Life has been rather up in the air the last few weeks as I have become a mum so everything has been put on hold whilst I get used to my new day-to-day routine (or rather lack of it!). One of the things I was able to squeeze in before the birth of my daughter was writing an article for the summer edition of the Designer Bookbinders newsletter, I was also pleased to see a detail of my recent British Butterflies binding made it onto the front cover too.

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Before coming to France I used to work as a mount-maker at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The new newsletter editor, Dan Wray (also a Licentiate of DB), contacted me a few months ago to ask me if I would write a piece about how my work at the V&A had inspired my bookbinding work. Dan is the Head of Conservation at Shepherds Bookbinders so an average weekday will find him earning his keep either restoring or binding books, so in his words “..there is a fairly obvious relationship between what I do there to what I end up producing for DB….”. His direction for the article was to find a bookbinder who, in addition to their binding work, also had a day job in a completely different field and get them to write about how the different disciplines fed each other and took them in directions that would otherwise never occur. I was up of the challenge and the following is what I came up with…

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For seven and a half years I led a double life, half bookbinder and half
mount-maker. These titles often resulted in confused looking expressions when I tried to explain to those “not in the know” about what I did for my living. In fact, both professions complimented each other perfectly, demanding absolute attention to detail, knowledge and mastery of a wide variety of materials and equipment, plus the ability to multi-task (perfect 20/20 vision and a very steady hand, so as not to drop priceless objects, didn’t go amiss either!).

I was employed as a mount-maker by the V&A, however I left in March
2014. Over the course of my employment I became increasingly involved
with bookbinding, and joined both the Society of Bookbinders and
Designer Bookbinders. In 2010 I cut my museum hours down as I wanted
more time to dedicate to my freelance bookbinding work. The increase
in demand for my commissions, plus the opportunity to spend a year in
the South of France, helped with my decision to leave the museum. My
seven and a half years at the museum were a great learning curve and
I still look back nostalgically on my work there. It inspired my
bookbinding in a number of ways which I will elaborate on below.

The V&A is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design,
housing a permanent collection of over 2 million objects, I dealt with a minute proportion of these during my time there and much of the collections are in stores, in fact on average only 25% are actually on display.

For those unfamiliar with the profession of mount-making, in simple terms
I made “mounts” to display objects of all shapes and sizes for exhibition in touring shows and permanent displays, both for items on open display and those locked in display cases. Many factors determined the type of mount made including the size of the object and it’s fragility, through to tying it in with the design and colour scheme of the exhibition. I worked on a number of long running gallery redesigns including the Jewellery Gallery, making mounts for numerous jewels and pocket watches, and the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. The job involved working closely with conservators, curators and designers (who often all wanted different things), in order to come up with a sympathetic solution.

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Mounts for pocket watches for the V&A’s Jewellery Gallery

 

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Mounts for pocket watches for the V&A’s Jewellery Gallery

 

Being a mount-maker was a strange profession, as ironically the better you
are at the job, the less of the mount and display method is visible. On many occasions the designers expected you to work miracles and make an object seemingly “float” in the air as if by magic. How many of you after reading this article will take as much interest in how things are mounted as the objects themselves in display cases?!

In many ways this ties-in with the style of bookbinding I do: the importance of concealing the sewing, tapes and lining materials during the forwarding process without compromising the functionality of the book, and designing the covers, endpapers, doublures and box to tie-in with the content – like the content of an exhibition.

I did a Crafts degree at Brighton University, the course otherwise being known as “WMCP”, standing for Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Plastics. It was a brilliant degree as the nature of it meant that I was permitted to spend three years in the workshops learning how to do all sorts of wonderful things such as soldering, wood turning, slip casting, etc. Much of the knowledge I learnt during that time still sticks with me today. After leaving university I further improved my metal-working skills through employment with two different contemporary jewellers, making bespoke items from precious metals.

I started working at the V&A in 2006, following an internship at Plowden and Smith (a private mount-making and conservation company based in London). I must have come across as a passionate maker at the interview stage for the V&A as although the role was for a general museum technician, I was placed straight into the workshop as a mount-maker. I worked in the Technical Services Department, which at the time was split into four different sections: Cleaning and Storage, Packing and Transport, Display and Mount-making.

At the time I started, the V&A’s Museum of Childhood was being overhauled so the workshop was overrun with marionettes, teddy bears, toy cars etc. I remember the first object I was was asked to work on at the museum was a doll made from marbles – certainly an unusual start!

