Robert Muma's
Fine Hand Bookbinding & Restoration and Leathercraft


The text of a talk given by Robert Muma at the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG) Annual General Meeting, April 24, 1989


    I have a paper here, which is a philosophical resume of the significant milestones of my life. I'd like to mention now, the happiest of these milestones in retrospect was the Annual General Meeting of 1984, at which you presented me with an Honorary Life Membership in this Guild, and which was celebrated by the unique piece of calligraphic art by George Oxley, a creative piece after my own heart. Some of you have seen the place of prominence it enjoys on the wall of our front hall.
    Tonight becomes another milestone by which I humbly hope to return some of the favor.

    My agenda this evening comes from the Programme Announcement for tonight's meeting. However, the part about being a "human national treasure" I am going to quietly file away in my Archives where I can nourish it for the future to judge. The "eclectic and prolific past in the arts", I want to explore with you as a background to the exhibits we have later.
    I would like to show that what may seem to be an unrelated and haphazard series of personal achievements, is in fact, a succession of milestones in logical sequence, but too often arrived at by some misadventure in health - irritants, like sand in the oyster's shell, creating a more comfortable accommodation to reality.
    To explain what I mean, I must tell you that, since my high school days when I was very athletic, my life has been punctuated by many crises of ill health which none of the many doctors was ever able to explain, except that there was some kind of functional impairment they could not understand. There have been numerous breakdowns, resulting in months of tedious recuperation. Each one of these ended in a complete change of occupation and/or lifestyle. Each was a new irritant, fashioning a new pearl, a new goal, a new insight. So these pitfalls, these obstacles, (grains of sand in the oyster's shell) have come to seem like some Mysterious Plan ordered from the Beginning.
    It was only about 15 years ago that a final attempt to solve the puzzle resulted in the accidental discovery of a huge, benign tumor on one of the parathyroid glands. Hypethyroidism is an extremely rare condition affecting calcium metabolism in functions of the body. The tumor was as big as the surgeon's thumb - on a gland as big as the head of a pin! At that size it must have been mis-shaping the course of most of my life. Having had that kind of a monkey on its back for that long, the body doesn't very readily give up its learned habits of illness, and I am finding some things, only now, falling into their proper place, at an age when they are also starting to fall apart! Maybe just as well, or I wouldn't have this story to tell you tonight.
    I remember as a boy, lying on the kitchen floor of our farm house near London, Ontario, drawing birds and animals on flattened brown paper bags; or cutting them out freehand with scissors. I was the somewhat more serious one of a family of four boys and one girl. My grandmother called me "the professor", but my health negated any possibility of ever getting any postsecondary education, even if we could have afforded it.
    When I started school, I began collecting weeds and weed seeds for competition in the Rural School Fairs sponsored by the Department of Agriculture. To identify these properly, I took them to Albert Wood, a tailor, just three doors from us in the village of Coldstream. Al was also a well-known naturalist. He encouraged my drawing instincts as well as my interest in the many aspects of nature study: botany, entomology, ornithology, and mammalogy. He took me on some of his field trips where we trapped mice and shrews and all the other small mammals of the area. And he taught me to make their skins into museum specimens. My collection of over 100 of these scientific skins and skulls is now in the museum of the University of Western Ontario. This was my first experience of working with the skins of animals, to be echoed years later in my working with finished leather!
    About this time, during my high school years, I had built up a correspondence with outdoors people from B.C. to Nova Scotia, collecting stories of their outdoor experiences; and some of them sent me skulls from their hunt or trapline. At 18 years, I had become a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and I was starting a series of finely detailed pen & ink drawings of mammal skulls which Al Wood suggested I send to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) for appraisal & a possible job opportunity. These were sent to Dr. Bensley, head of the Dept. of Biology, who was writing a book on dental evolution. So I got my first job there as a Lab Assistant, while illustrating his book with halftone wash drawings, a new technique for me, learned from Shelley Logier, the museum artist.
