Lewes bookbinder Rachel Ward-sale and her links with the Booker Prize
They don’t make books like this any more. I’m looking at a deep blue goatskin covered, gold embossed, hand bound edition of the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Each year six members of the Society of Designer Bookbinders are elected to create a special edition of the six shortlisted prize nominees. Rachel Ward-sale has been a part of this process on several occasions.
“It can be quite nerve-wracking as you only have five weeks in which to read the book, come up with a cover design and put it all together but it’s a wonderful thing to be a part of,” she says. “At the ceremony, the bookbinders sit at a table with their author and publisher and the year Eleanor won was very exciting. She was only 28 and not expecting it at all so, when the winner was announced, we were a very happy table.”
Rachel grew up surrounded by books (her parents were both book illustrators) and studied art, design and bookbinding at Brighton University in the late 1970s where she won two prestigious industry competitions. She began working in the trade on a freelance basis immediately after, mainly from home and with a young family competing for her attention.
In 1992 she set up Bookbinders of Lewes, with colleague Jill Prole, which operates from one of the collection of artisan workshops housed in the former Star Brewery.
I meet Rachel there where, surrounded by rolls of leather, reams of paper, embossing machines, guillotines, blocking presses and other tools of the trade which have barely changed since the Middle Ages, she shows me how the pages of a book are folded, stitched and shaped before being bound into a cover.
“A lot of what we do is repairing or rebinding old books, we also bind academic theses and collectors’ issues of magazines,” she says. “That is our bread and butter work. The cream is the commissioned fine bindings.”
A straightforward rebinding of a book in reasonable condition costs about £50 and commissions upwards of £1,500. Rachel also teaches at West Dean and other colleges and runs small bookbinding workshops from the business premises.
But the profession is changing and designer bookbinders are almost an endangered species.
“There are no longer any full-time book binding courses and the links that used to exist between art colleges and the industry have disappeared,” she says. “So, while there are a lot people in the trade there are very few people doing designer binding.”
And yet a beautifully bound book is more than just an object. It is a physical representation of the beauty of literature and the worlds contained between its covers.
“A lot of our clients have a favorite children’s book or a family recipe book, or an heirloom they’ve found stashed away in the attic.” says Rachel. “Books hold a special place in most people’s hearts and the joy of my job is helping to preserve some of the ones people treasure.”
As if on cue, a man comes into Rachel’s workshop with a first edition of Edward Lear’s Nonsense Poems. It had been his as a child and he loved it. Now, it’s a little the worse for wear but he wants to give it to one of his grandchildren. With a bit of Rachel’s unique bookbinding TLC it’s a gift, which is bound to delight for many more generations to come.