Journal Centennial Issue // Monique Lallier

Bookbinding in Quebec

by Monique Lallier

This article is based on remarks presented at the 2006 Guild of Book Workers Standards of Excellence Seminar, celebrating the Guild's centennial, and is meant to represent the state of the Guild and the book arts at that time.


The early days of bookbinding in Quebec are very much linked to the beginnings of printing, but printing was for a long time a banned activity in Quebec. The monarchy perceived it as ferment for sedition, so until the English regime, books were highly controlled and produced in France or England. In 1752, John Bushell started the Halifax Gazette. It was the beginning of printing in Canada.

The first mention of bookbinding in Quebec is found in 1741 and 1742 in the accounting books of Notre-Dame Church in Montreal. Jean Sanchagrin, a book dealer and bookbinder, was asked to do the binding on accounting books. Bookbinding was then utilitarian, for the purpose of binding manuscript account books. The full leather, gold tooled bindings that were done in France had not yet reached the “new world.”

William Brown, a native of Scotland, opened the first printing company in Quebec City in 1764. That was the beginning of a long tradition of printing, and by the mid-nineteenth century, forty-two bookbinders were registered in the city of Quebec alone. Some bookbinders reached a high level of craftsmanship but in general, the bindings were still simple, with only blind tooling.

Victor Lafrance was the son of a bookbinder and had three brothers, also bookbinders. Together they opened bookbinding shops in Ottawa and Toronto between 1865 and 1874. Victor was the most talented of them, and in 1874 he came back to Quebec City to work with his uncle, Ambroise Lafrance. In 1881 he formed a partnership with Telesphore Lemieux and began teaching the next generation of bookbinders: Berube, Chabot, Cote, Fournier, and others, until 1889, when Victor Lafrance opened his own business near the basilica in Quebec City. He was the first French Canadian bookbinder to win several medals for his bindings at the 1878 Universal Exhibition in Paris.

In Montreal, the bookbinding scene was much quieter in the nineteenth century. Book dealers and printers advertised the service of bookbinders, but no one in particular produced design bindings that have survived for posterity.

Louis-Philippe Beaudoin, (1900–1967) an apprentice at the Librairie Beauchemin, went to Paris to study for four years at L’Ecole Estienne. His studies were supported by a grant from the Quebec government, which also promised to establish a school where Beaudoin would teach bookbinding. Upon his return in 1927, however, the government refused to open the school. Disappointed, Beaudoin opened a private studio with Hector Perrier and Benoit Laberge, and for the next ten years developed a successful business that was the beginning of the appreciation and recognition of fine bookbinding in Quebec. His business was unique, as it offered edge gilding, gold tooling, and illumination with Roland Charlebois.

In his very successful studio, Beaudoin formed a new generation of bookbinders and finishers, among them Jean-Charles Gingras, a finisher, and Edward Sullivan and Leo Ayotte, bookbinders. Finally, in 1937, after continued pressure from Beaudoin, the government agreed to open a school. Named École des Arts Graphiques (School of Graphic Arts), the school opened in 1940. Beaudoin moved all his equipment there, including a full set of Alivon gouges, roulettes, and palettes, plus hundreds of decorative tools of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The school offered a five-year program during which students would learn about paper and material, library binding, fine binding, and design binding. The classes included gold tooling, titling by hand and with a stamping machine, and all aspects of running a successful business. It was a thorough program, based on what was done in Europe.

Louis-Philippe Beaudoin is definitely the most important figure in the history of bookbinding in Quebec. Because of his education at Estienne and his skill, he was able to teach a solid understanding of the techniques related to bookbinding, and laid the path for the future of bookbinding in Quebec. Pierre Ouvrard, Jean Lariviere, and his own son Marcel Beaudoin, are among the most famous of Louis-Philippe Beaudoin students.

Pierre Ouvrard is well known all over Canada, and was for many years one of very few designer bookbinders in Montreal. Born in 1929 in Quebec City, he studied with Louis-Philippe Beaudoin at the School of Graphic Arts for five years. He worked in partnership with Marcel Beaudoin for a while. Over a career that spans six decades, he has designed and executed thousands of commissioned bindings. His work has been exhibited worldwide. He has received numerous honors and awards, including The Order of Canada in 1983, and was the first bookbinder to be elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1979. From 1973 to 1999 he designed and executed all the bindings for the Governor General’s Literary Award winners. Pierre Ouvrard never taught nor had an apprentice. He retired in 2000.