    I had been promised a chance to get on the staff of the ROM, but their appropriations had been cut, so this job lasted only a year. In the fall, Al had another lead on an opening in the Dominion Parasite Lab of the Entomological Branch of the Dept. of Agriculture in Belleville, where I worked for two years. Up to this time I had had no formal art training except a correspondence course in basic techniques, at home after school. Now I had saved some money, and spent six months at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Outdoor School at Chester Springs. This proved to be an ill-advised venture, with little gain and months of re-evaluation.
    One of my correspondents at this time was a young man of my age in Indian Head, Saskatchewan, who invited me to join the Nature Correspondence Association, an organization of 50 young nature enthusiasts in the U.S. and five in Canada. They made me their expert on mammals and "Assistant Arfist". Their "Official Photographer" and Ornithologist was Roger Tory Peterson! Roger was a year and a half younger than I was and I still treasure a long letter from him reflecting an amazing similarity in our backgrounds, and ambitions for the future. We were both bubbling with inspiration from an obscure little magazine called Art and Life published in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and we were both ardent disciples of Ernest Thompson Seton. Roger publicly acknowledges that his now famous principles of field identification of species was pioneered by Seton. I finally met Roger at his first lecture in Canada, at the old Eaton Auditorium on College Street [in Toronto], about 1949. I had bound a copy of his first book in superfinished Mission Grain Steerhide, and he autographed it for me. Now at 80, Roger is still a year and a half younger than I am, but he is light years ahead of me in the fulfillment of our dreams. Of course, neither of us will ever achieve all his dreams, because as soon as one dream is fulfilled, another unfilled takes its place.

    As soon as I was able to read, like most boys my age, I had discovered the books of Ernest Thompson Seton with their intimate animal stories and marginal pen sketches calling me to the out-of-doors. He became my one great hero. He and Al Wood were my two role models. Seton's art as well as his prose were to me, the epitome of greatness. He was also one of the most colourful characters in any medium. The Setons were a Scottish clan who fled to England and changed their name to Thompson. Ernest Evan Thompson was one of ten boys and an adopted sister who moved to Canada with their parents when he was six. His father apprenticed him to a portrait painter. He also went to night classes at the Ontario College of Art, from which he graduated with a gold medal and a two-year scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, England.
    Ernest hated his father, who made his sons stand and salute him whenever he came into the room; and who, when Ernest came back from England, presented him with a bill for all the expenses of rearing him, including the gynecologist's bill! In retaliation, Ernest reclaimed the family name and called himself Ernest Seton-Thompson and, when he went to the U.S. at the age of 23 he met and married Grace Gallatin who would inherit a huge fortune if she married a Seton. So now the world knows him as Ernest Thompson Seton! I have two letters from him in my early years signed in this way with his famous wolf-paw signature. Always a theatrical person, I heard him deliver one of his dramatic lectures at the old YMCA building on College Street when I was here in 1928. But he was so mobbed by admirers afterwards that I missed the only opportunity I ever had of meeting him.
    Nineteen years later, I decided I needed a co-pilot. I had met Dorothy and come to Toronto to work as a shipping clerk at Meyers Photographic Studios until I could find something more creative. I had been doing some leatherwork and some bookbinding on my own, so I left Meyers to accept a proffered job at Art Bookbinding Co. only to find the job was non-existent! Only recently married, and now I was unemployed!
    The Canadian Home Journal (now long defunct) had an excellent Handicraft Page edited by Gertrude Pringle, so I went to see her for ideas and publicity. She was instantly interested in my work and kept my samples to get photographed for an article she would do for me. When I went to pick them up again, she told me she had been talking to her nephew, a well-known naturalist, and suggested I go and see him in his office at MacLean-Hunter on Avenue Road. He was just as enthusiastic when he saw my samples and, picking up his hat, said "Come with me. I think I may be able to get you a job." We walked over to 100 Simcoe St. to see a friend and client: Don Fisher, head of Brown Brothers Bindery.
    Don Fisher also saw "possibilities" in the kind of work I was doing, but it would be limited, he told me. Since I had some experience in gold tooling, he had a place for me in the Finishing Dept. until something came up. In the meantime, he would look for the kind of orders my work suggested.
    So why do I tell you all this?
    Because Gertrude Pringle and her nephew Stuart Thompson (well-known for his radio lectures and bird song imitations) were, respectively, sister and nephew of Ernest Thompson Seton! [It was] as though the man who had motivated so much of my early years, was continuing to shape it through his relatives.

