Binding ties to the future king

Thrilled: Bookbinder Stephen Conway at work; and, below, Fiona Conway with the Highgrove Florilegium

Thrilled: Bookbinder Stephen Conway at work; and, below, Fiona Conway with the Highgrove Florilegium

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It’s a labour of love that has taken three long years. Now all 350 of an exclusive collection of books are ready to be sold ... by Royal approval

YOU’VE only to look at the front cover to realise that this is no ordinary book.

Features: bookbinder, 5, New Road (off Clare Road) Halifax.

Features: bookbinder, 5, New Road (off Clare Road) Halifax.

Take a peek inside at its stunning pages and it becomes obvious that this is exceptional.

In fact it’s a book fit for a future king - which is exactly what it is.

The Highgrove Florilegium is a two volume set, depicting the plants and flowers grown in the gardens at Highgrove, home of H.R.H. The Prince of Wales.

But the beautiful volumes also bear the hallmarks of a talented Calderdale couple - Stephen and Fiona Conway.

Plate from the Royal Florilegium - a collection of plants at Highgrove, home of HRH Prince Charles - the books are being bound by Halifax bookbinder Stephen Conway

Plate from the Royal Florilegium - a collection of plants at Highgrove, home of HRH Prince Charles - the books are being bound by Halifax bookbinder Stephen Conway

The husband and wife team run Conway’s based in New Road, Halifax, one of the few remaining bookbinders in the North of England.

In the quarter of a century since the business was established, their work has included many varied and interesting jobs but they both agree one of their most prestigious projects to date has to be the florilegium, which after years of painstaking work, is now nearing completion.

“It was three years ago that we were asked to be bookbinders for the project and obviously it was a great thrill,” says Stephen, who adds that they were recommended through word of mouth and were invited to Highgrove to meet the Prince at the beginning of the project.

“He asked if we worked from home so we had a joke about that because I’m sure he had visions of us working on the kitchen table,” says Fiona.

Plate from the Royal Florilegium - a collection of plants at Highgrove, home of HRH Prince Charles - the books are being bound by Halifax bookbinder Stephen Conway

Plate from the Royal Florilegium - a collection of plants at Highgrove, home of HRH Prince Charles - the books are being bound by Halifax bookbinder Stephen Conway

Unfortunately the couple didn’t get chance to tell him they were based in Halifax - a town, The Prince has laughingly referred to as his “second home” because of the number of visits he has made.

And so the huge responsibility began. In all there have been 175 sets of two volumes to bind - a total of 350 books; a mammoth project.

I ask if they have ever felt daunted by the task - or nervous of handling the impressive tomes, each of which measures 650mm by 475mm (26ins by 19ins) and weighs a staggering 13 to 14 kg (28 to 31 lbs.)

“At first we were both nervous, definitely,” laughs Fiona.

Plate from the Royal Florilegium - a collection of plants at Highgrove, home of HRH Prince Charles - the books are being bound by Halifax bookbinder Stephen Conway

Plate from the Royal Florilegium - a collection of plants at Highgrove, home of HRH Prince Charles - the books are being bound by Halifax bookbinder Stephen Conway

“But then you just have to get on with it. You soon realise you can’t work on the project if you aren’t confident about handling the books. Thankfully we haven’t had any disasters.”

Over the last seven years leading botanical artists from around the world were invited to paint examples of the plants and trees growing in HRH The Prince of Wales’ garden at Highgrove in Gloucestershire.

The Prince then asked for limited editions to be made from the watercolours (this has been the job of Addison Publications Ltd) and the Highgrove Florilegium is the result.

The illustrations are exquisite, ranging from flowering shrubs such as varieties of rhododendron, to trees, climbing plants, plants that are rare and plants that have an everyday use at Highgrove.

“Two volumes make one set and because there have been 175 sets, it has kept us busy,” says Stephen, who adds that volume one of each set has been signed by Prince Charles, who has also written the preface.

“They are beautiful books and one of our tasks has been to put an embossed stamp on each page. It’s all been done by hand so that’s been quite a job,” he says.

Plate from the Royal Florilegium - a collection of plants at Highgrove, home of HRH Prince Charles - the books are being bound by Halifax bookbinder Stephen Conway

Plate from the Royal Florilegium - a collection of plants at Highgrove, home of HRH Prince Charles - the books are being bound by Halifax bookbinder Stephen Conway

The books have been bound using old, traditional techniques using half leather and hand marbled paper sides.

All that remains when they leave Stephen and Fiona’s workshop is for the gold embossed lettering to be placed on the spine and the gold embossed emblem of the Prince of Wales feathers to be put on the front.

“All royalties from the sale of the books will go towards the Prince’s Charities Foundation,” says Stephen.

I ask if he and Fiona will be buying a set but the answer is most definitely no.

“The cost is £12,000 a set so I don’t think so,” laughs Fiona.

“We understand that most of the sets have been sold already though, bought by private collectors and libraries,” says Stephen.

The Prince himself will hold the first set and another set will go on display at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. But Stephen and Fiona’s bookbinding skills will be seen in all corners of the world as other sets of the florilegium go to the University of South Africa, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, the National Library of Australia, Canterbury Museum, New Zealand, the University of Minnesota, The Getty and Huntington Library, Los Angeles and the Teylers Museum, Holland among other places.

Stephen is a Fellow of Designer Bookbinders, a society devoted to the maintenance and improvement of standards in hand bookbinding. In 2011, he became President of the society.

He grew up in Halifax and started his career straight from school.

“At 16 I went for an interview for a printing job with Edward Mortimer’s in Pellon Lane but I was actually offered printing, compositing or bookbinding when I got there and so I chose bookbinding,” he recalls.

“It just looked more interesting and more creative.”

He served a five year apprenticeship, learning his craft.

“It was all very much old school but I loved it. We dealt with account books, all of which were hand made and you learned how to sew the papers together and so on.”

Stephen is thrilled that one of his original tutors, Alan Nobbs, now in his 80s, still visits him and takes an interest in his work.

After his apprenticeship Stephen moved to Ilkley to work for a firm of fine binders, followed by a spell in Barnsley before setting up on his own around 27 years ago.

Fiona joined the company around the same time.

“Well I met Stephen just after he had started the business so I became a bookbinder then, by virtue of marrying one,” she jokes.

The couple’s work now is wide-ranging from binding to box-making.

And now that the florilegium project is coming to an end they are beginning to diversify.

In a couple of weeks’ time they are beginning a new project - they will open a shop, in New Road, which will be the perfect showcase for their talents. Among items for sale will be beautiful, hand-made wedding albums and photograph frames, as well as keepsake boxes. There will also be a range of craft kits for people to have a go at making their own cards, as well as lovely hand-marbled papers and art and craft supplies and book binding materials from reputable, established companies such as Ratchford Ltd.

And for those longing to learn the art of bookbinding, Stephen will be on hand to pass on his skills through a series of courses.

“The courses are aimed primarily at people with little experience or completely new to the craft,” he explains.

“We cover a broad range of subjects including single section and case binding, box making and albums. Courses can be arranged for small groups with specific needs, such as library staff and book arts groups.”

The courses are held in the bindery and cost £45.00 per day plus materials.

“People do tend to think that bookbinding is a dying art but it’s surprising how many people have become interested in it and want to learn. It’s good to be able to pass on these skills,” he says.

* Anyone wishing to find out more about the courses should visit www.conwaysofhalifax.co.uk or ring Stephen and Fiona on 01422 353767