Why Press Bibliographies?

When I was first getting interested in “fine printing,” press bibliographies became a particular interest because each one offered a variety of specimens from which I could learn about typography, printing and paper. I used to say that I started HM so that one day I could print my own bibliography. Unfortunately, now that the time has come, my interest in press bibliographies has waned somewhat. Apparently I’m not alone: last year a bookseller who knows whats what told me press bibliographies are not in high demand, no matter how beautifully printed. Once again, my timing is perfect. Nonetheless, for several reasons, Im pushing ahead with a bibliography of the five dozen books HM issued from 2000 to 2020, and it will come out next year. In hopes of reigniting my interest in the form, I took a tour of some of the press bibliographies on my shelves.... 

While not the first (private) press bibliography, the one against which all others are measured (& which most model themselves on, at least to some degree) is the Ashendene Presss. It combined all the elements that made its books so highly regarded from the start, plus facsimile pages from various projects. (Its important to note that these were resettings, not unused sheets from the actual edition.) In a sense, this combination of Ashendene types, printing, paper and binding, was a stand-in for an actual collection of the books it described. It also includes a selection of engravings and cuts from projects, and has a section on Graily Hewitts calligraphic contributions. 

My one complaint would be that the facsimile leaves from the larger books are folded and sideways, so the book (or your head) has to turn 90 degrees to look at them. I never like that in a book. But the only alternative would have been to make the bibliography larger, which would have posed other hassles.

Kelmscott issued a checklist, and Doves issued a (final) catalogue raisonné, both of which precede the Ashendene bibliography, but neither is as elaborate. I had a copy of the Kelmscott bibliography once, but it had been rebound, and done so badly I could not keep it. Imagine that Spanish fresco of Jesus that was “restored” a few years ago, and you
ll have an idea... The book itself is what the title claims, and an example of Kelmscott printing, but if you just need a reference, one of the facsimile editions will do fine. In some ways it might be the most modest Kelmscott book, perhaps appropriately so as the last. 

The Doves catalogue is more visually interesting, and more than just a description of the books published: it includes a brief farewell from C-S (Salve Aeternum), all of the 11 ephemeral parerga items (“a piece of work that is supplementary to or a byproduct of a larger work”
) C-S published during the life of the press, and some of the publication announcements. 

My copy even came in a signed Doves binding (with terrifically acidic turn-ins). But if you really need a Doves bibliography to rely on, you need Tidcombe
s The Doves Press (2002). 
Whether Ashendene spurred an interest in more elaborate bibliographies I cannot say, but the next few decades saw most active private presses issue some kind of listing of their publications. The Grabhorn brothers arguably outdid Ashendene, with their three volumes (1940, 1956 and 1966), all large folios, all stuffed with sample leaves (not facsimiles). The recto in the opening below shows a leaf from Leaves of Grass in volume I. They also added incidental comments about projects, giving some insight to the design and printing processes. The only problem is you cant have just one of the volumes, you need the set. Henry Morris also issued a series of bibliographies for his Bird & Bull Press. Im not interested in serial publications, so I dont have any of those. 

The next major press bibliography on my shelves is from the Allen Press (1981), which displays the various types used in its publications, comments from the printers, and sample leaves throughout. Like the Ashendene, as a representation of the press
s work, it was almost as good as having a collection on the shelf. 

The book was so engaging that in 1985 the Book Club of California published an almost exact facsimile (but updated with new publications), right down to the inserted sample leaves. It
s one of the BCCs high points. Unfortunately, they were so enthusiastic that they printed 750 copies, which was far too many. Copies of the facsimile can be found at criminally low prices. Anyone with any interest in fine printing should get a copy. 
I once bought a copy in sheets, and spent a few years gathering additional original leaves, and then had it all bound up by Hélène Francoeur. It was monumental. I sold it to buy something else, probably one of Dard Hunters books.

After Ward Ritchie retired from commercial printing, he got a handpress and set up a private press, Laguna Verde Imprenta. In 1988 he published a catalogue of the 26 items hed printed since 1975. The projects he chose to publish werent particularly interesting to me, but hes an important person in 20th century American printing, and I like having the bibliography. Thats another advantage they offer: a press’s publishing may not be to your taste, but you can still admire the talent and skill in the productions, and enjoy having a sample on your shelf. 
Much of the appeal of Ritchies book for me is it having been printed (by him) on a handpress; his inking was a bit shaky, but he was clearly enjoying the opportunities to play that the press offers. 

