love lay down beside me and we wept

By Helen Murray Taylor

A rare and lyrical memoir about the author's time in a psychiatric ward and her road to recovery

Thursday, 29 June 2023

Let me introduce you to...

Hello everyone,

Something different from me this week. I want to introduce you to my amazing friend Monique Wass. Monique is a mulitdisciplinary artist and designer bookbinder, and she generously offered to make three unique hand-bound copies of love lay down beside me and we wept that I could use as crowdfunding rewards (and which sold out almost immediately).

A bit of background to begin with. Although she had always been interested in literature and art, Monique had no formal qualifications in either, having left her small Yorkshire town at the age of 16 attracted by the excitement that London had to offer. After a year working as a silver service waitress and hanging out in the coolest London clubs, she moved to Brighton. But it was during a couple of trips to the States, especially in the art galleries of Chicago, that her love for art really grew and she started to work on some of her own projects. Back in Brighton, training to be a youth worker, she came across the concept of designer bookbinding for the first time. She met someone whose friend had made a photo album out of metal. 'The idea that a book cover could be made out of metal blew my mind,' she says. 'It dispelled my preconceptions of dusty, old, unread books in private libraries and fired my imagination.' It prompted her to put together a portfolio and apply for a design bookbinding course at the art school in Brighton under the supervision of Jenni Gray, one of the UK's leading contemporary bookbinders.

'The course covered everything about bookbinding from the techniques used in the earliest Coptic books to how to use modern day materials innovatively,' she says. 'The traditional methods of fine binding are designed to last hundreds of years.' And the techniques haven't changed much. Many of the tools Monique uses today have hardly changed since the 19th century, like her antique bookpress, and the hand tools and blocks she uses for lettering and gilding.

The tools of the trade and Monique at work

On the course, one of the things she learnt was how to work with leather, how to pare, shape and shave it to perfect spines and edges. She also explained that as well as being an art work in its own right, a fine binding designer cover should respond to the text of the work inside. A beautiful example of this is her cover of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

The Old Man and The Sea

Once she graduated, Monique moved to London to work for Book Works, a publisher and bookbinder of small edition, handmade artists' books in Shoreditch. There she worked on books for some of Britain's leading artists, including Tracy Emin, Sam Taylor Wood and Eve Arnold. And also (total envy alert here!) David Bowie. After 5 years there, she moved to The Wyvern Bindery in Clerkenwell. There she was involved in making the spell books in the first three Harry Potter films. Her skills in working with leather extend beyond bookbinding. Monique made the leather chessboard that appears in the first Harry Potter film and has also made leather and guilded table tops for Paul Smith shops.

The Harry Potter Chess Board

After The Wyvern Bindery, Monique moved to France which is where I met her. For many years her career was on hold because she was a full-time carer for her severely autistic daughter, but she kept her hand in making exquisite passport holders, storage boxes and binding her children's drawings into gorgeous hardback books whenever she could grab some time. Now that her daughter is 17 and more autonomous, Monique has more time to devote to her art and bookbinding. I asked her about some of her more recent projects. She talks with enthusiasm about the repair and rebinding of a plethora of books including an ancient Quran manuscript and treasured books belonging to family and friends. Recently she made a leather bound book as a 50th birthday present for a client, and an art portfolio for her eldest daughter. It is labour intensive work, requiring precision, dexterity and artistic flair, but it is very rewarding. 'It is thrilling to make something and hand it over to the customer,' she says.

Some stunning examples of Monique's work

Recently she taught a class of 20 high school students the basics of her craft. Some of the kids had never threaded a needle before but they all left with a handmade, handsewn book, customised to their own design. For Monique, it was a real joy to pass on her knowledge and passion for her work.

Monique's books are glorious works of art. I'm really fortunate that she has agreed to do some covers for me and very excited to see what she will do with love lay down beside me and we wept. And I am sure the people who snapped up the pledges are too.

Big thanks to Monique too for the photos for this post and for letting me tell her story. To see more of her work, follow her on Instagram @moniquewassbooks and @moniquewasspots

H xx

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Ruth Taylor
 Ruth Taylor says:

Fantastic to read all this about Monique’s accomplishments. I was too late to pledge for the Monique cover, but know that whoever got there before me will have your amazing book in a beautiful format ❤️

posted 3rd July 2023

Sarah Webley
 Sarah Webley says:

I've seen Monique's books too, including the gorgeous Old Man and the Sea one pictured, and can vouch for their beautiful craftsmanship. I did not know about the Harry Potter chessboard though!

posted 10th July 2023

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