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The Kelmscott Chaucer is a big book, measuring around 440mm tall x 310mm wide x 75mm thick and the design I chose to adorn it with in the end was intended to compliment, not to copy, that of Morris’s works.

The commission was given to me by Bromer Booksellers in Boston, USA, and we worked closely alongside each other throughout the process exchanging ideas and thoughts before the final design was decided upon. I always give my clients the choice; either the whole process remains a secret and they are presented with a surprise binding upon completion, or they are updated along the way!

My previous blog post explains the research I did ahead of working on this commission, drawing on inspiration from Morris’s designs and objects. My brief had been to create a design that spanned the whole cover of the binding and I felt it was only natural to illustrate it with floral elements like in so much of Morris’s work. The following embroidery design by May Morris, (circa. 1885.) from the V&A Museum particularly struck me and in the end heavily influenced my work on the book. I loved the fluid feel to it and the way that the flowers filled, and also overlapped, their sections in the pattern. 

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I decided to marry up the above stylised repeat design with one of Chaucer’s poems from within the publication, “The Legend of Good Women”, which recounts stories of ten virtuous women. The legends are: Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Hypsipyle, Medea, Lucrece, Ariadne, Philomela, Phyllis and Hypermnestra. 

This poem also struck me given I am a female bookbinder and that, along with the May Morris connection, all seemed to work together quite harmoniously. I therefore looked into each of the ladies names to see if I could find a flower sharing the same name to use in a repeat pattern design and tie it all in with the William Morris aesthetic.

For CLEOPATRACanna ‘Cleopatra’ (Schizophrenic Canna Lily)

Bold bi-coloured leaves in green and purple contrasting with a bright yellow and red flower with red spots.

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For THISBERosa ‘Thisbe’ (Shrub Rose)

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For DIDO: Daylily (Helleborus torquatus ‘Dido’) 

A really lovely green-petalled flower mixed with purples.

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For MEDEA: Iris (Iridaceae “medea”)

For this particular flower I was struggling to find an image of the particular Iris I had identified so I emailed the “Historic Iris Preservation Society” who got back to me very swiftly with the information I required! 

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For ARIADNE: Orchid (Phalaenopsis Hybrids > Phal. Ariadne)

A lovely white petalled orchid with hints of yellow, red and burgundy at the centre.

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For PHYLLIS: Fuchsia
‘Phyllis’ 

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I struggled with the four final names to find flowers associated with them so decided to open up the search to include butterflies and thankfully was able to fill the gaps with these.

For HYPERMNESTRAHypermnestra helios (a species of swallowtail butterfly)

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For HYPSIPYLEPrioneris hypsipyle


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For PHILOMELAYpthima philomela (the baby fivering or baby fourring, is a species of Satyrinae butterfly found in Asia)

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Finally for LUCRECE: Pseudacraea lucretia (the false diadem or false chief, is a butterfly of the Nymphalidae family found in Africa)

Although the spelling here is slightly different I gave myself this one!

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Once I had found suitable candidates for each of my names I set about working them into a large repeat pattern. I simplified each flower so that they were all symmetrical and drew out a grid onto paper.

I initially played around with the intersecting lines that the flowers were going to sit within to work out what spaces I had. I was then able to fill the gaps by playing around with the sizes of each flower on the photocopier until they fitted into place. I worked onto tracing paper so I could map out the flowers from underneath, moving them around until the positioning worked.

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As the design built up I realised that I didn’t really have space to repeat each of the flowers and each of the butterflies so took the decision to have each butterfly appear only once but in the same place across the design. I thought it added an interesting visual change across the overall design so was happy with that decision.

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Once the line drawing was complete I started to realise what a large task I had taken on, imagining all the onlays I was gong to have to cut out, not to mention then embroider, to complete the design!

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I mapped out a colour chart by pencilling in sections on a copy of the design to plan the onlay colours.

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I then cut swatches of each leather onlay colour and stuck them to little strips of card for reference.

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Once all of the onlays were chosen a decision was made about the main covering leather of the binding. Initially I ordered a goatskin from Harmatan (in this case Teal 38) hoping to match the colour as closely as possible to the paper cover of the original binding. The circular swatch below shows the leather colour on top of the original paper of the book boards.

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After a bit of discussion this was felt to be too pale and a darker teal colour was opted for as it was hoped that this would give the design more impact.

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The leather was dyed using Fiebings leather dyes and I was then able to work on a sample board for the binding. For each of the books I make I do a small sample board in advance of working on the binding in order to test out ideas, colours, stitches etc. This then doubles up as an excellent library of all of the bindings I have ever done, in fact my box of sample boards is probably one of my most treasured possessions!

Firstly I stuck down the leather onlays with PVA glue using some tracing paper as a guide for placement.

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This was then backpared and embroidered using a variety of different stitches and threads.

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The end result, once the leather was stuck to a laminated board, being a snapshot of a small section of the binding design!

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More detail will be given about the stitches and embroidery techniques I use in one of the next blog posts so please keep an eye out for that one!

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