Thomas Taylor issued (1993) an elegant bibliography of Gabriel Rummondss work at Plain Wrapper Press and Ex Ophidia, 300 copies printed on Superfine & issued in wraps, and 40 printed on Magnani and issued in a quarter vellum binding. The paper, typography, color, printing and binding of the special copies combine to achieve a result I envy. The color plates are beautiful, but Id still have liked to have some original leaves. Gabriel himself issued sets of sheets; this may have been in conjunction with the Taylor bibliography, I dont know, Ive never seen a set or even a listing for one. I believe there were 40 sets issued, at a price of around $4,000.  

One press bibliography I do not have, and will not, is Yellow Barn
s. Im sorry thats the case because I admire Neil Shavers work, but the bibliography includes no sample leaves, and just doesnt seem on par with his other publications. 

I have a copy of the Alembic Press
s bibliography (1989, above), which I guess I got cheap when I was buying any press bibliography I found. For all their interest in type and book history, Alembics printing really was atrocious, as the samples and original content in the book show. It also is an example of how sample leaves (or folios) should not be handled: the easiest way to stick a leaf into a book is to run a line of adhesive along the gutter edge and stick it on the page. This is defendable if there is nothing printed on the verso, but most leaves do have something on the verso, so you have to a force a fold into the leaf to see it! The appropriate technique is to hinge the leaf in. If it is close to the size of the book, the hinge can be incorporated to the sewing. If its notably smaller, the hinge can be used to mount the leaf on the page (see the two photos just below, from Officina Bodoni). Be alert for lazy leaves. 

Geoffrey Wakeman
s Plough Press issued a bibliography in 1982. My copy is the only one Ive encountered, but there are another 119 out there. Wakeman wasnt the greatest printer, but where technical deficiencies overshadow the Alembic effort, Wakemans exuberance, and the trove of samples folded & otherwise jammed in, make this an entertaining book. 

I could dispute my own lead to this post by pointing out that the Officina Bodoni
s The Operation of a Hand-Press During the First Six Years of its Work (1929) predates the Ashendene bibliography. You might consider a book chronicling the output of a press that was just six years old at the time audacious, but when you look at the quantity and quality of what was produced, you would shut up. 

My favorite part of the book is the sequence of woodcuts by Frans Masereel illustrating the printing of a book at the shop. The book was issued in English, German and Italian versions, all containing various samples (on sewn or mounted hinges). But where most press bibliographies are by definition backward looking, the OB book seems more like a statement of intent, so maybe my lead can stand. I found a copy in a beat-up case years ago, and somehow talked Claudia Cohen into rebinding it for me. A lovely job, no surprise. 

After Mardersteig
s death a comprehensive bibliography of the Officina Bodoni was issued, and copies can still be found very reasonably priced. One hundred copies were issued with a companion volume containing a selection of leaves, and thats the one you want, especially if youre a handpress fan. 

In conjunction with a series of exhibitions in 1992, the Bridwell Library issued a catalogue of Leonard Baskin
s Gehenna Press. It was conceived as a trade publication (2,000 copies), well designed by LBs son Hosea, and printed offset at Oxbow Press. (They printed Baskins Hermaika, Gehennas only offset limited edition, and not a great success, a result of collectors bias against offset, even though it was the best medium to produce that particular book, just as it was the best choice for this one: it is full of color reproductions of pages and prints.) Again, no sample pages, but that can be fixed by finding your own to salt in. 

Fifty copies were specially bound at David Bourbeau
s Thistle Bindery, printed on a lovely Magnani sheet, with an extra section of Gehenna press marks printed by Art Larson added. These copies come close to the feel of a Gehenna publication. Where Gehenna bindings favored leather and paste papers, Bourbeau uses a simple heavy handmade paper over boards with some gilt tooling to achieve an elegant harmony with Gehenna publications. Some kind of supplement needs to be published, covering the years between this catalogue and Baskins death in 2000. If the familys interested, please call!

