The Private Press Movement
Private Press books are produced by individuals, rather than by large companies. There was a great flowering in these handmade books in late 19th century and early 20th centuries which contributed to the high standards of book design and typography still current today.
There was a similar feeling of discontent with the quality of books in the late 19th century as there was in other decorative arts. The producers of private press books often had close links to other Arts and Crafts designers and makers, and some, like William Morris and C R Ashbee, were already well-known designers before they started making books. Book production, along with so many other things, had become highly mechanised during the Victorian period. Producers of private press books set about reviving the craft of book making. They sourced hand-made paper, high quality inks, and often designed their own typefaces. They also revived bookbinding, and book coverings were made in traditional vellum as well as elaborately tooled leather covers, and, in some cases, ornate book mounts in precious metals.
Emery Walker’s talk on ‘Letterpress Printing and Illustration’ at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society’s first exhibition in 1888 at the New Gallery in London is credited with inspiring William Morris to create his own press. It marks the beginning of around fifty years of intense activity from many private presses inspired by Morris and Walker, both in Britain and abroad. Walker’s library has many books from non-British presses, showing that his influence outside Britain was as strong as it was amongst his immediate circle.
There were private presses before Morris’s Kelmscott Press began in 1891 with the publication of Morris’s Story of the Glittering Plain. The Chiswick Press, begun by Charles Whittingham in 1811 to produce cheap editions of the classics was taken over by his nephew, another Charles, in 1838. He started to revive old typefaces and improve the quality of printing. Whittingham had already printed a number of William Morris’s works, for example The History of the Wolfings, 1889. Emery Walker and his brother-in-law Robert Dunthorne had also printed a small book, Robert Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin in 1888 with the Chiswick Press. The Chiswick Press continued until 1962.
They were luxury goods, relatively expensive to produce and to buy. The books often had short print runs, and the books produced were often classics that were already widely available. By the 1930s the market dwindled due to the depression. However, the movement influenced the production values of the mass market, and members of the movement such as Edward Johnston went on to influence both modern typefaces and the style of our modern books. His most famous typeface, Johnston Sans, was designed for the London Underground, and, in a modified form it is still in use today. Even on our computers we still use typefaces developed by members of the movement – for example Eric Gill’s Perpetua and Gill Sans.
There has been a revival of interest in recent years in Letterpress printing, and a tradition of artists’ books developed in the 1950s which has kept the ideals of the movement alive.