A BOND WITH THE PAST
Winstanley, as jovial and enthusiastic a character as you could hope to meet, co-founded the business with partners Hannah More and Rosie Gray in 1990 at a location just around the corner from the current premises on Clerkenwell Road. Back then, he says, Clerkenwell, the historic home of printing and bookbinding since the Victorian era, was “a bloody dump”. But while the area has changed radically over the intervening quarter of a century, transformed into the picturesque craft and design district it is today, what they get up to at The Wyvern is almost identical to the work bookbinders have been doing for centuries. “There are only certain ways you can make a book,” explains Winstanley, who has run the business single-handedly since More and Gray left to set up their own binderies in the mid-nineties. “Bookbinding hasn’t really changed that much since the time that the Bible was first bound, in about 350/450 BC. ”Winstanley’s staff of around 10 expert craftsmen and women work almost on top of one another in the compact surroundings of the bindery, hand-stitching spines, repairing torn pages with wafer-thin Japanese paper and pressing gold foil into leather – goat and calf skin sourced from three British companies – to decorate covers with intricate patterns. “What we’re trying to do is take the fine binding traditions of using really nice quality leather, and apply them to things which would have previously not really merited having a nice material, and to do it bespoke. That’s the crucial thing, really – because we have no stock. So you come in and we make things to order.” So along with those livery company minutes, you have restaurant menu covers, display boxes for luxury goods and student theses. They might not be the most glamorous commissions, but they’re all part of running a modern-day bookbinding business.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
And then there are the film props, something that Winstanley is particularly, and justifiably, proud of. He remembers fondly the day that Miraphora Mina, one of the graphic designers on the Harry Potter film franchise, walked in with a request for handmade photo albums for the first movie: a large version for Harry and a small one for Hagrid to make him look bigger in comparison. That led to further commissions, from wizarding text books to “notebooks for all the kids in the cast so they didn’t get too bored” during filming.
Perhaps Winstanley’s proudest professional achievement, however – what he refers to as “the highlight of one’s life in books” – was a trip to Ethiopia to help repair a sacred sixth-century Christian manuscript. “The Garima Gospel is just so staggeringly beautiful, and it is in a monastery in the mountains of northern Ethiopia,” he says, wonder in his voice. “For the book to be sitting in a little monastery, having survived the ravages of history, is truly miraculous.” While a large portion of the book restorer’s life is spent immersed in centuries past, Winstanley makes sure to keep an eye on the future too, passionate about passing on these ancient skills to the next generation. Three of his staff – most of whom are in their late twenties or early thirties – will be taking part in this year’s Designer Bookbinders Competition, a prize for the most accomplished binding for a set text (this year’s is George Orwell’s 1984). An exhibition of the winners’ work, plus demonstrations of bookbinding, is taking place at the St. Bride Foundation in the City of London, until December 10, and Winstanley is very excited about it. “I will help them with getting materials and giving them the workshop so they’ll come in on the weekend and work on the binding,” he says. “The idea of every binder is to make a really beautiful handmade book.” He’s also a general champion of young people coming into the business. Training opportunities are few in this country, so it falls to companies like The Wyvern Bindery and individuals such as Winstanley to step in and ensure the future of the industry. It’s not a task he takes lightly, but neither is it without its rewards, he says. “That some of the skills that you’ve learned have been passed on, and they’ve been able to go off and use them themselves,” he notes, “that’s really satisfying.”