Another student of Louis-Philippe Beaudoin, Jean Lariviere, worked with Pierre Ouvrard in 1948. After a fire in Ouvrard’s studio, Lariviere went on to work at different companies, and in 1961 went to Ottawa to work for the government. In 1969 he went into private practice and continued in that capacity until his move to Chicago in 1974, where he worked for the Art Bookbinders of Chicago. In 1977 he started his own business, Studio Lariviere, which he later sold to The Monastery Hill Bindery, where he continued to work until his retirement.

Also of that generation of binders, Jacques Blanchet was born in 1915. It is not clear with whom he studied in Montreal, but in 1948 he received a grant from the Quebec government to study bookbinding in France and Italy. He spent a year abroad. Upon his return, a traveling exhibition throughout Canada was organized. His bindings are picturesque as was the taste in the 1940s and ‘50s. He wrote a small book titled Essaie sur la Reliure et les Relieurs au XXeS.

Others came out of the École but went toward commercial or library binding. Vianney Belanger had a very successful business for many years in Montreal.

Pierre Poussier became a teacher at the École and the finisher for Vianney Belanger. The École was by now part of the school system in Quebec, and also functioned as the Graphics Department of the Collège Ahuntsic. The emphasis was mainly on commercial bindings and printing, since it was the purpose of the school to provide jobs to the students.

When Simone Benoit-Roy (born in 1929) opened her studio on rue St-Sulpice in Old Montreal in 1969, it had been a while since design fine binding had been thought about in Montreal—or in Quebec, for that matter. Simone had studied in Paris for several years at L’Anemone studio while her husband was studying at the school of economics. There was a great deal of publicity around the opening of her studio, named L’Art de la Reliure, and a small exhibition of Simone’s work, and it attracted many people who wanted to learn the French technique of bookbinding. I was among this first group of enthusiastic students, along with Lise Dubois, Paule Moreau, Odette Drapeau. Nicole Billard came a year later. Most of the other students were there as dilettantes and never opened studios or took students. Simone’s work was innovative and modern, incorporating silver pieces or stones surrounded by onlays and inlays. She gave us the passion for fine bindings and reinforced the best in each of us. We are all greatly thankful to her.

In the late 1980s she turned toward restoration. She is still active in the field and works for the National Archives in Montreal. The 1970s were an active time for bookbinding in Montreal, and Simone’s studio was bursting with students. In 1976 an exhibition of design bindings by Simone, Odette, Nicole, and me was organized, and I started to teach at Simone’s studio as well as working on different projects with those three binders.

In 1978, Nicole Billard and I decided to open our own studio, Les Relieurs Artisans, on Laurier Street. We taught about 60 percent of our time. We had around 30 students, and we still keep in touch with several of them. My most famous students are Louis Genest, bookbinder and conservator, and Michelle Simard, a paper marbler of high reputation. Diane Andre, Ginette Plouffe, and Marie Begin are still doing beautiful bindings, although not as professionals. Nicole and I were on Laurier Street for five years, after which we amicably separated and went into our private practices in our own homes.

Nicole Billard is very artistic. She graduated first from L’Ecole des Art Appliques, where she studied home decoration and design before discovering bookbinding. She teaches and practices bookbinding in her private studio, Le Point d’Art, on the south shore of Montreal. She has a great sense of design, color and craftsmanship.

In 1979, Odette Drapeau left Simone to open La Tranchefile on St-Laurent Street. She is well known for her use of fish skins tanned in Quebec. She exhibited worldwide and her work is in many institutions. She is the former president of ARA Canada (Les Amis de la Reliure d’Art).

Lise Dubois was a potter before she discovered bookbinding. She studied with Simone for three years and joined me as a teacher at Simone’s studio. When Nicole and I left L’Art de la Reliure, Lise took the opportunity to open her own studio with Paule Moreau. They took on students and worked together for several years before Paule retired and Lise went on her own. Lise is very creative and her craftsmanship is impeccable.

From all the above-mentioned studios came the next generation of bookbinders.

