Includes interesting stories from the world of leather and updates on the Museum. Issued periodically.
Leather in Life, Art and Industry
John Waterer seems to have been a bit of a polymath. Those who met him refer to his lively mind which was reflected in his copious reading and a wide range of interests. He was a designer and his professional life took him into the design of luggage. Thus John Waterer and leather, fortunately for us, came together. It is difficult to read what he says about design without thinking of William Morris. Morris believed that the hands of the designer and craftsman delivered beauty and usefulness in equal measure; that the two were inseparable. In his first major book, Leather in Life, Art and Industry, Waterer says that only “function and utility, allied to beauty of form, texture and colour: these two, integrated, complete ‘fitness for purpose’.” It is this passionately held belief that led to the collection of such objects in the Museum of Leather Craft, and the Library reflects something of how he came to this point.
He had written widely on design but we see how, gradually, he was drawn into the wider leather world. He became what might now be called ‘the go-to guy’ on leather. He wrote the chapter on leather for the Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts, Singer and Holmyard’s A History of Technology and Hutchinson’s Encyclopaedia. He wrote articles for magazines and journals, such as the wall hangings in Dunster Castle in Country Life and an object study in ‘An Historical Forcer’ in The Connoisseur. He wrote about saddles, the Guilds of London and book satchels and budgets. He saw the need for books on the conservation of leather so he researched and wrote them himself. The Museum Library has inherited all this.
Fortunately, he somehow found time to write three longer books. It was in 1946 that he published Leather in Life, Art and Industry. He calls the 320 pages ‘an outline’ and deals, firstly, with leather in the past, starting with archaeological leather. It is in this section that you will find examples of the kind of objects found in the Museum collection. He writes on the leather Guilds, always with some fascinating detail, derived from his research. The Saddlers Guild fined George Marr “… for a Side Sadle very faulty, beside evil workmanship” and, in case George did not get it, the ‘Sadle’ was condemned to be “… burned at his doore.” He takes the leather crafts, which the Guilds regulated, one by one: tanners, curriers, skinners, girdlers, glovers, cordwainers, pouch makers, cofferers, leathersellers – some we recognise today and some which have disappeared.
He turns to leather manufacture, following the processes and using illustrations from Diderot to contemporary (1940s) tanneries. He provides lists of tanning agents and types of leather. Looking at the uses of leather, he writes about both historical and more modern objects, from medieval purses to smart 1940s luggage. Saddles, bookbinding, and other important uses get sections to themselves.
When he looks to the future, his interest in education comes to the fore and lends force to his concluding return to the importance of design.
One can only say that the book provides a kind of ‘crash course’ in the study of leather. Given that the book was published in 1946, some elements are inevitably of their time but we know from the spirit shown in the book that Waterer would have been eager to share, for example, in the recent research into the vexed question of the nature of cuir bouilli. He says at the beginning that he wants to leave the reader with a sense of the uniqueness of leather and a desire to know more. As a result of this work, he succeeds. Such enthusiasm is difficult to resist.