The Gathering’s Cabinet of Curiosities: ‘The Russian soldier book’

The Gathering’s Cabinet of Curiosities brings you the weird and wonderful from around the world of conservation and cultural heritage. Today we present you with ‘the Russian soldier book’. Dominic Riley writes:

I was in the Czech Republic in June 2013, giving a presentation on the conservation of cloth bindings for the Czech bookbinders, and following the conference a few of us had a quick trip to Vienna. We made a stop at the library in Horn, a beautiful ancient town in Lower Austria, which has a very good medieval library and, as many people will know, is a centre for conservation in Europe.

We had a guided tour of the fabulous library, and were shown this remarkable curiosity.

This is a late eighteenth-century leather binding, with two rather distinctive holes punched out of its covers. The librarian explained that during the Second World War, a battalion of Russian soldiers was retreating (from the Germans, I presume), and were stuck in Horn on a cold winter’s night. One poor soldier, whose boots had given up, found his way to the library, where there was a good source of fresh leather. And so he set to work with his knife, and was soon all snug and warm again in the feet.

This is obviously one of the library’s treasures and, as the librarian made clear to us, a group of visiting conservators, “No conservation!”. Well, of course. Things like this don’t come along that often.

And now, when I teach conservation, wherever I am, I always start with this moving image.

Dominic Riley is a bookbinder, an artist, a lecturer and a teacher. He specialises in the conservation of cloth and leather bindings and the creation of contemporary design bindings. In 2013, he won first prize in the International Bookbinding Competition, the Sir Paul Getty award.

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