Printing from moveable typesbegan at Mainz in 1450 with the Latin Bible of Johann Gutenberg. This book isstrikingly beautiful, as anyone who has handled a copy can attest. The ink, aspecial compound of lead, sulfer and copper, has a rich glossy blackness. Thepaper stock used was of high quality. The book was composed and printed insections, utilizing a simple form of mass production. It is a technical andaesthetic accomplishment to an extent surprising in a new art. Indeed, it isinteresting to note how little the technique of printing changed in the fivecenturies between Gutenberg and the introduction of phototype technology in the1950's.
The earliest printed books were remarkable not only as atechnological advance in the propagation of text (or rather, as a creativerecycling of existing technologies), but were also exceptional for clarity oftypographic design, harmony of text and illustration, and beauty of proportion.This was not an accidental accomplishment--the basic tenets of sound book designhad been established over the previous thousand years of manuscript production,and are as applicable today as they were in the fifteenth century.
It isimportant to understand the historical basis of book design. Certain practicescame about through trial and error, not through scientific studies of legibilityand design, but they serve the same purpose. The object of the printer or scribeis to make the reader's job as easy as possible. For example, certainproportions of text block to margin depths are inherently more appealing (orless distracting) to the eye of the reader, and enhance legibility. The art oftext placement is referred to as mis-en-page. There are relationships betweenthe character size of a given face or script to line length, and to the spacingbetween lines (what is known in typographic terminology as leading).None ofthese practices are inviolable rules, but they are part of what we see when welook at a book and say "This is well-printed." "This is easilyread." Or, "This is beautiful."
By the early Renaissance, in the years preceding printing, codices ofextraordinary cost and beauty were produced under the patronage of the Europeanaristocracy and theocracy. These manuscripts were of exceptionally high cost,involving hundreds or thousands of hours of work by highly skilledartisans--scribes, illuminators, binders and the rest. The expense of bookproduction in this manner was far more than anything the rising urban merchantclass could afford. The most a thriving bourgeois could be expected to own, inthis pre-printing era, would be a small book of hours, with perhaps a singleminiature of devotional theme.
The invention of printing changed all that,of course. While the earliest printed books were quite expensive (though stillcheaper than the manuscripts which they frequently emulated), within fifty yearsthe cost of a book had fallen to the point where most of the literate populationof Europe could afford to own books--not a single volume, but a number ofvolumes, a personal library. In Paris, London, Rome, Venice, Nuremberg, athriving book trade existed. There was an explosion of printed material, secularand religious, Latin and vernacular, highbrow and lowbrow, that dramaticallychanged society --his, finally, was the greatest accomplishment of the humanistrevolution.
For the first time in modern history there was a book-buyingpublic, a burgeoning and newly-literate one, and a printing, publishing andbookselling trade to supply it. But whilst there was an eager audience, therewas also tremendous commercial pressure to bring out titles at the lowestpossible cost. There were linen shortages, and resulting paper shortages.Printers shamelessly copied the typefaces of competitors. The result was agradual and proportionate decrease in the quality of paper, printing andtypographic skill. There were, of course, noteworthy and noble exceptions tothis statement--the Aldine and Estienne dynasties, Claude Garamond, de Colines,Vascosan--these, and many others, produced books superior in form and content.For all that, I believe it fair to argue that, as the sixteenth century booktrade thrived, the necessary commercial compromises caused a reduction inquality, and that, as a general rule, there is an inherent tension betweencommercialism and quality in the world of the printed book.
I hope that thishistorical digression helps to illustrate certain issues that are significant toan understanding of fine printing. Let me develop and elaborate several theses. Firstly, fine printing tends to adhere to certain established canons of taste,or at least to be aware of them. This last clause deserves scrutiny. Muchnineteenth and twentieth century fine printing is historically allusive orretrospective, but there have been innovations, as there have been at any pointin the history of the book. If what we recognize as good design is canonical,that canon is not necessarily fixed. For example, the influential book designerJan Tschichold formalized a theory of asymmetry in page design in the 1920's,which, while rooted more in the Italian Futurist movement and the Bauhaus thenin historical models has been enormously influential. If one examinesTschichold's writings, it becomes abundantly evident that he had anextraordinary grasp of the history of calligraphy and typography, but that heconsciously strove to enlarge the tradition of book design. He did nothingignorantly or unknowingly; his radical realignments of the page were the productof a deep understanding of the principles of sound typography and design.
Secondly, fine printing demands exactitude and knowledge, as well ashand-craftsmanship (though this last is far from an essential). It comes from anaristocratic tradition of book-making. Where time and cost are a concern, thereare compromises made, and the art of fine printing does not thrive oncompromise. The words "commercial" and "fine printing" arenot by any means self-exclusive, but in practice very few publishers andprinters have succeeded in marrying the two.
