Pocket cathedrals : constructing the book beautiful during the British private press movement

Detail from the title-page of The golden legend“Type and paper may be said to be to a printed book what stone, or bricks and mortar, are to architecture. They are the essentials, without which there can be no book in the one case, and no architecture in the other.” – Emery Walker

An extension of the Arts and Crafts movement, the British private press movement was also a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. Founders William Morris and Emery Walker believed the debasement that occurred to handicraft had similarly happened to the printed book.

Arguing that the quality of books steadily declined following the incunabula period, Morris and Walker sought to re-construct the book and to return the glory which had been absent since the birth of printing. The Kelmscott, Vale, Essex House, Eragny, Doves, and Ashendene presses breathed life into printing and inspired their contemporary and future commercial printers to pay closer attention to the design and the materials of their own publications. It was a period of bounteous experimentation and creativity which resulted in beautiful books, and these presses influenced generations of artists. The use of quality materials, a harmony and attention to design, type inspired by historical models, woodcut illustrations, ornamentation, and calligraphic illumination were some of the common elements, but there was no single approach. Not since the first printers were books infused with so much character, artistry, and technical mastery. The British private press printers embodied the Ruskin’s vision by building ‘pocket cathedrals;’ they served as monuments to a grand, yet achievable, ideal.

This exhibition, which was on display from 4 May – 29 June 2007 at the Special Collections Service, showcased an exciting mix of British private press books from the University of Reading’s rare book collections. Covering a period of printing history (1892-1906) rich with innovation and experimentation, the exhibition highlighted works printed by the Kelmscott, Doves, Eragny, Vale, Essex House, and Ashendene Presses.

The exhibition was prepared by Jaclyn Sanders, a student on the MA in Printing and Book Design History course at the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication.

First page of Coleridge's 'Christabel, Kubla Khan, Fancy in nubibus, and Song from Zapolya', printed by Eragny PressList of exhibits

C.R. Ashbee. An endeavour towards the teaching of John Ruskin and William Morris. Being a brief account of the work, the aims, and the principles of the Guild of Handicraft in East London, written by C.R. Ashbee, ... [London] : [Published by Edward Arnold], 1901. '... the first book printed at the Essex House Press in the new type [Endeavour] designed by' Ashbee. (Colophon.). PRINTING COLLECTION--745.5-ASH

Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Christabel, Kubla Khan, Fancy in nubibus, and Song from Zapolya. [Hammersmith : Eragny Press, 1904]. Frontispiece designed and engraved on wood by Lucien Pissarro; border and initial letters, designed by Lucien and engraved by Esther Pissarro (see image of first page shown right). PRINTING COLLECTION--821.72 

First page of Doves BibleThe English Bible containing the Old Testament & the New / translated out of the original tongues by special command of His Majesty King James the First and now reprinted with the text revised by a collation of its early and other principal editions and edited by ... F.H. Scrivener ... for the Syndics of the University Press Cambridge. Hammersmith [London] : The Doves Press, 1903-1905. (Vol. 1 only) PRINTING COLLECTION FOLIO--220.52 (see image shown right of first page).

John Keats. The poems of John Keats. [London : Hacon & Ricketts, 1898]. (Vol. 1) RESERVE--821.78 1

Sir Thomas More. A fruteful and pleasaunt worke of the beste state of a publique weale, and of the newe yle called Utopia: written in Latine by Syr Thomas More Knyght and translated into Englyshe by Raphe Robynson ... Anno MDLI. [Chelsea : Ashendene Press, 1906]. PRINTING COLLECTION FOLIO--828.2-MOR Detail from title-page of 'The golden legend' printed at the Kelmscott Press

Charles Ricketts. A defence of the revival of printing. [London : Hacon & Ricketts (Printed at the Ballantyne Press], 1899. PRINTING COLLECTION--094-VAL/RIC

Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In memoriam. [London : printed at the Ballantyne Press, 1900]. RESERVE--821.81

Jacobus, de Voragine. Legenda aurea. The golden legend [of Master William Caxton done anew]. [Hammersmith : Printed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press, 1892]. With wood-cut illustrations, initials, and decoration. PRINTING COLLECTION FOLIO--235.2-JAC 1 (1 of 3 vols) (Details from the title-page are shown right and at the top of the page). 


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