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PeopleFrank Brown

Frank Brown

Frank Brown for web‘I was born in a little 16th century thatched cottage near Rockbourne in Hampshire in 1947. My grandfather was head gardener on the West Park estate, near Fordingbridge. The main house, part of a large estate, was pulled down just after the war, and was the home of Lt. Gen. Sir Eyre Coote, who fought with Clive of India. Grandfather, whose name was Francis Bailey, lived in the village all his life, worked for 50 years on the estate, and was a fine gardener. The cottage where I was born was also where my mother was born. At the bottom of the garden, my grandfather found some pottery shards which turned out to be evidence of an important Roman site. The site was then excavated over the next 30 years by archaeologist A. T. Morley Hewitt, helped by my grandfather, discovering the largest known Roman villa in the area, these days owned by Hampshire County Council and open to visitors.
My father was a Durham miner, sometimes working three miles out under the North Sea. But he was only a lad, so to get away from the mines he joined the Army and became a regular soldier for most of his working life, 26 years. He loved the Army; he joined Durham Light Infantry, then the East Yorks regiment, and took part in the D-Day invasion in 1944. They landed on the 6th June, on Sword Beach, in amphibious tanks. He watched several of his friends go straight to the bottom, not an experience anyone would wish to repeat. After the war, he came to Salisbury Plain on tank exercises and at a dance met my mother. They got married, my sister was born and then me, but Army life meant we hardly saw him until I was 18 months old or so. When I was a baby, being pushed around Rockbourne in a pram by my mother, the artist Augustus John happened to be painting nearby in a field. My mother was a very pretty lady and he had a bit of a reputation, so I’m told I was tickled under the chin by Augustus John—my only claim to fame. My mother used to say how wild the John children were, almost feral, with no shoes, grubby clothes and unkempt hair. One son however, Caspar, went on to become First Sea Lord, so his untamed childhood obviously had no harmful effects.
My father was in Palestine during the Arab-Israeli war and in Germany for 4 years, where I can remember having fun scrambling around bomb sites as a child. Then we moved to Bovington with the 17th/21st Lancers and lived in Dorchester in a Nissen hut at the top of Poundbury which is now of course part of the Poundbury estate. That was in 1956 and I went to Damers Road School, then Dorchester Modern School. Then for three years we lived in Sussex near Midhurst, where Dad looked after polo ponies on the Cowdray Estate, but my mother preferred Dorchester and we returned.
After I left school I went to work in a garage. I had also joined the Scouts, becoming a Queen’s Scout. The Scout Master, Mr Bloodworth, was the printing manager at Henry Ling’s, the Dorchester printers. He asked me if I was going to work in a garage all my life and I said probably not; he said there were two apprenticeships coming up at Lings, a compositor and a bookbinder, so I said I’d be a bookbinder. And that’s how I started in 1964, a 6-year apprenticeship, aged 17, on a salary of £4.00 a week. Part of my indenture was to go to Art College one day a week, so I went to Southampton, learning drawing, painting, paper making, marbling, as well as three-dimensional work like bookbinding. In the factory I did printing, guillotine work, and hand bookbinding as well. Lings are still in existence of course; a business that’s grown enormously in the last 30 years or so.
After I’d been with Lings for 10 years, I wanted to do something a little more creative. I loved old books and I got to know a Dorchester book seller who had a shop in Church Street, called Ernest Hardy. Ernest was Austrian, Jewish, and a communist, an unusual combination for Dorchester. He would come to the back door of Lings, in Durngate Street, and get me to do work on lovely old books he had—like Shakespeare, the life of Nelson, first editions of Thomas Hardy. So working for him helped me decide that it would be a good idea to start up on my own. That was 1973, and I’ve been a self-employed bookbinder and book restorer ever since. I was a Liberal town councillor for while in the 1970s. In 1979, I was instrumental in setting up the Dorset Craft Guild, with Richard Grasby, David Eeles, Selwyn Holmes, Liz Farquarson, and others. We would hold major exhibitions featuring potters, weavers, stone cutters, etc, at Milton Abbey, throughout the ‘80s. It was a community of West Dorset, then Dorset, crafts men and women, designers as well as makers. Eventually the Guild came to the end of its natural life after we’d started the Walford Mill craft centre at Wimborne. The craftspeople involved in that literally exhausted themselves setting it up. It was then taken over by East Dorset District Council as an educational trust and it’s still operating successfully, showing quality work and running courses.
Since then I’ve concentrated on doing my own work. I meet some interesting people: writers, the Guinness family I’m doing work for just now, and Julian and Emma Fellowes. Over the years I’ve done a lot of restoration work for the Wimborne Minster Chained Library, the Thomas Hardy Memorial Exhibition and the National Trust. I guess with my work I’m a big fish in a small pond. There aren’t many bookbinders around these days, mostly one man or one woman operators in university towns. The days of getting into the job via apprenticeships are long gone. The craft side of it has been knocked sideways, binderies have closed down—there were about 15 in Oxford, now there are only two. In the ‘80s I was teaching bookbinding in evening classes and I think about six people took it up as a job as a result. Book dealers would come to the classes to learn how to repair their own books. The right book is very valuable but it has to be repaired in the right way, in a way which is contemporary with the book. So I’ve got drawers full of materials like cloths and end papers because I never throw away what might be useful to another piece of work.
Sometimes it’s a privilege to do work for special clients—one old boy came in with all his flying log books from his days as a Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot. Between August and September 1940 he was in the air more than he was on the ground. It’s also a privilege to be involved with a historic craft, related to monastic systems, the evolution of books from scrolls to the codex design, and to be using techniques like sewing methods that haven’t changed for hundreds of years. Having said that, technology is moving on and craftsmen are designing things with the internet in mind, leading to interconnection between different crafts.
My wife Vanda and I met in the 1960s—her father was the foreman at Lings. He was Polish, coming here after the war having fought with the Polish army at Monte Cassino. Vanda’s mother was Polish also—she’d spent 4 years washing vegetables in the camps for the German army. We have a son who teaches TEFL in Bristol and my brother lives here in Dorchester too. I’m a bit more selective about how much work I take on these days, so that I do have a quieter time during the winter. I’m never short of Bibles—there are 10 or 15 to repair in the next few months. A particularly interesting job was a Hebrew Talmud from the 17th century for a client in Golders Green, hand written in Ukrainian, which eventually went to Jerusalem.  But for the future I’m looking forward to being able to spend more time painting, something I’ve always done, but earning a living has got in the way.

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