Thirdly, and this gets to thevery root of the issue, the quality of the book directly effects the experienceof the reader. The book exists in part as a vessel for the text, and much fineprinting works by heightening and controlling the reader's experience of thattext. For example, the books of William Morris at the Kelmscott Press arefrequently criticized for their elaborate ornamentation and their archaictypefaces. Yet the texts they contain are archaic themselves, and Morris'streatment of them heightens the reader's sense of the curious. One cannot readKelmscott books quickly, gulping at the text, but these were not texts meant tobe devoured at a sitting. In effect, Morris's treatment, decorative and somewhatdeferential (and very un-modern), moderates the experience of the viewer.Beatrice Warde proposed the Crystal Goblet analogy of typography, that thedesign and execution of a book should create a clear vessel for the text, but,powerful as this analogy is, it is not the only paradigm available.
Before Igo further, let me clarify one point. There is a certain confusion between theterms "fine printing"and "private press." As I haveexplained, the pursuit of typographic perfection is demanding and ultimatelyexpensive. Historically, few commercial publishers have attempted to exceltypographically, largely because it has been uneconomic to do so. There havebeen numerous exceptions to mediocrity--Bodoni, Baskerville, Didot and Ibarraall come to mind as enlightened printer-publishers. Still, typographicalexcellence has generally been the province of the gifted (and often wealthy)amateur.
The amateur is not, generally speaking, looking to make profit ontheir endeavor (a good thing, because very few private presses have ever turneda profit). The object is to conduct the art of printing and typography as wellas is in their power. I have indicated that not all fine printing results fromprivate presses, and the converse is equally true--not every private pressproduces fine printing. Far from it, but it is the case that most of thegreatest modern producers of fine printing were privately owned, non-commercialpresses that are best grouped under the heading "private press." Thetopic of what is, and what is not, a private press is a complex and vexing one,and I would refer anyone interested to Will Ransom's essay in Private Pressesand Their Books, or his collection of private press credos. Suffice it to saythat most of the presses that I will discuss were privately established.
Speakingof private presses, John Hill Burton wrote amusingly of the motivations of theprivate press proprietor. His comments wryly summarize the satisfactions ofpress ownership. "The possession of a private printing press is, no doubt,a very appalling type of bibliomania. Much has been told us of the awful scaleon which drunkards consume their favored poison, one is not accustomed to hearof their setting up private stills for their own individual consumption. Thereis a Sardanapalitan excess in this bibliographical luxuriousness which refusesto partake with other vulgar mortals in the common harvest of the public press,but must itself minister to its own tastes and demands. The owner of such anestablishment is subject to no extraneous caprices about the breadth of margins,size of type, quarto or folio, leaded or unleaded lines: he dictates his ownterms; he is master of the situation, as the French say, and is the trueautocrat of literature."
Before the publication of printers' manuals(Moxon, 1693 was the earliest English manual; in Germany, the Ernesti manual of1721 is probably the earliest), the craft of printing was limited strictly tothe guilds whose prerogative it was. This militated against the establishment ofprivate presses; while there was some fine seventeenth century work, it wasgenerally done for commercial publishers. The only way that an individual couldhave complete control of a publication was to hire a printer to set up shop, andto act as patron and publisher. This is, for example, how the astronomer TychoBrahe produced many of his works, to the extent of making his own paper whensupplies proved difficult. This model, the patron-publisher and his printer,has been a remarkably prevalent one. Most of the significant 18th and 19thcentury presses are in this mould. The Strawberry Hill Press of Horace Walpole,the Auchinleck Press of Alexander Boswell, the Lee Priory and Middle Hillpresses, all of these made use of hired printers. Since the proprietors were notthemselves printers, and were amateur judges of printing, the books produced arevariable in quality of typography, though frequently of textual interest.
Thefirst English private press of any lasting importance with a proprietor-printer,as opposed to a hired hand was that of William Blake. Blake found thatcommercially his most powerful visions were a dismal failure. His remarkablevisionary interpretations of Young's popular Night Thoughts did not sell well.In addition, as a painter, a poet and an engraver he needed a medium throughwhich he could reach a small circle of kindred souls. To this end, he publishedhis illuminated books. Technically and artistically, these are a triumph, andare the exemplar for the English artist book.
