Elizabeth Greenhill

Designer bookbinder
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Elizabeth Greenhill, bookbinder: born Paris 4 May 1907; President, Designer Bookbinders 1975-78; died London 30 December 2006.

For almost 60 years Elizabeth Greenhill devoted her life to making and restoring beautiful books. She produced over 100 exquisite bindings, all showing high standards of craftsmanship, as well as a wide variety of designs. Her choice of colours, leaning towards the gentler, feminine shades of blue, green, pink and mauve, her use of onlays, her precision in gold tooling, combining flowing and straight lines with cloud-shapes and swirling patterns, were all of a rare elegance and lightness of touch.

Her parents, Charles Greenhill and Florence Roach, were given the Albemarle Hotel in London (on the corner of Piccadilly) as a wedding present in 1898. It was not a commercial success and they moved to Paris, where Elizabeth was born in 1907. Her siblings, Mina (born 1899), later an accomplished painter, and Derek (born 1902), who died young during the First World War, had been born in London, whence the family returned in 1909.

Elizabeth Greenhill was educated at Bedales, where she first came into contact with glue, paste, cloth and leather in the workshop of one of the teachers, O.B. Powell, the father of one of the best-known British bookbinders. She went to the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton (now the Digby Stuart College), being taught calligraphy and bookbinding there. But the basis for her later perfection of craftsmanship was laid in Paris, where she studied at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs pour Dames, under Pierre Legrain, one of the most famous pre-war French designers of bindings.

Back in London, Greenhill was taught by Douglas Cockerell at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. He showed her how to tool so that the gold catches the light to best advantage, an art that she never lost. William Matthews taught her how to repair and restore books.In the 1930s she started to show bindings in exhibitions and received her first commissions, including several presentation bindings for members of the Royal Family. Her sister, Mina, made some of the designs for these early bindings.

During the Second World War Greenhill became a full-time air-raid warden, but after the war her binding and restoration work took off again. She bound for J.R. Abbey, a foremost collector, worked on repairing the libraries at Chevening, and was one of the British binders who went to rescue and restore the books immersed in the floodwaters of the Arno at Florence in 1966.

In 1950 she had started to give private lessons, and all her later life helped and encouraged the young, offering a yearly prize for gold-tooling in the Designer Bookbinders' sponsored competitions. In 1961 she was elected the first woman member of the Guild of Contemporary Bookbinders (renamed Designer Bookbinders in 1968), of which she was Honorary Secretary from 1967 till 1974, becoming President in 1975 for three years and an Honorary Fellow in 1985. She worked tirelessly for them, exhibiting, organising and promoting bookbinding wherever she went.

Failing eyesight made her give up the exacting work at the bench in 1984; she made a few more designs which were executed by younger binders, but most of her energies were channelled into her work for Designer Bookbinders. She had started to collect the work of her contemporaries in 1970 and remained an enthusiastic patron.

Greenhill was a warm-hearted and generous friend, whose beaming smile and stretched-out arms of welcome lit up her own countenance as well as that of her frequent visitors. In her youth a beautiful woman, she remained handsome almost to the end of her life, her conversation sparkling and full of anecdotes.

She was devoted to her family, especially to her sister, whose paintings graced the walls of her South Kensington flat and of her room in the nursing home where, deaf, partially blind and chair-bound, she died on 30 December, in her hundredth year.

Mirjam M. Foot