HENRIETTA PEARSON: PUBLISHER OF BEAUTIFUL HANDCRAFTED BOOKS

Photo by Frederic Aranda

Words by
Claire Wrathall

Words by Claire Wrathall

Henrietta Pearson grew up among books and loved them, not an unusual trait in a child of the pre-digital age, nor indeed in the founding partner of a publishing house. But Henrietta’s interest lay as much in their constitution as their contents. ‘I had a really wonderful godmother,’ she recalls, ‘who would give me a beautifully bound book every Christmas.

‘And I remember looking at one – at the leather, the binding, the endpapers – and thinking: how do you make this? Shall I take it apart and see? What fascinated me was how books were made, how you created one from scratch.’ 

Addison Publications, the company she co-founded with Nigel Frith in 2003, is not, then, your average publisher. Rather it produces limited editions of very expensive books, the crafting of which is as prized, as beautiful and as rare as the text and illustrations that lie between their hand-tooled leather covers. It also works to commission, producing facsimiles of ancient documents, which have ranged from a medieval charter on vellum, the original of which a school wanted to donate to the British Library, to a very rare Islamic manuscript on thousand-year-old Baghdadi paper for a client in the Middle East. When books become so valuable that no one opens and looks at them, they lose their purpose, she notes. ‘So I think there’s going to be more and more work like that.’

 

Images from The Highgrove Florilegium and The Transylvania Florilegium.
The Transylvania Florilegium will be published in Spring 2018 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the Union of Transylvania with Romania (1918). Click here to register your interest.

Henrietta has devoted her whole career to such books. Having graduated in history of art from Birkbeck, University of London, she enrolled on a course in bookbinding at the London College of Printing, a training that led to a job at Editions Alecto, a small specialist press that was preparing to publish the first ever edition of The Banks Florilegium, using 743 copperplate engravings commissioned by the ship’s naturalist, Joseph Banks from a compendium of drawings of plants made on or after Captain Cook’s first voyage from 1768-71.

Never actually put to use, the plates had been languishing in the Natural History Museum. Henrietta joined the team bringing them into service. It was a painstaking process, requiring infinite patience and skill, not to mention a heightened sense of perfectionism because each plate had to be individually inked in various colours, and each print made by hand, one by one. ‘After each one, you cleaned the plate and started all over again,’ she says. It took 12 years to produce 110 sets.

Next she worked on an edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, again made using the original plates, this time in collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History. Then a facsimile of the Domesday Book.

Addison Publications has continued to offer facsimiles of important medieval manuscripts (The Book of Kells, The Lindisfarne Gospels, The Bedford Hours) as well as works of natural history (Mark Catesby’s early 18th-century Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, and a volume of engravings by Ferdinand Bauer, the botanical artist who accompanied Captain Mathew Flinders on his circumnavigation of Australia in 1801-3).

 Addison Publications
 Addison Publications
 Addison Publications

Details from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands
© Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd

But it publishes new work too, and its signature achievements to date are the Transylvania Florilegium and the Highgrove Florilegium.

The two-volume Highgrove Florilegium, a survey of the plants that grow in the gardens of TRH The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall’s Gloucestershire home, published in a numbered edition of 175, containing 124 plates featuring specially commissioned botanical paintings of flowers, trees, fruit and vegetables.

Again it was a labour-intensive process. More than 70 artists were commissioned to produce exquisitely detailed watercolours from life of plants that thrive there. In some cases this involved a year’s wait for the plant to bloom. Then they were put before a selection committee of botanists and botanical art experts, who rejected about 70 per cent of the paintings. And once the edit was settled on, the book was designed and printed on two alternating sorts of paper – American Cotton for the colour plates, which Henrietta explains, needed ‘a harder, more robust’ surface in order to look ‘sharp’, and softer Somerset Bookwove for the text.

Each volume was then sewn into its binding by hand in Yorkshire, their covers faced in hand-marbled paper crafted in Norfolk, their spines bound in Chieftain goatskin prepared, dyed and polished in Edinburgh. These were then tooled and embossed in Oxford. And finally the books were wrapped in bespoke blanket-like protective covers, felted from the wool of two specially selected breeds of sheep in Scotland.

 Addison Publications
 Addison Publications

Published in 2008 and priced at £12,950, the edition has almost sold out – about a fifth of it to libraries and universities, not least in the US and Australia, as well as to institutions such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, ‘which gives the publication credibility,’ she adds – and a royalty on each one has been donated to The Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation.

Now this royal Florilegium has been joined by a new publication, the two-volume Transylvania Florilegium. This is a compendium of 124 wild flowers found in the countryside surrounding HRH The Prince of Wales’s Romanian estate, an ecosystem rich in grasses, salvias and orchids, ‘that have been growing there for a thousand years, some of them very rare’. The Natural History Museum assisted with the classification and accurate naming of the flora, and each plate is accompanied by a text, including scientific detail, by the botanist Dr John Akeroyd.

In many ways this is an even more ambitious project. ‘Logistically it’s been quite complicated,’ says Henrietta, in something of an understatement. ‘The artists come from all over the world [Australia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, South Africa, Turkey, as well as across Europe] and they all had to be got to a part of Transylvania that involves a sort of four-in-the-morning start from Luton Airport. And of course they had to be housed, and finding a time of year when The Prince’s house wasn’t rented, and he wasn’t there, and the flowers were going to be out...’ But the effort paid off, and the book is now production.

Has she still an involvement in the actual crafting of the books? ‘I do actually wish I were making the books myself,’ she says. ‘But they wouldn’t look as nice if I made them.’ She is, however, ensuring such skills survive. For the Highgrove Florilegium, ‘There were probably half a dozen people trained to bind by hand,’ she says. ‘Because that’s what makes us slightly different. There are other companies making beautiful books, but they make them in factories.’ 

Images from the Highgrove Florilegium and the Transylvania Florilegium.

The Transylvania Florilegium was published in Spring 2018 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the Union of Transylvania with Romania (1918).

Click here to buy.