Leather in Life, Art & Industry

Written by Dr. Graham Lampard.

John W. Waterer founded the Museum of Leathercraft in 1946 alongside Claude H. Spiers. Waterer was a celebrity writer and top UK designer, working with luxury luggage. He made his television debut on the BBC in 1947, and was the driving force behind the museum. Waterer became known as an authority on the topic of leather, and published many books sharing his knowledge of fashion, art, archaeology, conservation and restoration.

John Waterer seems to have been a bit of a polymath. He was a copious reader and held a wide range of interests. He was a designer by trade, and his professional life took him into the design of luggage. In the book ‘Leather in Life, Art and Industry’, Waterer says that only “function and utility, allied to beauty of form, texture and colour: these two, integrated, complete ‘fitness for purpose’.”

It is this passionately held belief that led to the collection of such objects in the Museum of Leathercraft and the library, and the bindings of his seminal work reflect something of how he came to this point. He had written widely on design, but we see how, gradually, he was drawn into the wider leather world. He became what might now be called ‘the go-to guy’ on leather.

Leather in Life, Art and Industry is 320 pages of what he called ‘an outline’, and deals, firstly, with leather in the past. It is in this section that you will find examples of the kind of objects found in the Museum of Leathercraft (now the National Leather Collection). He also writes on the Leather Guilds, always with some fascinating detail derived from his research. For example, he tells of how the Saddlers Guild fined George Marr “… for a Side Sadle very faulty, beside evil workmanship” and, in case George did not get it, the ‘Sadle’ was condemned to be “… burned at his doore.”

He takes the leather crafts, which the Guilds regulated, one by one: tanners, curriers, skinners, girdlers, glovers, cordwainers, pouch makers, cofferers, and Leathersellers. He writes about both historical and more modern objects, from medieval purses to smart 1940s luggage. Saddles, bookbindings, and other important uses get sections to themselves. He says at the beginning that he wants to leave the reader with a sense of the uniqueness of leather and a desire to know more. As a result of this work, he succeeds. Such enthusiasm is difficult to resist.

The National Leather Collection boasts three copies of Leather in Life, Art and Industry in different designer bindings; one by Bernard Middleton, one by Roger Powell, and the most recent by Trevor Lloyd.

© National Leather Collection
© National Leather Collection

It is interesting to see how they have been bound. The museum asked Trevor to bind the book in a ‘high Victorian’ style, black goatskin binding, with raised bands, tooling to replicate the period, the image of a tanner scudding a skin across a beam.

© National Leather Collection
© National Leather Collection
© National Leather Collection

The other bindings are personal interpretations. The one by Roger Powell has, bound in the back, a description by him of what he did. It reads:

“John W Waterer, 1946. In publishers’ case binding, sewn on three tapes, spine lined with mull and paper, blue cotton-buckram case, titled in gold on red skiver label.

‘New end leaves of Wiggins Teape’s “Goatskin Parchment” made onto Japanese paper and linen joints; fold of “Goatskin” round first and last sections (surplus removed after gluing); frontispiece swung on paper guard; sewn with Barbour’s linen thread at original sewing holes on ten single linen cords, all laced into Jackson’s 171 millboard; edges gilt by SG Coates; headbands of Pearsall’s ‘”Rokfast” embroidery twist sewn over vellum and morocco formers; spine lined with Russell’s “Oasis” morocco; and gold tooled; Solander case. Adhesives:- boards, endleaves, spine lining, Solander case, National Adhesives’ “Spynflex” 232 – 1720; cover: boiled flour paste plus alum, precipitated chalk and thymol; gold; bleached shellac glaire.”

The final interpretation by Bernard Middleton, who for over 70 years has been at the centre of the bookbinding trade, is an intricately designed piece of artwork, with layer upon layer of pared leather and gold tooling. The leather symbol image on the front cover is formed by small stars, all individually placed, to form the image outline. The centre is then filled in using another star tool, again individually applied.

© National Leather Collection

Roger Powell, 1968.

© National Leather Collection

Bernard Middleton, 1998.

The three books represent a fascinating insight into how a master binder interprets and binds a book.

On Monday 23rd April, the National Leather Collection is hosting Night at the Museum! for World Book Night. From 5pm – 7pm, come along to the Grosvenor Centre in Northampton to hear talks from four local authors, visit our special historical bookbindings exhibition and enjoy drinks and snacks. Tickets are £2 per head, available on the door.

More information on this event can be found here. Join our Facebook event now!