can change it.”

While much of the work involves conserving and repairing for private collections and universities, the bindery also does one-off bindings.

Before: A 16th century vellum document is brought to the Muckross Bookbindery in very poor condition.
Before: A 16th century vellum document is brought to the Muckross Bookbindery in very poor condition.

After: The same 16th century vellum document after repair and conservation.
After: The same 16th century vellum document after repair and conservation.

“Authors love having a hand-bound copy of a book they’ve written,” says Paul. But this is just one example of a varied workload. The National Library and Royal Irish Academy are among the organisations he works for.

“We’ve conserved volumes of maps for them from the 1700s, which are the original ordinance survey.”

The work needed to arrest deterioration is in the provenance of a bookbinder and shows the breadth of skill involved in this craft. And it isn’t just applied to antique or vintage objects.

Paul has also worked on The Great Book of Ireland, a vellum manuscript comprising the original work of nine composers, 121 artists and 143 poets. Far from being a venerable old tome, it’s just a quarter of a century old and has been bought by University College Cork for the grand sum of €1m.

A work in progress: leather binding with gold leaf lettering.
A work in progress: leather binding with gold leaf lettering.

But this isn’t the only service UCC has needed from Muckross Bookbindery. Its 24-hour Disaster Response Service came to their rescue six years ago when the Glucksman Gallery flooded and Paul and his team worked round the clock for five days to save works of art on paper that were water damaged.

Commemorative events for 1916 have also brought in new business including the conservation of handwritten letters from Thomas McDonagh to his mother.

But far from being steeped in the past, the bindery is keeping pace with modern times and has ventured into retail, producing journals, photo albums and notebooks which sell at Muckross House’s tourist shop and in gift shops nationwide.

These start at around €25, but it’s also possible to commission something personal, as Paul suggests: “A cookbook with personal notations can be scanned and multiple copies bound to give to family members.”

The Billiard Room Collection of photograph albums and notebooks is inspired by a Victorianera Chinese silk wallpaper in Muckross House.
The Billiard Room Collection of photograph albums and notebooks is inspired by a Victorianera Chinese silk wallpaper in Muckross House.

It’s a reminder that like all traditional skills, diversity is key to survival, and seeing where they best serve the modern world. But Paul doesn’t see the digital age as a threat.

“It’s changed printing but not book repair,” he says. “Bookbinding skills will be lost but conservation will continue.

“We’re dinosaurs in a modern world, minding all of this.”


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