Louise Genest discovered bookbinding in Paris, where she studied for one year. In 1976 she began bookbinding with me at Simone’s studio and followed us to Laurier Street. In 1982, she went to New York to study with Caroline Horton, where she specialized in conservation. She was inspired by the early techniques of binding books. Her bindings were exhibited worldwide. She had her own studio in Montreal for several years, before to moving to France and becoming a monk.

Lorraine Choquet studied design in college before taking bookbinding classes with Lise Dubois. She produced a series of bindings for the Salon des Metiers d’Art, where she won a prestigious price in 1989. Her work is part of many public and private collections.

Christine Chartrand is a painter and a bookbinder, and her paintings are often part of the books she binds. She participates in many exhibitions, nationally and internationally. Her bindings are in many public and private collections.

Helene Francoeur discovered bookbinding in Chicoutimi in 1985 with Leon Gamache. After her move to Quebec City in 1992, where she opened her own studio, she went on to take as many workshops as possible in Montreal at La Tranchefile, and in Toronto with the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild. Bookbinding brought her to fine press printing, which she learned in 1997. An active member of many bookbinders associations, she also loves teaching the book arts.

Ghislaine Bureau is Vice-President of ARA Canada.  She studied in Quebec, France and Belgium. She has her own private practice, L’Atelier La Parure, in Quebec City.

Jonathan Tremblay graduated as an electrical engineer in 1991 before discovering bookbinding. He studied at La Tranchefile and in many other workshops. In 1996, he opened his own studio, La Parure, in Quebec City. He has apprentices and teaches many students. His work has been exhibited worldwide and purchased by the Bibliotheque Nationale du Quebec. He is very active in the bookbinding world in Quebec, having organized many exhibitions.

Isabelle Poitras studied with Odette Drapeau at La Tranchefile, and with Jonathan Tremblay and Ghislaine Bureau in Quebec City. She also studied calligraphy. She participated in many exhibitions around the world and won twice in Lithuania at the International Symposium on Bookbinding.

In 1989 Josee Roberge began to study bookbinding with Jacques Fournier at La Tranchefile. She pursued her studies with many workshops. She is now an apprentice in typography with Martin Dufour in Montreal. She has her own studio, Aux Mille et Une Feuilles, in Montreal.

President of L’Association des relieurs du Quebec, Lucie Lapierre is a marbler of great reputation. Her papers are both traditional and modern. In 1997 she published Les papiers marbres de nos bibliotheque” with Robert Jourdain.

Quebec being still in Canada, I cannot talk about bookbinding in my country without mentioning Michael Wilcox, who lives in Ontario. He is a very successful bookbinder whose bindings are held in many institutions and private collections. He excels at tooling and makes his own tools.

Born in 1939 in Bristol, England, he started, at the age of fifteen, to serve a six-year indentured apprenticeship in bookbinding with Edward Everard of Bristol. His apprenticeship later was transferred to and completed with George Bayntun of Bath. He returned to Bristol in 1961 and worked as a journeyman binder with W.H. Ware and Sons, and the following year immigrated to Canada, where he worked for a year at various binding jobs. He then gave up bookbinding for seven years. In 1970, while remaining a storekeeper, he set up a one-man bindery. Since the mid-1980s, he has worked exclusively on commissions for design bindings.

In 2005 Montreal was named Book Capital of the World by UNESCO, and many exhibitions were and still are organized in conjuncture with this great honor. From October 2006 through February 2007, an exhibition on the history of Bookbinding in Quebec was held at La Grande Bibliotheque on Berri Street.

I would like to conclude by telling you about the acquisition program of the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec. Every year, $25,000 or more, depending on their budget, is devoted to buying design bindings by professional bookbinders resident of Quebec for at least one year. Up to three bindings can be purchased from each binder who has been selected by the jury.

The objectives of the program are to pursue the development of the Quebec collection that the Bibliotheque has the duty to gather; preserve the works that represent the evolution of the art of bookbinding and specifically, the contemporary production; propagate in the public at large, researchers and scholars the remarkable works in the book art’s field; sustain the creation and production in the Art of Bookbinding in Quebec; and encourage the new generation of professional bookbinders in Quebec.

I wish that an American institution would set up a similar program to encourage fine binding. Perhaps it could be a goal of the Guild of Book Workers to pursue this noble objective.