In the seven and a half years I was there I still got lost. If you thought the gallery space was sprawling, there is a maze of corridors, offices, workshops and numerous conservation studios behind the scenes too. Over 900 people work at the museum, plus at the off-site stores including Blythe House in Olympia, where some of the scenes in the film “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy” were filmed.

My “uniform” during my time spent at the V&A consisted of steel-toed safety boots, ear defenders, safety glasses, apron and a dust mask. Occasionally there would be the need to wear a Tyvek boiler suit too – so not exactly a profession where you are required to wear your best clothes! The job required a versatility of skills, and I was trained in many disciplines including TIG welding and constructing scaffold towers (neither of which have yet been particularly useful in the bookbinding world!).

The workshop had all sorts of machinery that I was instructed how to use,
from a circular saw to a metal lathe. Mounts are made specifically to the objects’ requirements from a variety of conservation-grade materials including acrylic, Dibond, brass, steel and Hexalite. Frustratingly some mounts would break at the nth hour, or get sucked up into the extraction system with the “clunk of doom” as you heard the piece of acrylic you had been working on for the last 3 hours being shot along the tube into the extraction room. In both jobs it was often a case of trial and error, sometimes having to start again from scratch if something went wrong.

Where else can you be working one day on a full size latex rhino, and the next on priceless Fabergé animal carvings? I felt very privileged to deal with valued one-of-a-kind objects on a daily basis, and felt happier not knowing their value until they had left the workshop! Objects would be signed into the workshop for their treatment, some only staying for a matter of hours, and others for weeks on end if a complicated job, or if decisions on their treatment were pending.

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I made many hundreds of book cradles during my employment at the museum. A little known fact is that opening a book on a different page renders it’s mount unusable! We had a whole graveyard of old book cradles in the corner of the workshop in the hope that one day you would be lucky enough to be able to reuse one, but it seldom happened.

I was also very fortunate to have been sent as a courier for the museum on three different occasions, to Moscow, San Francisco and Toronto. The V&A have a large touring programme with many of the big blockbuster exhibitions travelling the world after their display in London. This also meant that mounts needed to be made in the knowledge that they would be travelling the world and being handled and installed by many different people, so had to be foolproof and backed up with explanatory documentation.

The very nature of the V&A’s collection was a huge inspiration in itself, and I often stopped to wonder how many man-hours had gone into making the intricately carved ivory or the bespoke pocket watch I had in front of me. I have always been interested in how to work with different materials, through my crafts degree, and saw ways of using these in my bookbinding work. I often worked closely with the Textiles Conservation department as many of the exhibitions had textile content. This relationship fuelled my interest in embroidery and on a number of occasions I was lucky to be shown some notable embroidery from the collections for inspiration.

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Elsie’s Book

Child’s rag-book ‘Elsie’s book’ embroidered in white dayella (wool and cotton), designed and embroidered by Jeanne Mount, Hampshire, 1951

CIRC.268-1962

 

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Elsie’s Book

Child’s rag-book ‘Elsie’s book’ embroidered in white dayella (wool and cotton), designed and embroidered by Jeanne Mount, Hampshire, 1951

CIRC.268-1962

 

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“British Butterflies”

Bound by Hannah Brown in 2014

 

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Backcloth Design

Squared up design for the backcloth for scene ii of the ballet The Firebird revived by Diaghilev Ballets Russes, Lyceum Theatre, 25 November 1926, designed by Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962).

S.751-2000

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“The Collected Stories of Nikolai Gogol”

Bound by Hannah Brown in 2010

 

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Detail of “The Collected Stories of Nikolai Gogol”

Bound by Hannah Brown in 2010

 

For me though, the biggest influence was being surrounded by such great colleagues, whom I would often ask for advice. The nature of the job meant that a large number of my colleagues were also artisans, with craft interests outside of work, and we would often exchange ideas with each other. I was also keen to show my finished pieces in person to my colleagues for feedback.

My bindings to date are regularly housed in wooden boxes. I often worked with wood, making blocks and plinths for objects and, as a result, I was keen to develop and finesse this knowledge and construct boxes to protect my bindings. Hopefully one day my V&A and bookbinding work will reunite and I will have a binding in the National Art Library collection, which appropriately is part of the V&A!

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Box
made for pre-existing miniature book of “Ithaka”

Made by Hannah Brown in 2012

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