Thursday 1 March 2012

Rook's Books - Part 1

Looking around Cooper's Yard, there is a Rook, a Raven, a Jay, and a Corvus, which is apparently the Latin name for the crow family, as well as being the name of a constellation somewhere in the vicinity of Virgo. The bird names are appended to the various buildings around this former stable yard just off Westow Hill, and come under the umbrella of businesses owned by Gavin Rookledge. There is however, no Magpie, which is a curious omission, since once inside any of the buildings, one can detect an avid collector at work. At the heart of it all is a leather workshop and bookbindery, set up by Gavin soon after leaving art college in 1987.

With a father who was a technical tutor in the Royal College of Art's graphics department, the seeds of Gavin's interests were planted young. However, art college turned out to be a somewhat fraught and disappointing experience for Gavin, discovering too late that he'd enrolled on the wrong course. While graphics and bookbinding had been his thing, the course, at Brighton Polytechnic as it then was, was a mix of dance, theatre and fine art, otherwise known as Expressive Arts. And so he plotted his own route through higher education, with an independent spirit which is still evident today. 

Stepping into Gavin's office, is like stepping into a hidden corner of Hogwarts. Row upon row of leather bound books that could be histories of wizarding, but rather more prosaically turn out be office admin and what have you. Amongst them all are  assorted gothicky knick knacks and candles, and usually one of the office cats, Incupus or Grimstone, curled up by the computer, to complete the appearance of a sorcerer's den. The Apple Mac would suggest however, that this is actually a rather serious and successful business. Though it has its roots in bookbinding, today Rook's Books is concerned largely with bespoke interiors for the rich and famous. Typically, commissions are for exquisite pieces of  joinery clad in leather or vellum, destined perhaps for an oligarch's yacht. This intricate craftsmanship and manufacturing is carried out by Gavin and his highly skilled team right here in SE19, belying the notion that this country doesn't actually make anything anymore.   

Gavin Rookledge

The Office

The Studio

While there are in fact many such small manufacturing businesses thriving locally and nationally, one of the biggest challenges they face, is the appeal of urban light industrial sites to developers, who see the larger financial rewards to be had by building apartments. Gavin faced his own such battle right on his doorstep, when he was outbid in an attempt to buy the former chapel on Gipsy Hill which adjoins Cooper's Yard. His plans would have created more studio space for artists and makers, but instead we have more 'luxury' apartments. While there may well be a need for more housing, communities also need a thriving local economy, beyond the shops and cafes on the high street to make them viable and prevent them from becoming soulless dormitories for commuters. Fortunately the future of the Yard itself, as a thriving hub of creativity and industry, seems assured, though he is concerned that other parts of the Triangle may not survive the constant demands of 'progress'.

Being rooted in the SE19 community  is clearly very important to Gavin, both in terms of home and family, and as an employer. Although not from here originally; he grew up in not so faraway Sutton; he was a regular visitor to the Crystal Palace pool from the age of one, and swims there to this day. He cycles daily from his home on the other side of Gipsy Hill, and relishes life in the area. Neither city centre, nor the countryside, both are accessible, and the Triangle contains both the friendliness of a village but also the dash and vigour of the city.

Meanwhile, back to magpies. One of the things that made this such an appealing shoot, is the huge amount of 'stuff' everywhere. Plenty of eye-catching detail, including stores full of leathers and reptile skins, an extraordinary collection of lettering tools, and some quite random objects which may or may not have anything to do with this intriguing business, but those will have to wait until part 2 of this post! Today I will leave you with one of the most creative uses of leather I have ever seen. It transpires that Cooper's Yard is home to a very well dressed old lady. You may have caught sight of her on one of her occasional local jaunts. If you have, you will surely never forget her unusual attire. Her name is Miss Hepburnella, and she even has her own website. As some of you may know already, this lady is actually a car, a copy of a 1920s Ford van, dressed in exquisite finery created by her most creative owner, Gavin Rookledge.

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