It will be no surprise that the HM handpress library includes a copy of Printing & the Mind of Merker, covering Kim Merkers career with a handpress. Most of his publications are exactly the kinds of things Im not interested in, but I admire his work, so a bibliography is the perfect sample to have on my shelves. Unfortunately the book looks and feels like a commercial catalogue (it was part of an exhibition mounted by the Grolier Club, in 1997), printed offset on a very smooth paper. Unlike the Gehenna catalogue, it doesnt capture the spirit of Merkers (letterpress) books. But the production and edition size (500 copies) reflect the interest in his work, which can only be counted to his credit. (Fifty [not very] special copies were issued with sample leaves, and this is the state handpress fans would want, but it still looks and feels like an exhibition catalogue.) 

The particular joy of this book is the comments about each project that compiler Sidney Berger wrangled from Merker: it
s these kinds of inside-baseball details about design decisions and technical issues that will appeal to students of the book arts. Most bibliographies include these kinds of appended comments, some more than others, and they are what raise a simple list of books published, to a rich history of a presss work. Word of advice to printers thinking of maybe one day issuing a bibliography: make these insightful, rueful and/or confessional notes when the project is just wrapping up: dont count on remembering any of it when the time comes to compile everything. Do as I say, not as I didnt do...
An omission from last months post about printing on vellum: I was certain I had a pamphlet on the subject from Paul Nashs Strawberry Press, but find it I could not, and I even started thinking Id imagined it. Then it popped out with Making a Book at the Officina Bodoni. Good luck tracking a copy down, and dont dither if you see a one. 


Gimme a minute...

I know it’s the first but the post isn’t ready yet. The Devil’s heat dome set the province on fire this week so all activities beyond staying alive are on hold. It takes a lot to leave a cat looking undignified, but there it was. The post will be up in a day or two.; this month’s topic is press bibliographies. Try to stay cool. 


Handpress Library #9: Vellum

When someone starts getting interested in letterpress and fine printing, they pretty soon become enamoured with the idea of printing on vellum. Much of the attraction is down to the mystique of vellum* – its cost and related scarcity, and its tactile qualities. Depending how much knowledge acolytes have acquired, they may also appreciate the difficulty of printing on vellum, and the sheer terror fear of wasting a skin with a bad impression. 

I have no idea where one could acquire vellum appropriate for printing these days, and don’t want to know how much a sufficient quantity for even one copy of a book would cost. I guess I’d ask a calligrapher. Vellum suitable for binding is expensive enough, and the kind suitable for printing is much finer. 

Printing a few copies of a book on vellum has been part of printing since the first Gutenberg Bible, presumably a sop to patrons with libraries full of manuscripts. In the early days of the fine press revival, copies on vellum were the cream of the cream. In 1977 the Bridwell Library boasted of having secured copies of the so-called fine press Triple Crown – the Ashendene Dante, the Doves Bibles, and the Kelmscott Chaucer – all printed on vellum. The practice dwindled as the century progressed; in this list of known publications on vellum printed in the United States, you can see the gap between the 1950s and '80s. Of the three American presses listed in that revival, if it can be called that, the Petrarch was the most ambitious. That imprint was started by Peter Bishop in 1985 and published eight titles over the next decade, all printed with a handpress. The imprint was revived after Bishop’s death in 2002, and has continued to print a few copies of each title on vellum (i.e. parchment; I won’t address that distinction here...). 

All of which brings us to the latest instalment in the Handpress Library: Petrarch Press’ 1989 edition of Epictetus’ Encheiridion, printed on vellum (i.e. sheep skin parchment). The printing is enviously consistent and wonderfully black without being over-inked. The leaves may be slightly more transparent than ideal, but not to the point of distraction. The edition was 160 copies, eight on parchment, mine elegantly bound in brown goat with just the title tooled on the spine.

I don’t think this was the first book on vellum I owned: that would have been the De La More Press’ edition of The Prince. I bought it from a catalogue (i.e. sight unseen) in the late ’90s, for about $1,000, which would have been a lot of money for me, but I was in the new-to-printing, beguiled-by-vellum stage. It wasn’t really that lovely. If I recall correctly, the type looked over-inked (De La More was one of those quasi fine presses, like Nonesuch, which claimed to combine fine-printing ideals with commercial methods; I'm sure The Prince’s edition of 1,040 copies was not printed on a handpress, which accounts for the indifferent result). The vellum-over-boards binding was inelegant, and the black lettering on the spine just looked cheap. Plus, my copy arrived with a busted spine, which robbed much of the joy. I used it to acquire something more interesting within a few years. But I didn’t get eight grand in trade!

