Tag Archive for: Bookbinding

Letters and Figures: the book object and the human body

Letters and Figures: relationships between the book object and the human body as metaphor-clues to an epistemology of the book

MA Thesis in History of the Book, University of London (Commonwealth Scholarship, 1998)


Eschatology and bookbinding are not a pairing that comes immediately to mind — unless you are a bookbinder in the Middle Ages, or someone attempting to understand the origins of a seemingly transparent cultural form. My MA thesis concerned the book as an object, and in particular the practices and technical terms of bookbinding in relation to cultural attitudes to the human body, to death and to ‘last things.’  The thesis shows how hand-bookbinding, as it evolved in the west until the early modern period, is intimately connected to ritual practices of inhumation and spiritual notions of resurrection — themselves liturgically linked to the texts contained within the very same books.

This is a study of material culture and craftsmanship, and of the meaning of both practice and product to the craftsperson, in and of their time.  Not a religious study — I am not a religious person — but rather a study of religion as it is manifest by makers in what they have made. I was attempting to apply some of Carlo Ginzburg’s micro-historical textual techniques to the evidence left by craft practices, practices of bookbinding.  Reliquary bindings, containing the venerated fragments of the bones of saints; so-called ‘sarcophagus’ bindings; leather itself as skin; are all addressed. For example, the hammers, tongs, nippers and awls of the binders craft are conjecturally compared with the images of the arma christi, or instruments of the passion, which would have infused the texts European medieval binders would have been binding with those same tools.


Another level of reciprocity between the book object, its texts, and the human body can be seen in the treatment of books themselves, and the stipulations for their care or indeed their destruction. Among the responsibilities of the public hangman in the 16th and 17th centuries was to burn discredited books. And in Richard de Bury’s 1345 treatise Philobiblon (amongst the first western manuals of librarianship), he makes several mentions of leather boots and gloves which are directly paralleled with the leather-bound book. Chapter 17, “Of Showing Due Propriety in the Custody of Books” begins: “surely next to the vestments and vessels dedicated to the Lord’s body, holy books deserve to be rightly treated” and continues with a comparison between book and boot which shows that the former cannot be roughly opened or left “unlaced” and laying about; “it behoves us to guard a book much more carefully than a boot.”

As an extension of the craft and the material, the holding of books to the body is examined. The case of phylacteries containing sacred texts to be bound with thongs to the body, of saddle-books for travellers on horseback, and girdle-books to be hung from the waist and available for devotion at any time, are cases in point.

The references in the thesis are widely varied — from Ginzburg’s Ecstasies to Walker Bynum’s Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, from Evans’ Language and Logic of the Bible to Waterer’s Leather in Life, Art and Industry.

“The form of the western book and the acts involved in both its manufacture and ‘use’ compose a site of constant negotiation of differing views on the eschatological question. To Curtius’s question “Where and when has the book been accounted a sacred thing?” my inquiry has also added the question how, and we are beginning to see the ways in which the answers might also show us why

The complex of Christianity imbues both book and body with the significance of spiritual vessels, concurrently investing words with divinity. The codex contains a text, a relic of the breath of the author (divine or otherwise), a spirit that lives on; it is as compact as a reliquary or a portable altar, and its shape is that of the tomb. By dint of its form and its materials — powerful mnemonics for sensory humankind — any book bound in shares with the Bible a representation of this fundamental eschatological question of the integrity of body and soul, bound in skin. The binding houses an essence or extrusion of the soul, and the book object thus shows both the integrity of body and soul and their inherent difference; it is both a talisman promising resurrection and a site of the constant exchange, in physically interactive terms and anagogically representational terms, of body and soul.


My supervisor was Roy Moxham, then Conservator at the University of London Special Collections Library, and a skilled bookbinder.

The Institute of English Studies of the School of Advanced Study of the University of London instigated one of the first programmes in the History of the Book, and I was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to enable my studies there. The teaching team was composed in part of curators from the British Library and the National Art Library. In house, teaching faculty included Warwick Gould, Robin Alston, Ian Williamson, Keith Sambrook, Julia Walworth, Simon Eliot, Pamela Robinson and others.

Over the period of study, I managed to cover aspects of the western codex from the 13th to the 20th centuries. Other papers I produced during my MA were: ‘Illustrators and Illiterates in the Production and Use of Chapbooks, A Methodological Challenge for The History of the Book’; ‘Grosseteste, Bacon, Peckham: Book History Contexts for the Development and Dissemination of Optical Science and Technology in 13th Century England’; ‘Viewing Vision: Diagrammatic Space and Practice in Medieval Optical Manuscripts; and a two-part study on the relationship between Schocken Verlag and Walter Benjamin concerning the (non) publication of Benjamin’s Franz Kafka during his lifetime.

