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From out of the red leather solander box that arrived containing the Kelmscott Chaucer, slid a rather unassuming original cover. Most of the copies of the Chaucer were issued in the standard Kelmscott quarter-linen binding with blue paper covered boards. These 425 original copies were printed on hand-made linen paper and retailed for £20.

The printed label on the spine was really deteriorating and the paper on the boards discoloured, but the pages inside were in excellent condition so the perfect candidate for a new binding!

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The publication I mentioned in the first of my blog posts, “The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census” by William and Sylvia Petersen, also has an interesting accompanying blog which documents further findings since the book was published. 

I found some further information about the copy I rebound on there when looking a couple of days ago:

Terry–Cohn copy to be sold

Posted on June 6, 2017 by peterson10
A copy of the Chaucer that crops up several times in our Census has resurfaced and is scheduled to sold by Sotheby (New York) on 13 June 2017. The Sotheby catalogue offers this description: “Original linen-backed blue-gray boards, printed spine label. Front inner hinge cracked, inscription in pencil on lower free endpaper, extremities darkened, spine somewhat worn, spine label chipped. Red morocco slipcase, spine gilt.”

The provenance, as we are now able to reconstruct it, is as follows (with Census item numbers in brackets): Rev. Dr. Roderick Terry [3.189]. — Terry sale, Anderson Galleries (New York), 7 November 1934, lot 174 [4.305] (sold for $425). — Saul Cohn. — Cohn sale, Parke-Bernet, 18 October 1955, lot 594 (sold for $500) [4.502]. — Sotheby (New York), 12 December 1995, lot 99 (sold for $22,000) [4.708]. — Sotheby (New York), 13 June 2017, lot 41 (estimate $40,000–$50,000).

The Rev. Dr. Roderick Terry (1849–1933), a graduate of Yale, the Union Theological Seminary, and Princeton, was a Presbyterian minister who retired to Newport, R.I., where he became active in local philanthropic and cultural affairs. Terry’s books and manuscripts were sold after his death in three sales during 1934 and 1935. His son Roderick Terry, Jr., also left an autograph collection of figures prominent in colonial and early United States history to the Redwood Library and Museum in Newport.

Saul Cohn (1886–1954), of East Orange, N.J., was president of the City Stores Mercantile Company. His books, manuscripts, and drawings were dispersed in three sales by Parke-Bernet in 1955, and some of his correspondence is at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (An obituary of Cohn appeared in the New York Times, 6 June 1954, p. 86.)

In addition to being asked to rebind this copy, two of my peers have also had the same opportunity. Firstly, James Brockman (Fellow and Past President of Designer Bookbinders) bound a version in collaboration with a silversmith named Rod Kelley. The whole process took four years and four months between 1998-2003 and there is a great write up about it on the J Hewit & Sons Ltd website here

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Secondly, Dominic Riley (Fellow of Designer Bookbinders and current President of the Society of Bookbinders) bound a copy in 2016

“The task set before him was daunting: this is a very famous, very big, and very valuable book. And, needless to say, the opportunity to create a new binding for one does not come along very often. In addition to this, the collector expressed a wish that the binding, when finished, should be something that “Bernard Middleton would be proud that Dominic had executed, and that William Morris would appreciate.” He also stated that he would like the binding design to be both “traditional and contemporary.” Dominic spent four years thinking about the book, allowing Morris’s art and aesthetics to percolate (he doesn’t do preliminary sketches). During 2016 he designed and bound the book, taking inspiration from Morris’s ornaments to create a bold and typographic motif, which is a blaze of gold tooling.”


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The time had come to pull the book. I started by cutting along the inner boards with a scalpel and lifting the original sewing tapes off the boards.

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The original case came away easily with the cloth spine lifting cleanly leaving a layer of glue on the spine of the sections. I put the book block in the laying press with the spine upwards in order to start to lift the glue off.

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I worked along the spine wetting the glue by laying a dampened leather strip on top of the spine to soften it. I was then able to carefully scrape away the glue from the spine. This whole process took about a day and a half as I didn’t want to damage the fold edges of the sections.

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Once the glue was removed the sections were pulled apart by cutting the sewing threads and carefully releasing them. The remaining glue that I was unable to get to whilst the book was in the laying press was then cleaned from the fold edges of the loose sections.

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I had no intention of cutting the book edges before rebinding but the following bit of information I read in, “The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census” confirmed my decision.

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No cleaning or washing of the sections was required as they were clean and stable. I had to repair a few holes at the spine edges of the outer pages of some of the sections with Japanese paper as when removing the glue took some of the paper away.

The sections were then sewn onto five sewing tapes using the original sewing holes. I used a very heavy thread (40/3) as I wanted to make sure I had plenty of swell when it came to rounding and backing the book. Plain endpapers were made up with a leather joint and sewn onto either side of the text block.

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The book was then ready to have the spine glued up. I squared it up and used PVA on the spine between the tapes.

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I was then able to move on to the rounding and backing phase of the forwarding. I had to use my longest set of backing boards as this is a large book, but before using them I rounded off the sharp edge at the bottom so as not to leave a mark on the pages of the book (a job I had been meaning to do for ages). I did this using my small Lie-Neilsen wood plane.

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I rounded the book and then laid up the book in between the backing boards, using a small piece of tape to hold them in the correct place. I was worried I wouldn’t manage to get it in and out of the laying press on my own due to the size and weight of the book but I developed a method which seemed to work, including making sure the jaws of the laying press were set to the correct width before attempting to slide the book in.

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The book was then backed using a backing hammer so that the boards sat happily in place. The boards were made up by laminating a series of layers of gemini board and acid-free card together, alternating the layers. On the outer edge of the boards I stuck two layers of watercolour paper, for bevelling once the boards had been laced on.

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The spine was lined between the tapes with aerolinen. A double endband was then sewn at the head and tail (pictured below) before lining the whole spine with 5 layers of acid-free paper. The paper was sanded flush and then a layer of leather was glued onto the spine with the skin side down before also being sanded flat. 

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I worked a double endband on the top and bottom of the spine in dark blue with a different coloured colourful central section on both the top and bottom.

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I then stuck a two-on, two-off hollow onto the spine and when dry the whole spine was trimmed to length.

The boards were then laced on. I marked on the boards where the sewing tapes fell and used a modified chisel to cut channels through the board to feed the tapes through. I pushed them through and glued them in place with a mix of paste and PVA glue.

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The boards were then bevelled, initially using a file, followed by sand paper. It was at this point that is was useful to use the different coloured laminations as a gauge to see that I had sanded the bevel the same on all edges.

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The book was then ready for covering! The next installment will feature much more colour than this one as is all about how the onlays and embroidery brought the cover design together…

2 thoughts on “Binding the Kelmscott Chaucer, Part Three: Forwarding

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