    Al Wood also taught me to keep records of the numbers of each kind of bird I saw on my daily walks. This involved making a checklist from an ordinary pocket Time Book, and cutting away part of some of the pages in order to make it functional as a checklist. But mine didn't come out right. I was afraid I had ruined it so I took it to his shop where I found him as usual, sitting tailor-fashion on his cutting table, by the big south window, watching for birds as he stitched away at a suit of clothes on his lap. Embarrassed by my stupidity, I handed him the book to find out what was wrong. Without a moment's hesitation, he began taking it apart, re-arranging the pages, and with his needle and thread, deftly stitched it back into shape. Now it was exactly like his. I was astounded. I had just had my first lesson in bookbinding! And suddenly I realized that, basically, all you need to make a book is some folded sheets of paper and a needle and thread! Many, many years later, that was to become the first lesson in my own bookbinding classes.

    So now I had my first job as a bookbinder at Brown Brothers, which was then phasing out of its reputation as the largest hand binding firm in Canada. I found fascinating things going on all around me in this environment. Women were doing the light hand work such as hand sewing signatures, etc. Heavy embossing machines were gold stamping whole covers at one whack, or embossing for the Superfinish Dept. (More about that later.) Flats piled high with books were brought in for trimming, and for machine-rounding and backing; and cases were being made by the hundreds.
    My table was in a corner, a bit removed from the general hustle and bustle. Only three of us worked there: Bill Roughley was the specialist in hand tooling gold. He had lost one hand to one of the powerful embossing presses earlier in life. Ed Murphy was the other craftsman besides myself and he worked entirely on a machine press. He had lost two fingers of one hand in the same way, but now worked with a harness that automatically jerked his arms away in time to avoid further mutilation. My work was sizing and stamping the spines of the leather-backed account books for which Brown Bros. was famous. Certainly there was no such risk to life or limb in my job. It was the job itself which was-to be short-lived!
    I worked there two years before the Time Study men came to start weeding out the unprofitable procedures of hand work and replace them with machinery. I was moved around to several parts of the bindery as needed. The only one that I didn't like, and which also proved to be the most rewarding, was my short stint in the Superfinish Room. Nobody liked it there because of the lacquer fumes, and I was off several days with a flu-like illness caused by them.
    This was the room where the deluxe covers for college yearbooks, and prestige business brochures were made. The process consisted of hard board cases, covered with a simulated leather, and deeply embossed with a more-or-less overall design. Any lettering of the design was then printed with an opaque ink and laid out to dry. A Japan colour antique was spread over the whole surface and rubbed off with a soft cloth, leaving the antique colour in the depressions. The printer's ink, resisting the antique, remained bright and clear. The whole then went for the lacquer spray and drying. The result was an elegance befitting the high quality such a book was expected to represent.
    Oddly enough, I had stumbled onto the principle of superfinish in my own hand leatherwork, without even knowing such a commercial equivalent existed. I had devised a technique and style working with real leather which approximated the Superfinish process. My method could have been used for an extra-special, one-of-a-kind job. The samples I had shown Don Fisher were on Mission Grain Steerhide, tooled, embossed, and dyed. Then a liquid wax prepared them for any kind of antique desired.
    By the way, Mission Grain Steerhide is the trade name for natural cowhide which has been tumbled wet in a drum to effect a natural surface grain, somewhat on the order of boarding for genuine Morocco.
    My experience in the Superfinish Room opened the way for me to develop my technique way beyond the industrial process by using a variety of resists such as lacquer, coloured waterproof India inks, coloured liquid shoe waxes, as well as various colours and forms of antiques, not to mention the old and elegant techniques of Venetian lacquer, with its base of genuine gold leaf. Don Fisher was counting on this hand process for prestige jobs, but only one such opportunity came in, and it had some impossible requirements we both recognized. So, in the interest of progress, my job at Brown Bros. came to an end.