Having at that time recently completed The Spirit & The Letter & The Evil Eye at the Book Museum of Bayntun’s Bookbindery, the MA was a fantastic way to extend my creative inquiries by acquiring emerging methodologies in history of the book. Later I was able to reflect on this juxtaposition of approaches, and the origins of my preoccupation with the book form, in an article for History Workshop Journal, entitled ‘How Books Go Together and How They Come Apart’ (HWJ 55, Spring 2003).


Further Links: MA History of the Book, University of London

[Image References: detail of the Clare Chasuble, Victoria and Albert Museum (1272-94); Devotional booklet on ivory, Victoria and Albert Museum (ca 1330); The Laws of Jutland, scribe Jens Nielsen, in a girdle binding, Bremer Staatsbibliothek (ca 1490)]

Camberwell College of Art MA in Book Arts

Visiting Tutor, Camberwell College of Arts MA in Book Arts, University of the Arts London (1996 to 2000)


This programme attracts a widely varied group interested in the theory, materiality and potential of the book form – paper, binding, sequentiality, seriality, printing techniques, letterforms, publishing in an expanded field, and more. My work with students involved specialist lectures on artists’ books and related issues in fine art, such as ‘Bodies and Books,’ ‘Names and Letters,’ and ‘Scientific Visualisation.’

My work with students for Course Director Susan Johanknecht (whose book, Modern (Laundry) Production you see above) began with a one-off lecture and several tutorials in 1996, and I became officially a Visiting Tutor for the two academic years from 1999 – 2001, working with around 30 students in all over that time.

Because I had completed a humanities MA in the History of the Book at the University of London, Institute of English Studies (1997 – 98, Commonwealth Scholar), I was able to convey to students multiple methodologies and strategies for research, development and production both within and beyond book arts. In fact, teaching the Book Arts MA conversely enabled me to interrogate my own practice in book arts as an artist, and integrate this more deeply with the materials I had researched on my humanities MA.

My knowledge of the history of book arts and artists’ books, from my father’s collection to that of Art Metropole in Toronto, where I had worked in the Artists’ Video Distribution section, was fundamental to my teaching.  Projects which I had completed with Lyne Lapointe, such as  The Spirit & The Letter & The Evil Eye (Bath Festivals, 1994) were also of considerable interest to students in relation to installation practices and theories of collecting.

From ‘Names and Letters’:

It will sound so obvious that it will be transparent. It will be hard to see why it’s important and then later, we won’t believe that we had never seen it before. Names are made up of letters. But what is in a name? What is in a name other than letters? And are the letters themselves not perhaps more than we think they are, larger than life, and is the name they make up more than the sum of its letter parts? What is a name connected to and what things does it form a connection between? This question of the relation between the spirit and the letter will be familiar to anyone who has drawn the alphabet or part of it as an exercise or out of the kind of compulsion that makes the creative hand trace something — apparently anything, or perhaps little nothings — on the page.

Names and letters are the core of the creative lives of typographers, of novelists, of urban planners engaged in street signage, of graphic designers and so many more. They are present in paintings, films, videos, sculptures, installations, prints. As I say, they are so obvious that they are transparent, and so we need to look at them closely to see them at all.


The position of Visiting Tutor in UK Art Schools is designed to engage highly active practising artists from outside the academy in the teaching of graduate students. Though an hourly-paid position, it is often pivotal to the structure and intellectual direction of programmes for which the actual course leader can sometimes be the only administrator.

I gave advanced individual studio tutorials and student guidance in essay writing and research, as well as supervision and marking of coursework and conferring with the course leader on student progress and learning outcomes.

Student essays I guided include:

‘Public Space: Room for Art or for Authority?’
‘Opening the Text: The Book as a Hypertextual Object’
‘The True Nature of Conservation: Are Conservation Ethics Commensurate with Contemporary Art Practice?’



Further Links:  Book Arts MA, Camberwell, University of the Arts London

[Image References: CCW Prospectus 2012, Inventory Design Studio; Modern (Laundry) Production, by Susan Johanknecht, Gefn Press]

The Spirit and The Letter and The Evil Eye

The Spirit and The Letter and The Evil Eye, Bath Festivals Trust ‘WellSpring’ (with Lyne Lapointe, 1994)


Bookbinding, marbled paper, letterforms, the printed word, eye-hand coordination, amulets, craftsmanship, inkhorns and more all came under scrutiny in this site-specific project grafted seamlessly into the existent Book Museum at Bayntun’s Bookbindery.  Through the very body of the book, this project dissected the book as a form and the alphabet as visual signs in animistic terms, as well as the relationship between the human desire to decorate with patterning and our intuitive understandings of organic structure.  The project was curated by Antonia Payne and Angela Kingston, as part of their city-wide project for Bath entitled ‘WellSpring.’

