As part of our new series of “Focus On Bath” Blog Posts, we have decided to start things off with a Bath institution that many people will have perhaps passed but not necessarily heard of or visited. This we want to change, because “boy” are you missing out!
Just yards from Bath Spa Station, right next door to The Royal Hotel, is a rather imposing Victorian fronted building, once the Postal Sorting Office of Bath. To enter you must ring a doorbell and wait for the hum and click of the door being released, as if by magic, by those inside. Here within this wooden enclave of glass, books and prints, occasionally disturbed by the tuneful strike of the mechanical clock, quietly lies an industry that once thrived in this city and across many cities in the country.
Beavering away behind the oak doors and towering bookcases, hidden from public view, is a workshop flooded with light. Here books are carefully plucked apart, hand stitched, glued, gilded and tooled by a handful of craftsmen and women under the watchful eye from the upstairs office by the overseer and fourth generation owner of the business, Edward Bayntun-Coward. You can see much of the finished work in the glass-fronted cases in the shop, and admire the intricacies of the handiwork; each book is a miniature work of art in itself.
What is this place? This is George Bayntun or more correctly George Bayntun’s Booksellers and the Bayntun-Riviere Bookbindery.
The full history of Bayntun’s is detailed on their in-depth website, but here is a basic summary of this amazing business. George Bayntun (1873-1940) opened his bindery in Bath in 1894 in Northumberland Place, after having been apprenticed at Taylor’s of Bath. He then moved to Walcot Street where in 1920 he bought the book collection of George Gregory, and finally moved the business to Manvers Street in 1939, where it has remained ever since. He acquired the bindery of Robert Riviere (begun in Bath in 1829) at the time of the Manvers Street move. The success and the renown of the business was such that in 1950 Bayntun’s received patronage from Queen Mary, whose coat of arms you can still see over an inner door that leads to the main staircase; plus in time they also acquired over 6000 books from Woburn Abbey.
Bayntun’s is now famous all over the world. In the Visitors’ Book there are signatures from Japan, Alaska, all over Europe, Africa and the Americas, the Antipodes, Russia, Indonesia and the Middle East. Peeking into the Visitors’ Book I noticed amongst the University professors and bookbinders from around the world, familiar names such as the comedians Barry Humphries and Eric Idle, the actors Timothy West and Simon Callow; the politicians Douglas Hurd and John Major, and the artists Sir Peter Blake and Marc Chagall.
So what brings people to travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to George Bayntun’s? It is simply the quality and craftsmanship of the work. It is now one of the last great Victorian trade binderies still in family ownership and every single process of the binding is by hand. Even the marbled paper inside the covers of the books has been created by hand, by Melksham based artist Jemma Lewis. To bind a book can be a painstaking but rewarding process. Nothing quite beats a hand bound book. A carefully, properly hand-bound book can last over 100 years!
“There are over a hundred stages in binding a book by hand and none of them can be rushed.” – George Bayntun.
It was a fantastic privilege to be allowed to see behind the scenes. In what was the sorting office mail room in 1904, there now is the gentle hum of concentration. Nola who works on the first part of the process, unpicking stitching and carefully scraping off glue told me that this process alone can take up to a week depending on the size of the tome. Once the book is re-stitched and ready, it goes to Andrew, a cheerful chap who was taken on as an apprentice 13 years ago and is now a finisher and edge gilder.
I find Andrew next to a book clamped into a vice. He is gently smoothing the sides of the book using an Agate stone attached to a piece of wood – this is called a Burnisher and the technique is called “polishing”. This technique ensures that the book is smooth as glass ready to take the 23 ½ carat gold leaf that Andrew was about to carefully apply. First a layer of glue, then a mixture of egg whites and water is added; after this, using a squirrel hair brush that is as soft as velvet, Andrew applies the gold leaf. It’s amazing the traditional ways still used in bookbinding here. Andrew showed me how, by stroking the hair brush on his face, he could create static to use to attract the tissue thin gold leaf onto it. Then he said he blows gently on the gold once it’s been applied to the book and if the condensation from his breath disappears it has set and is ready for the next stage.
Next in line in the process was Don; surrounded by completed and ready to work on books. He has worked in the business for over 30 years and is Bayntun’s chief restorer. His “Holy Grail” he told me when I questioned him about the work he has done, was to actually handle a first folio of Shakespeare. He said he had bound a second edition dating to 1613, but a first edition would be the pinnacle.
At his workstation Don showed me a piece he had just finished for the presenter and garden expert, Alan Titchmarsh, a specially designed commission for Titchmarsh’s 2014 release The Queen’s Houses. It was gilded in palladium, gold and red gold, with a blue and silver silk headband and specially made designs on the inside and outside of the book. This was one stunning edition.
At Don’s workplace he was busy gluing front and back pieces to books, doing the headbands and adding the leather. Nearby were shelves stacked with rolls of goat skin – the leather that is used by Bayntun’s. They are supplied by two tanneries who obtain their skins from Africa. One of them, J.Hewit & Sons Ltd of West Lothian, has a Royal Warrant to the Queen. The skins come to Bayntun’s dyed, but they also have the capacity to hand dye the skins in house as well, especially if a customer requires a book to match others within his or her collection. Vellum, or calf skin, is used occasionally here if the occasion warrants it, but is apparently harder and less pliable than the goat skin. Unusual requests have also seen the team working with Kangaroo, Ostrich, and even Kudu skins.
I asked if anyone had ever found anything unusual when re-binding a book. The answer was a plethora of things, from pressed flowers and insects trapped within the leaves of the books, to cigarette cards and even sailors’ songs hidden inside the leather linings. Often the spine of older books had been padded with torn up pieces of Bibles, engravings, tickets to shows. In one book they even found tickets to Suffragette events in the early 20th Century.
