Monday, Jan 25, 2016

Fine Press Books & the History of the Fine Press Movement

We recently were fortunate to acquire a large collection of fine press books, and in talking with some of our customers about them, I realized how few people are aware of these lovely books living in our midst. Therefore, we'd like to take this opportunity in our newsletter to share a bit about the Fine Press movement with our followers.

The Fine Press movement began in the late 19th century, when a brave intellectual named William Morris decided to print books the way they had been before the advent of the printing press for mass publication. Everything (and we mean everything) by hand - type set by hand, woodblocks cut and paper cut by himself. His efforts eventually led to the opening of his “Kelmscott Press” in London - named after his country home in Oxfordshire. Over a century later, the Fine Press movement begun by Morris is still thriving and is a very collectible and desirable genre of book collecting. 

Fine Press Books were often published at Private Presses, like the Kelmscott Press mentioned above. According to the very often referenced ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter and Nicholas Barker, Private Press should only be applied to “a shop where the work was hand-set and hand-printed” and includes a printer who prints what he likes exactly how he likes it. The Fine Press movement contained books made with high-quality materials (such as handmade paper, traditional inks or even specially composed typefaces), and were, most often, bound by hand. As it was entirely designed by hand, painstaking concern was given to format, design, illustration and binding, many of which seemed to tend (at the beginning of the movement) toward the classical.

As mentioned earlier, the Kelmscott Press is one of the best known (if not the most well-known) of the Fine Presses throughout the history of the movement. However, as most “movements” go, the Kelmscott Press only sparked a trend followed by the masses. Soon, Fine Presses were opening up around the world. Some of the most renowned early presses include the Doves Press (founded in 1900 in Hammersmith, London by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson and most celebrated for the beautifully printed Doves Bible, a 5 volume set printed between 1902 and 1904), the Eragny Press (founded by Lucien Pissarro, son of the famous Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, and operated between 1895 and 1914), the Cresset Press, and the Shakespeare Head Press (founded by Arthur Henry Bullen, an expert on 16th and 17th century literature). A bit later on, Presses like the Gregynog Press (founded in 1922 by the two Davies sisters in Wales) were established and kept up the tradition of fine printing. 

California is a notorious place for the Fine Press movement, with illustrious printers like John Henry Nash (who went into business himself in 1916) and brothers Edwin and Robert Grabhorn keeping fine printing popular well into the later 1900s. These presses are just a few of the most acclaimed companies specializing in the Fine Press movement, but many others contributed to the popularity of the genre.

In the book world, some seem to be under the impression that Fine Printing is a thing of the past - that soon it will all be housed under the larger “antiquarian books” umbrella. We would argue the opposite. Fine Presses are still very much alive, as is evidenced by printers like Peter Koch of Editions Koch in Berkeley, the Janus Press (founded in San Diego in 1955 by Claire Van Vliet), the Sutton Hoo Press (founded in 1989 by C. Mikal Oness) and further substantiated by the immensely popular Codex Book Fair and Symposium held every other year in the Bay Area. 

We are so immersed in the history of Fine Press and the beginnings of the movement - we’d like you to be too! Come visit Swan’s Fine Books to see some of our recent acquisitions of Fine Press items… we promise you you’ll fall in love, just like we did!