One question I’ve never answered unequivocally is whether printers dampened vellum before printing, as they would (should) paper. Anyone familiar with vellum knows how it reacts to the slightest change in humidity, so I’m not sure how one would dampen a skin, or if it even helps the impression (as it greatly does with paper). Rummonds, our best contemporary resource for letterpress questions, offers just a page and a half on the subject, and gives most of that to the Kelmscott pressroom overseer: place a skin between (not very) damp blotters for 30 – 45 seconds immediately before printing. The chapter’s unspoken sentiment seems to be, you’re on your own, good luck. 

Robert Baris’ Wind & Harlot Press issued a pamphlet on the subject in 1976 (25 copies, re-printed as a miniature in 1992, 23 copies), printing an exchange of letters between D.B. Updike and St. John Hornby in which the latter reported he printed his vellum dry. 

In the end, the appeal of printing on vellum comes down to decadence, which on its own isn’t that interesting, and is why my interest in books printed on vellum has been attenuated. For the premium placed on a vellum copy, I’d as soon have one printed on good paper and the extra money in my pocket. The closest I’ve come to printing on vellum is Reg Lissel’s vellum paper, made from over-beaten abaca. It’s remarkably similar to vellum in feel and toughness. I used the quick damping between blotters technique, and significantly more impression than would have been required for a rag sheet of comparable weight. If I was presented with a stack of vellum sheets, I don’t know that printing on them would be my first inclination. I’d be more likely to have a calligrapher do something lovely, and tip a sheet into copies of a book. 

* The Mystique of Vellum is the title of Richard Bigus’ bible on the subject, published by Bromer Booksellers in 1984. Copies can still be had, at not much beyond publication price, and each one includes a sheet printed on vellum (shown at top of this post). The April 1987 issue of Fine Print has a fascinating article about binding the 12 copies of Mystique that were printed on vellum, which discusses the challenges of working with vellum quires, and underscores the importance of consulting for printers to consult with their binder before production starts. 

I forgot to include one of Will Rueter’s publications in last month’s post about printing Bewick’s wood engravings: A Brief Description of His Method of Engraving on Wood, Taken from His Memoir, c.1827. Edition of 100 copies published in 1978, a single signature sewn in wraps. Not sure what the two blocks included are from, probably metal cuts, he’d have mentioned if they were original blocks. Beautifully printed on mulberry paper. 
Justine Provino, a graduate student at Cambridge, is working on a thesis about Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), including a census of known copies. If you have one, or know where one is, send her a note: agrippa[at]english.cam.ac.uk


Printing Wood Engravings & Other New Things

Recent news via Mark Askams excellent fine press Instagram page: three new publications from Graham Williams’ Florin Press of particular interest to enthusiasts of wood engravings, and anyone simply wanting to educate their eye and taste. 

Blog visitors may recall previous mentions here of the Florin Press’s beautiful Wood Engravings of Monica Poole (1985). The few deluxe copies of that book included a short essay by Graham about printing the engravings. This kind of (not too) technical discussion assists in appreciating the work of both the artist and the printer. Graham has been printing with handpresses for over five decades, and believes they “are the very best tools for a printer to use to give life to a wood block.”

The first of his new trio of books is Thomas Bewick Engraver & the Performance of Woodblocks. “This book is not a biography of the man but an account of how his talent evolved and how his blocks can still perform their magic,” the prospectus reports. It is printed offset, which normally might not excite me, but it is undeniably the best method to achieve the books purpose, which is to illustrate differences between impressions from the same blocks, as part of a broader discussion of how his blocks were used. 

The first 100 copies of the standard edition will include a leaf from his next new book (due summer 2021), A Collection of Printing from Woodblocks on a diversity of papers. This book is similar in concept to HMs Paper Should Not Always Be White, only much, much more. “What works to print from Thomas Bewicks blocks will also work for older blocks, and be relevant for contemporary wood engraving as well. This collection includes nine different designs.The leaves, printed on a diversity of papers, encourage an exploration of how the same image changes from one paper to another.” This volume has the additional appeal of the content - the combination of printing and paper - being actually printed by Graham.