Bookbinders of the past would often carefully and secretly add their own mark, and sometimes these were found when rebinding. Don said he has his own secret moniker that he adds to every book he binds; so that if it comes back in again, he can identify it. Now, what job these days can you think of where you can do that?!
Once a book is bound, it needs to be “finished” and this is where it is tooled with a design. Luckily at Bayntun’s they are spoilt for choice for designs as with 15,000, they hold the largest collection of hand tools and blocks in the world! With new designs created for clients on request, they are forever adding to this important archive. A steady hand and full concentration is needed at all stages, but especially at this point, and I didn’t want to disturb Tony who, when I visited, was head down working on a stunning cover of Ulysses. The precision required to add the gold in to some of the tiniest tool marks is unbelievable.
You can see how much the staff love their work here at Bayntun’s and their commitment and pleasure in each new binding is infectious. Their love for Bayntun’s and working in Bath can be reflected not just in their words to me, but in their longevity of service. Penny and Julie who work out on the main shop floor have both worked for 50 years each; while in the bindery, Tony and Don at 20 and 30 years respectively have some way to go to beat Derek’s longevity. At 83 years’ old he has been a bookbinder since 1947, and continues to work here, albeit 2 days a week now.
Do Bookshops and especially bookbinderies still have a place in the 21st Century, so overrun now with the internet, E-readers and technology? Speaking to the staff, both old and new, they all agree that even in this ever increasing digital age, the art and skill of bookbinding is still appreciated and required; perhaps even growing as more and more people begin to appreciate such handiwork.
Books are tactile objects and as I’ve seen from the work that is undertaken and commissioned here at Bayntun’s the books themselves can be considered pieces of art in their own right. A first edition copy of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach was plucked from one of the shop shelves for me to admire and running my fingers over the gilded birds and the carved orange leather peach sent a shiver up my spine. Later on, flicking through one of their catalogues, the crisp white leather cover and deco carved design for The Savoy Cocktail Book caught my eye. It is now something I aspire to own, simply for its stunning design, if not just for the cocktail recipes!
Bayntun’s isn’t for me, I hear you cry; isn’t it full of books that are worth hundreds, if not thousands of pounds? It may surprise you, but Bayntun’s has something for every budget, whether large or small. You can come in and rifle through old 19th Century prints and maps with some only £3.00 in price. Coloured works line the walls in the print gallery with starting prices at a reasonable £8.00. On the book front you can head downstairs to the second hand department and buy books from £2.00. They have everything from topography to children’s books down in the basement; plus drawers crammed with papers, sheet music and other books.
Bayntun’s is a gem of a find and where you’ll find gems!
Only recently, my guide, Hannah told me, a book was discovered here, defaced throughout with the word “bacon” spelt out. It turns out this book was owned by Mrs Constance Pott the founder of the Francis Bacon Society (who perpetuates the theory that Sir Francis was in fact Shakespeare). A rare find indeed!
On the second floor of Bayntun’s are the Antiquarian books and here you can relax in their squishy armchairs, looking at books that date from the last century to the sixteenth century. Here you can find books from a more modest £20-£30 price range upwards. It’s lovely to spend some time admiring the titles and carefully exploring the shelves.
The Ground floor is where you can find the first editions and specially bound books by Bayntun’s. Don’t think for a minute that a first edition is out of your price range – the copies here start from a few hundred pounds, depending of course on the title and the workmanship involved. What a great present to give a loved one, or to treat yourself to!
Amongst the freestanding bookshelves on this ground floor there are small items for sale, some even crafted by those in the bindery. You can purchase off cuts of the leather, buy binding glue and some of the tools that they use. There is also some fantastic polish to rub into your leather bound books – who knew? There are also beautiful cards, bookmarks, plus leather earrings and bangles.
It’s not just books that are bound. People have commissioned Bayntun’s to make dust jackets, Wedding Albums, visitors’ books, backgammon sets, inlaid chess boards, gilded tables, and stationery boxes. Basically if it needs leather binding, then anything is a welcome challenge for Bayntun’s!
Bayntun’s will also sell books on behalf of customers. They welcome people to make appointments for valuations. Details of how to contact the shop are at the end of this post.
Before my visit ended I asked Hannah and Don their top tips for taking care of your books, Number one on the list was that Sellotape is definitely the enemy!
1) Never, ever, use Sellotape on a book repair. If you have to, always use glue.
2) Don’t remove a book from a shelf by pulling its top as this is where most tears occur
3) Polish your leather bound books using a conservation polish to protect and strengthen the leather.
4) Dust wrappers are great, even plastic ones, to protect your volumes.
5) Don’t get a book wet. If you do, put tissue in between each of the wet leaves and press it as it dries. This technique will minimise that “crinkled” effect water has on paper when it dries.
I urge you all to visit George Bayntun’s. It really is fantastic, and there’s more to it than meets the eye. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you enter the shop, and you’d be right – nothing has changed much here since George Bayntun himself moved in to the premises in 1939, but there is something here for everyone, young or old.
I whole heartedly reflect Eric Idle’s sentiments, as written in Bayntun’s Visitors’ Book:
“What a wonderful treat to find you. Thank you!”
George Bayntun, Manvers Street, BATH, BA1 1JW
Opening Times: Mon – Fri: 9am to 1pm/2pm to 5.30pm; Sat: 9.30am to 1pm. Closed Sundays and Bank Holidays.
Telephone: +44 (0) 1225 466000