The middle years of thenineteenth century were a fertile time, as new technologies for illustration andtypography began to be incorporated into bookmaking, but they were comparativelyarid from a standpoint of fine printing. William Pickering, very much acommercial publisher (and hugely successful, until, at the end of his life hebacked a loan to a friend, whose incapacity to pay forced Pickering intobankruptcy) produced typographically splendid books, but he was the exceptionalcase on the trade front. The so-called parlour press flourished at this time,since small printing presses such as Holtzapffel's were widely availablecommercially, and whilst the output of these presses is fascinating to study andcollect, there is little of literary or typographical quality. GaetanoPolidori's eponymous press of the 1840's is of greater note than most, as he wasa retired professional printer, but his books are less significanttypographically than for the fact that he published the earliest works of DanteGabriel and Christina Rossetti, who were his grandchildren.
The modernprivate press movement really begins in 1874, when Dr. Charles Daniel, a fellowof Worcester College in Oxford returned from his childhood home in Frome with aminiature Albion Press with which he had worked as a child. In Oxford, hechanced on the cases of the great type cut for Dean John Fell at the ClarendonPress. He began to print with this splendid face in 1877. By 1880, Walter Paterwas praising him in inordinate terms "it is, I suppose, the most exquisitespecimen of printing that I have ever seen." The press continued until1903. It is largely because of the Daniel's efforts that the Oxford UniversityPress began again to use the Fell types, which lead to a real revival in thestandards of typography at that august institution.
In 1891 William Morrisestablished the Kelmscott Press from his home by the Thames at Kelmscott Manor.Morris was already recognised for his textile and wallpaper designs. He was astaunch Socialist, and was strongly influenced by Ruskin's doctrines on thedignity of work. In the early printed books he collected he saw a nobility thathe felt lacking in modern equivalents. He designed his own proprietary typeface(the first of three that the press was to use), called the Golden letter, basedon the fifteenth century faces of Jenson (especially his Pliny of 1476). Thefirst product of the press was his own The Story of the Glittering Plain, thefirst of 53 books from his imprint. Although he died in 1896, the presscontinued with projects he had set in motion until 1898, under the stewardshipof Sir Sidney Cockerell. The magnum opus of the press was the great Chaucer,illustrated with designs by Burne- Jones, with whom Morris had gone toCambridge, and with whom he had been closely associated throughout his career. Ifind it an amusing footnote, given Morris's Socialism (despite his espousal ofthat philosophy, Morris was extremely wealthy) that the Kelmscott Press was thatrare creature, a profitable private press.
Morris's success gave birth to ahost of presses in England, Europe and the United States. Fin-de-Siècleaestheticism was a rich and fertile medium for the private press movement.Lucien and Esther Pissarro's Eragny Press, Rickett's Vale Press, Ashbee's EssexHouse Press, even Cobden-Sanderson's Doves Press, all have their origins in theinterest engendered by Morris's experiment.
The Doves press was in directreaction to Morris's strongly decorative approach to bookmaking.Cobden-Sanderson, with Emery Walker the proprietor of the press, was adifficult, demanding and highly idealistic man. He was a great bookbinder, anddesigner of bookbindings who had bound for Morris. For all the superbornamentation of his bindings, he chose an austere approach in his printing. Thetypeface he designed (cut by Edward Prince, who was responsible for therealization of so many of the private press faces) was also based on the JensonPliny, but it was as if he had looked at an entirely different book from Morris.Where Morris's face was rather heavy, with comparatively short ascenders anddescenders crowned with strong serifs, Cobden-Sanderson's version was muchlighter in feel. All his books were printed in the same size of this letter. AsColin Franklin says "This was of course a sign of great strength andassurance, a tour de force." The punches and matrices of this typefaceended up at the bottom of the Thames, for Cobden-Sanderson could not bear thethought of anyone else using them, even his partner.
The Ashendene Press isthe last chronologically of the great triumvirate of presses; Kelmscott, Doves,Ashendene. St. John Hornby's private press carried forward the idealism of theEnglish private press movement into the twentieth century. The first Ashendenebook was printed in 1895; the last left the press in 1935. The life of the pressspanned forty years, from Victorian England to the begiining of the modern era.It is tempting to see Mr. Hornby in the role of the last English gentleman; hiscorrespondence reveals a courteous but extremely businesslike mind, as befitteda director of W. H. Smith's, the great firm of stationers. The Ashendene booksshow more stylistic range then most presses. They range from the jewel-likevellum copies of the Song of Solomon to the magisterial folio Boccacio, Malory,Thucydides and Spenser.
The private press movement in England did not endwith the passing of the century. After the Great War was over and done, a newgeneration of private presses came to be. The Golden Cockerel, the Nonesuch, theShakespeare Head, the Gregynog, capably continued the tradition. In Europe, DeZilverdistel, the Cranach, the Bremer, the Officina Bodoni and the Ernst Ludwigpresses produced magnificent work. The tradition continues then, and continuestoday, and probably will continue for as long as there are readers and lovers ofbooks who understand that the printed book is more than the text it contains.