    Dave Barrett, the Canadian President of the International Bookbinders Union, tried to get another job to suit my abilities through their "International Bookbinder", but we had only one letter in reply from a sympathetic binder in Oregon! And the only local job Dave could find for me at the time, was at Rolph-Clark-Stone which was relatively uneventful unfil an extreme summer heat wave dropped a number of workers like flies, and finished me completely as far as factory work was concerned. After a period of recuperation, I decided to see what I could do on my own, working at home.
    Clarke & Clarke Leathers of Barrie (now Tandy 's) offered me the opportunity of participating with them at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in 1949. I would provide part of the display, and they would finance the publicity for custom work and classes. This was the start of what we called the MUMART Leather Studio. The MUMART trade name was Dorothy's idea and she soon became involved in much of my work. The CNE part of my work lasted six years.
    These CNE exposures harvested many rewarding classes and challenging commissions for us. We had special classes for advanced students and teachers; and concentrated summer courses for people from Long Island to St. Louis and Chicago in the U.S., and from Nova Scotia to Alberta in Canada. Some of these were my first bookbinding classes, and for two summers, four weeks of each July, 1960 and '61, I taught Advanced Leathercraft for the Alberta Government's Recreation Leadership School in Red Deer.
    Leathercraft generally is considered as one of the least creative of crafts because of its dependence on gimmicks. In an attempt to raise its creative profile, in 1950 we organized the CSCL (Canadian Society for Creative Leathercraft) with its three-tiered membership structure: General Membership for anybody interested in the craft; Associate Membership for the finest qualified craftsmanship; and Fellow Membership for Associates who demonstrate consistent originality. The latter two are the professional memberships. It was something that seemed to be waiting to happen, and was so successful, that in four years we had attracted the attention of the border guilds of Rochester and Buffalo, New York, and Detroit, Dearborn, and Flint, Michigan, who wanted to be a part of the action. So we formed the International Assembly of Leathercraftsmen (IALC), meeting once a year, alternately in Canada and the U.S. This continued for 16 years, when a malaise, reputedly a result of the Viet Nam war, seemed to be blighting the moral fibre of recreational activities throughout the U.S. and struck down one leather guild after another, until only the CSCL was left, and the IALC officially folded up.
    Through this international exchange, I had gained a U.S. publisher for my books and designs, giving them an outlet across the continent, so that they now contributed one third of my income. Now, however, conditions were ripe for a takeover of the leathercraft industry, and so the Tandy empire was born; and almost overnight my publisher was left with thousands of books he could not sell.
    This tragedy proved to be a blessing in disguise, forcing me to turn exclusively to bookbinding. I was already well known as a fine binder and restorer, but needed an increased focus on them. The Women's Committee of the Canadian Handicraft Guild had raised money for a Scholarship for Professional Craftsmen, but it was only $500 and I ignored the call for entries. The committee was dissatisfied with the quality of entries coming in, and the President phoned, imploring me to reconsider as they would like to see bookbinding get a chance. I took some books down and soon got a phone call asking me to come to the Annual Meeting to receive the award. During that meeting a messenger came with a telegram from an anonymous donor matching the $500 because it was for bookbinding. Of course the anonymous donor was the late Douglas Duncan, and I was now able to go to New York for six weeks under Laura Young and Gerhard Gerlach in their Columbia University courses in April and May, 1960. I also had one two-hour session with Carolyn Horton on basic conservation methods.
    One year later, in May 1961, the Grosvenor Reference Library in Buffalo was in trouble with a badly neglected Rare Book Room, and appealed to Carolyn Horton in New York, who referred them to me. I was working alone at that time, so when Michael Wilcox came along the following September, fresh from his apprenticeship at Bayntun's, I was delighted to have his help for six months or so. We thought we had a pretty good guarantee with the Customs to facilitate the rapid transfer of books back and forth. Then one lot of books disappeared for a month before it was found pushed aside in the shed. When a second was delayed, the Library panicked and decided to send one of their staff away for training so the work could be done on their premises.
