South London Memories: Master bookbinder and member of Clapham society dies

Bernard Middleton will be celebrated for his contribution to the craft of book binding and restoration, writes Maya Chavvakula.

Bernard, pictured, a member of the Clapham Society, produced bindings intricately tooled with gold leaf.

Flora Ginn, who used to work for him, said: “He constantly reminded me of the need for disciplined hard work, and he was at the bench six-and-a-half days a week until his 80s.

“He was always generous with his time, sharing his knowledge with those seeking his advice and help, each afternoon he would go up to his study to answer the day’s correspondence by return, hurrying to catch the last collection at 5.30pm.

“Bernard was a good boy and never a problem,” his mother told me when I was taken to visit her at a nearby nursing home back in the late 1980s.

By then completely blind, she had been rigorous in ensuring Bernard wrote well, and would correct and return any letters with mistakes even into his adulthood.

“Bernard was ever grateful for the discipline he received from his mother.”

His two monumental publications, The History of English Craft Bookbinding and The Restoration of Leather Bindings became an essential reading for students, practitioners, scholars, collectors and the book trade across the world.

Following the installation of his bookbinding library at Rochester Institute of Technology, Bookbinding 2000, a conference, was held there in his honour.

It was attended by more than 400 people from nearly 40 countries. In 2000, the British Library/Oak Knoll published his Recollections: A Life in Bookbinding, a major book of his life and career.

Over the decades, he wrote numerous articles and reviews.

Ms Ginn added: “He once said to me, he realised he no longer had the oomph to run and catch a bus. At first, I thought he was joking but age had begun to take its toll. Following his first stroke in 2011, he gradually became slower and weaker.”

At 92, he finally retired after 78 years in the trade. For the last two years of his life, he was virtually confined to bed.

Finding difficulty shaving, he grew a snowy white beard which confused many. Ms Ginn said: “Excursions to eat out and visits to book fairs (reluctantly in his wheelchair) became the highlights of his life, at which he used to find fine gold tooled bindings to add to his collection and meet the myriad of book dealers and collectors that he knew.

“His memory and mind remained razor sharp. Visitors enjoyed hearing his vivid memories of events and conversations with fellow bookbinders going back to the 1940s.

“He was always smiling and looking radiant in his favourite bright yellow sleeveless pullover.

“His admiration of fine craftsmanship of yesteryear remained undiminished. The last book he collected arrived in the post on the morning of his death.

“He was very kind, gentle, generous, extremely modest and loved by everybody. In the trade he was known as ‘The Great Man’.

“His mother would have been so proud that her boy was not only good but great.”

Bernard died of a stroke on January 28.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *