It is not very often that you can come across a place in London that people who have lived their whole lives here have never heard of. It gives the recently transplanted a sort of 'in the know' cache that is rather hard to come by. This happened to me recently when a friend and fundraising colleague invited me to an event at the St Bride Foundation and Library. This little known treasure trove of graphic and typographic arts, as well as bastion of history of the printing and publishing industry, is tucked away on a side street off of Fleet Street.
The evening was an opening reception for an exhibit of finalists and winners of a unique bookbinding competition featuring incredible purveyors of this artisan craftsmanship from around the world. The competition entrants were given the remit to design a book, from cover, inside layout, to cover, of a Shakespeare play of their choosing. The design needed to reflect both the title and storyline in some way. The results were stunning. I'd really never seen anything like it. The bookbinders used everything from incredible variations of paper, to other materials such as cloth, metal, and gilted gold. I was told that each would then be sold to high end collectors for anywhere from £5,000 to £30,000 each.
Despite having been around since the late 19th century, St Bride's has only relatively recently opened its doors to the public, suffering from what one can only assume was either over-protectiveness of their collections, or simply, British clubiness. Although with Reading Room hours only open from 11-6pm on Wednesdays, it doesn't seem that they are yet throwing open wide the doors. But if you do fancy a walk through some incredible history of the printed word, the library holds some 50,000 books, which include all the classic works on printing technique, visual style, typography, graphic design, calligraphy and more. There are 3,500 periodicals including all measure of typographic journals, and an incomparable record of artifacts that, according to their website, "bring the history of print culture to life." There are also wood blocks, copper plate and lithographic stones to exemplify the various techniques used to reproduce images. Plus, there are nearly 200 special collections comprising discrete groups of material, archives from trade bodies or companies, collections on particular topics, or specialized forms of material.
The Institute is also home to the Bridewell Theatre and Bar which features lunchtime and evening entertainment. The Foundation is embarking on a major fundraising campaign during which they hope to offer more printmaking workshops and training, as well as raise its profile with the public and make it much more accessible than it is now. And if you're wondering, no, I don't work for them! I just happen to think that finding anything off the beaten path in London with this much history, is worth passing on.
St Bride Foundation
Bride Lane, Fleet Street
London EC4Y 8EQ
T. 020 7353 3331
actor-writer-director, improviser, mother, traveler, general renegade and rabblerouser.