    I particularly enjoyed doing restoration work. I felt an empathy with badly damaged books. Maybe it was because I was continually having to put my own life back together again. It was an act of faith and vision - repairing, rebuilding, seeing them made whole again. The greater their fall from usefulness, the greater the satisfaction in giving them life again. Every dilapidated book that came in, I subconsciously saw as a chance for renewal of self. Only one thing spoiled the illusion of success: that was the tight leather backs, which had to be taken off piecemeal and pasted back, one piece at a time, onto the new leather spine. There must be some simpler, more satisfactory way. I could always "see" it being done but couldn't figure out how. In New York I asked questions, getting the same answers. "Nobody had ever been able to do it yet", and "We have tried everything without success". Then, after I returned home, I tried once more, and found it. The article I did for the Guild of Book Workers, published in their Journal, Vol.8, No.2, Winter 1969-70, was the result. This article was also reprinted in full in the CBBAG Newsletter, Vol.2, No.2, Fall 1984 with an additional paragraph of research I did for Bernard Middleton to use in his revision of The Restoration of Leather Bindings, and I hope others are finding it as useful as I did.
    Besides the several hundred Grosvenor Library books we did, there was also the New Brunswick Legislative Library, damaged by the flooding of the Saint John River. From 1974 to 1978, Ann Dixon, Janice Michaels, Barbara Rosenberg and Seamus McClafferty worked with me on these. We also worked on the ROM library books to the limit of their restricted budget. Sometimes the most challenging work came from individuals like Greg Clarke, who was a neighbour and frequent visitor with gems of his wit, as well as gems from his library, or the woman with the borrowed coffee-table book their new puppy chewed up!
    Besides these rescue jobs, were the special commissions for books as gifts to Her Majesty (two of them), or to record an act of royal service (3 of them) such as commemorating the opening of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, where the book, signed by Elizabeth Regina and Philip, rests in permanent display in the hospital rotunda. As well as these, were many books for other hospitals, municipalities, universities, corporations, libraries, etc. One, a Book of Donors for the Restoration of the Grange, is on permanent display in the Grange at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
    For many years, arthritis had been insinuating itself, particularly into the joints of my hands, so that skiving leather, or handling heavy books like thick Family Bibles, was ruining them for finer work, forcing another redirection of my creative energies. I had gotten interested in macro-photography and discovered mosses as a unique subject for my lenses. This led to collecting, sketching, and identifying my specimens. Mosses became a new art form to explore. Barbara Rosenberg was working with me then and kept things going while I was in hospital for surgery. I was already past the usual retirement age and decided it was time to feel less duty bound. So now we made a deal and Barbara moved the business to her place, leaving me free to concentrate on my "World of Mosses".

    Notable results of this new adventure have been: (1) a moss herbarium of about 3,000 specimens from across Canada, and by Moss Exchange, and travelling friends, from 40 other countries and areas; (2) my little book A Graphic Guide to Ontario Mosses, a Peterson-style guide to mosses, which is my answer to others like me who have been stumped by the dearth of understandable literature for beginners, and (3) a series of almost 60 moss portraits done with microscope and watercolours. About 30 of these, framed, will be on display at Hart House in August for the Annual Meeting of the ABLS (American Bryological and Lichenological Society) being hosted this year by the University of Toronto. I have also published a series of eight of these in colour as hastinotes which will be on sale there. (They have already been sold continent-wide and abroad, and are available from me by mail, or from Nancy Jacobi at the Japanese Paper Place.)
    Very strangely, working with mosses seemed to be something even more fundamental to my nature, than anything I had gotten involved in yet, but I couldn't tell why. It is such an esoteric subject, I could find only one book available at that time for beginners like me. It was How to Know the Mosses and Liverworts by Henry S. Conard. I had been using it for four years when we were vacationing in B.C. and found somebody who had known Henry Conard and casually mentioned something that made my hair stand on end. Suddenly I realized I was distantly related to him!
    While still in my 20's I spent some time with my mother's family in Pennsylvania looking for some magic solution to better health. One of my aunts thought I was so much like the Conards that she gave me the only existing likeness of my great-grandfather William Conard (1801-1870), a hand-cut silhouette which I have had hanging on my wall where I work for these 55 years. Henry S. Conard was a cousin of some degree of my mother's but I'm still working on the exact relationship. Anyway, now when people ask me the inevitable question, "How in the world did you ever get interested in mosses?" I tell them simply, "it must be in the genes". And when I muse on the rocky, winding ways of my life, I find a comfortable conviction that maybe "Something has been leading me."


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