Ties That Bind: How A Patron Saved His Bookbinder
When George Kirkpatrick woke up one day in 2009, he had no idea what anyone around him was saying.
“It may sound strange, but all I could do was laugh. I couldn’t believe people could make such strange sounds!” Kirkpatrick remembered.
George Kirkpatrick is an award-winning designer bookbinder from Canterbury, England. He had suffered a stroke, and doctors said he would never talk again, let alone work again.
For a whole year, Kirkpatrick spent four hours a day studying a book, letter by letter, to learn the alphabet. Kirkpatrick's doctors were astounded.
"They couldn't believe it. The only thing they could think was that maybe, because I'm an artist, I had special connections for learning."
Kirkpatrick's patron, a miniature book collector from New York City, offered Kirkpatrick another challenge. Collector Neale Albert commissioned Kirkpatrick to make a leather-sculpted binding of Shakespeare’s "The Tempest." Albert wanted to enter the volumes in the International Designer Bookbinder Competition.
“I got a set of sheets for 'The Tempest' and sent them to George and I said, “Please do this. I want to enter this in this competition,” Albert said.
He had been buying books from Kirkpatrick for 20 years and saw how Kirkpatrick was still in a funk after his stroke. Albert wanted to help him recover. Still, Kirkpatrick couldn't sign his credit card receipts, read numbers or recognize money.
Albert remembered how Kirkpatrick refused: “‘He said, ‘No, I can’t do that, I’ll ruin your pages.’ And I said, 'No, it’s okay, ruin them if you want, just do it!'”
“He kept on at me, to you know, you must do it,” Kirkpatrick said. “I want you to do it, he said, 'You can do it, I believe in you!'”
It took Kirkpatrick four years to learn to speak and read after his stroke. In his early 80s, he wasn’t sure how long it would take to learn to use his bookbinding tools again.
“I didn’t know what they were," Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick said, first, he needed something to smooth the wood for the binding. So he picked up a tool, and realized it was a file.
"It took a long time to see, ‘Oh that’s what it’s for, is it?” Kirkpatrick said.
Albert said Kirkpatrick went slowly back to work. He still didn’t have the dexterity to sign his credit card receipts, but he began to sculpt characters from "The Tempest"out of leather for the book's cover.
“When he was about halfway through, and I saw what he was doing I got really nervous,” Albert said.
Albert felt nervous because the book looked so good, he thought someone would buy it at the competition. So, he had Kirkpatrick make him an identical version to keep.
“Except [on the rear] in leather, there’s a portrait of George and me,” Albert said.
On the back cover, Albert is dressed as a king and Kirkpatrick as his humble servant. Albert holds a scroll declaring that his binding of "The Tempest" had won third place at the International Bookbinders Competition of 2013.
Albert’s personal copy of "The Tempest" and hundreds of others books from Albert’s miniature Shakespeare collection are now on display at the Yale Center for British Art. The exhibit honors Shakespeare's 400th birthday.