The third volume focuses specifically on paper, “how we can make our own assessments of three distinct attributes of paper - aesthetic, practical and permanence.” (Image of scary paper mold above.) Like Performance of Woodblocks, this will be printed commercially (offset) and cased in cloth, with a few copies extra-bound and also a less expensive softcover version.

Im a big believer in collectors reading these kinds of books, to develop an eye and appreciation for methods and materials. Too often people seem to place importance on a particular material or method, e.g. handmade paper or a leather binding, without an understanding for how it should (and should not!) be best employed. Its the combination of material, application (function) and execution that matter, and assessing the sum of those elements requires some experience and knowledge. 

The inclusion of illustrations of some kind seems to be essential for many people who collect contemporary press books. Relief prints are the easiest for a letterpress printer to include (I find the combination of letterpress with intaglio more interesting), and wood engravings have become the most common choice, but Im not sure always for reasons that have to do with specific characteristics of the medium. It often feels like the inclusion of a wood engraving or two is simply a formality - how many books have been described as quarter cloth, patterned paper over boards, wood engraving frontis? Yawn. Too often printers (publishers) go to an already known name for the engraving, rather than making the effort to find new talents: too often the artists arent expanding or challenging the traditional wood engraving aesthetic, and too often the engravings are simply illustrations. The truly interesting press books that incorporate illustration add more than (just) a visual element. One of my favorite examples is Constantin Brancusis frontis (below) for Joyces Tales Told of Shem and Shaun (Black Sun Press, 1929). I had a copy once, but the setting was so indifferent I didnt feel the need to keep it; still, a cool frontis, and I believe the only print he ever made for a book. It makes my point about thought-provoking or evocative art vs simple illustrations. 

(I need to interrupt myself & clarify that the above comments primarily apply to fiction. Im all for incorporating images to a story when they add something beyond simple illustration, but I think thats all most fine press fiction books achieve. Its certainly true of contemporary faux fine press publishers like Folio, Suntup, Centipede et al, but their customers dont want art, they want graphics. The Arion Moby-Dick might be a positive example, where Barry Moser’s engravings were historically-accurate illustrations of whaling equipment and methods: Disconnected from the events and characters of the text, these beautiful pictures achieve a kind of abstraction of their own” (). Poetry can lend itself to interesting printmaking, if the publisher recruits an artist rather than an illustrator. Im primarily interested in non-fiction related to history, which generally is enlivened by illustration. My criticism is not of the inclusion of images, its of inclusion with no purpose or value beyond decoration.)
These are the reasons the Williams Monica Poole book has always appealed to me. Her work is unique and deeply engaging, the text is about her work so the inclusion of examples as illustrations is appropriate, and they are expertly printed by Williams. His new books should offer collectors and printers some useful insights to how he approaches wood engravings.  


The Performance of Woodblocks reminded me of a slighter publication from 1946, also employing Bewick blocks to illustrate how a chosen paper affects the appearance of an engraving (and also, like Paper Should Not..., much, much less than Grahams undertaking). The Wood Engravings of Thomas Bewick - An Experimental Printing, by Minne Jane de Thomas. Its one of the better-produced titles from Wesleyan Colleges Art Lab imprint, most of which were printed with a handpress, many of which were focused on some aspect of the books arts. Bromers currently has the most complete collection of WAL publications I've seen (but it doesn't include the Bewick pamphlet). 


Natasha Herman has just launched a kickstarter campaign to share her excellent Stilt book stands with the world. The copies of Fragments & Glimpses she bound last year were each issued with one. The stands design is very clever, it knocks down flat for easy transport or storage, but is sturdy and well constructed. If you like having books on display, or need to keep valuable or fragile volumes open while working, the Stilt is perfect. 


Legacy Press has published a bibliography of the several hundred books published by Peter & Donna Thomas since 1974. Their work is (or should be) well known in particular to fans of miniature books and books about papermaking. In parallel with the bibliography, Peter & Donna have issued 30 sets of sample sheets and ephemera, titled Evidence.


The history of printing continues to be the primary topic for reading around here. Got a book Id only recently heard of, Thomas Hornes An Introduction to the Study of Bibliography (1814). The titles misleading, the book is more like an encyclopedia, or at least a compendium, of information and sources on printing and related topics. Not rare, but many copies are lacking some or all of the 11 plates (not mine!). Anyone with copies of the more obscure Wm Blades publications from the 19th century, please get in touch.