This was the beginning of a major preoccupation with the book as a form that would continue throughout both academic and artistic aspects of my career for at least a decade.  Concurrently with Introduction and Index, and just prior to Open Book, The Spirit and the Letter and the Evil Eye can be seen in direct reciprocity with the work I was later to do on my MA in the History of the Book.  In the existent displays of the Book Museum, our interventions — both objects and graphics — rewrote some of the historical subtexts, positioning the book object in the ‘thick description’ where it belongs, but in which field it is often invisible.

The huge mural composed of patterned book covers, both leather-tooled and marbled, was created from disbound cover boards purchased from Bayntun’s.  Silkscreened overlays and other graphic interventions parse meanings both overt and hidden evident in the covers themselves.  We later exhibited the mural at Susan Hobbs Gallery in Toronto (1995), and in Studiolo (1997-1998).

Several publications were also related to this project: the catalogue for WellSpring contained a bookwork also entitled The Spirit and The Letter and the Evil Eye.  Composed mainly of quotations both textual and visual, the bookwork gave a sense of just how far and how deep the subject of the book itself could go:


“Letters spell out a text…  Are these fixed shapes to be learnt, or are they capable of variation?  If so, how far can they be varied?  For what reasons?  When for example, is an A not an A?  In what way does it have to be altered in order to become meaningless, or a shape with some other meaning?… As an historian of lettering I do not find the idea that the letter has only one, or two, majuscule and miniscule precise forms tenable… In my opinion the criterion as to whether a letter is an ‘A’ is whether the writer thought of it as such.  This does not mean that all such ‘A’s are aesthetically good, but that neither identity nor goodness are derived solely from conformity to the Roman letter.  A letter must have identity to be recognizable, but this identity refers to a composite, flexible idea in the mind.”

Nicolete Grey   A History of Lettering. London:  Phaidon, 1986


“A Paduan or Venetian “Sarcophagus” Binding, c. 1485.  Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia.  [Venice, Joannes and Gregorius de Gregoriis, de Forlivio(?), c. 1485]   General description:  Brown goatskin over wooden boards with blind tooling and brass fittings.  Some repair (20th century).  Note:  The decoration is based on late Roman sarcophagi from the area of Ravenna.  The motif was copied on bindings for the first time by the Veronese humanist, Felice Feliciano (1433 – 1479) and was imitated in several cities in northeastern Italy between 1475 and 1500.”

Frederick A. Bearman et al.,  Fine and Historic Bookbindings from the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Washington: Folger Library Publications, 1992.


“Men have always found it easy to destroy fellow human beings.  It has been much more difficult to eliminate the thoughts and ideas for which such people gave their lives…  The books were destroyed along with their authors in the mistaken belief that the ideas embodied in those books could as easily be destroyed and permanently eliminated…Since the compilation of the Index of Forbidden Books in the 16th century — the Index Librorum Prohibitorum — history focussed on the destruction of the printed word.  Yet this violent revenge on human thought was not the brainchild of the Inquisition.  The burning of books had been associated with Christianity since its establishment as an official state religion…  This highly effective means of early Christianity was adopted in the Middle ages even before the courts of the Inquisition came into being.  Although pre-13th-century Europe widely lacked original concepts and individually stamped and written documents, books and their authors were burned, including the works of Erigena and Peter Abelard, the well-known French philosopher who was ordered by the Soissons Synod in 1120 to burn his own books…

Miroslav Hroch & Anna Skybova, Ecclesia Militans:  The Inquisition.  Leipzig:  Edition Leipzig, 1988.


To our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love revealed may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.

John Donne, from The Ecstacy: 1633


A further publication, also entitled The Spirit and the Letter and The Evil Eye, was published in Parkett Magazine (#42, 1994) and in Writing Art, edited by Juliet Steyn (Pluto Press, 1995).  In that piece, I focused more tightly on handwriting and the letterform, outlining a phenomenology of the act of putting pen to paper and the power of letters as images:

“Words, and images”: these are most exemplarily shown to be fused in the very letterforms of the Roman alphabet itself. In this western tradition which just as traditionally denies its own ideogrammatic origins, I see the fleeting, rainbow bridge between two worlds which have called to me, and see them to be one. Here, so obvious as to be overlooked, so transparent as to be invisible, the floating world of letters on a page refuses reductive binarities by embodying multiplicity. Individually fascinating, caballistic, and in constant movement, each one of the 26 letters is both entire unto itself and is also an unassuming little nothing. Of their atomic fragments, molecular words are made.




Further Links:  Bath Festivals Trust; Bayntun’s Bookbindery; Susan Hobbs Gallery; Parkett

[Image References: all images are from The Spirit and the Letter and The Evil Eye by Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe (1994); photography by Gary Kirkham]