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The Revival of Printing: A Bibliographical Catalogue of Works issued by the Chief Modern English Presses


                        Modern Fine Printing

The Revival of Printing: A Bibliographical Catalogue of Works issued by the Chief Modern English Presses. With an Introduction by ROBERT STEELE. (P. H. Lee Warner. 16s. net.)

    MR. STEELE is well known as a diligent student of the many experiments in artistic book printing made during the last twenty years, and no one better qualified by knowledge and enthusiasm could have been found to edit this record of the exhibition organised last autumn by Mr. Lee Warner. Like the exhibition, the book is confined to English work, the Merrymount Press, owned by Mr. Updike, of New York, being only introduced in order to show the fount designed for it by Mr. Herbert Horne. As regards English work, the book, while it certainly does not fulfil the exact wording of the title-page, on the line of development with which it is concerned, is really comprehensive. Mr. Steele’s introduction is good, both as a record and a criticism. There is much to be learnt from it, and it raises many points which invite discussion. In his bibliography he gives useful lists of the books printed, and, with the exception of the beautiful Jenson fount of the Doves Press, he has been fortunate in obtaining leave to illustrate all the chief types about which he writes.

     We have said that the book is comprehensive on the line of development with which it is concerned, but it so happens that this is not very easily indicated in a few words, and in its attempt to overcome this difficulty the title-page stumbles twice, pretty badly. It is certainly not accurate to say that the works which the bibliography describes have been issued “by the chief modern English presses,” nor is it accurate, though the phrase is tempting, to speak of a “Revival of Printing.” What really revived was not so much printing itself as interest in printing, which is not quite the same thing. The interest showed itself in a number of experiments made by amateurs, some of which leapt at once to the rank of great achievements, while others, as must needs happen when experiments are being made, were very thoroughly bad. In the end the best professional printers have improved their practice in one or two points, and one or two good new types are in process of being made available for ordinary work. But it can hardly be said that there has been a Revival of Printing in the face of the facts that there was much good printing being done in the ‘eighties of the last century, that much very bad printing is being done at the present day, and that hardly anyone now dares venture to decorate a book with initials or borders because of a well-grounded fear that the decoration would disfigure rather than adorn it. If we are afraid to be a little gay, can we really be said to be “revived”?

    As to the achievements and failures. Imprimis William Morris produced a long series of books which on their own lines, are the finest since printing began— far finer than any of the fifteenth century books which he took as his model. The Doves Press has improved upon Jenson, and Mr. St. John Hornby on Sweynheym and Pannartz. The three founts designed by Mr. Horne are all good, and Mr. Steele is quite justified in claiming the “Riccardi” fount, in which his book is printed, as very good indeed. On the other hand, the “Prayerbook” type of the Essex House Press, of which a specimen is here given, is merely blatant, and the “Endeavour” type of the same press, though less actively offensive, only slightly better. A “Cambridge” type is not as bad as these, but it is clumsy and restless (faults peculiarly unfortunate in the work of a University press), seeking the bad short cut to richness of effect by its heavy face and with the tops of the letters far too frequently broken by an excess of slants. The life-blood of progress is experiment, and when experiments are numerous there must needs be failures. To carp at them would be ungrateful, but, if the men who were doing quiet work in the ‘eighties are to be toId that printing was shortly afterwards “revived,” they may surely have a good deal to say as to some of the products of the “revival.”

     The Kelmscott books were followed not only by much printing with clumsily heavy types, but by a flood of cheap ornament. As regards ornament, Mr. Steele happily suggests that no one should decorate a book unless he feels that he “must.” For their “Vale” books Messrs. Ricketts and Shannon designed some graceful borders, the best of which have something of the lightness and charm of April as contrasted with the full-handed profusion of Morris’s August. The plain initials printed in gold or red or green, used in some books from the Doves Press and by Mr. Hornby, are also very good, but it is disappointing that a decora tive instinct which can be trusted should apparently be undiscoverable.

     As to illustrations, the delight in colour, in itself quite wholesome and right, is tempting the best book-builders to substitute a printed text with pictures inserted in it for an illustrated book. Blank leaves are placed among the printed ones, and to these a colour-print is lightly attached. The colour-prints are often delight ful, but the unity of the book is destroyed, while cheaper editions are printed throughout on bad paper in order to “take the illustrations.”

    All this is disheartening. On the other hand, the best printers of to-day certainly use better ink than their immediate predecessors, who were content (like Jenson, when he was not printing on vellum) with a very grey effect, and they have a better idea of what should be the relative size of the four margins. These and two or three good types seem in 1912, over and above the few books printed at the Doves and Ashen dene Presses, to be the working results of Morris’s splendid example—results for which we may well be thankful, but which fall somewhat short of the hopes of twenty years ago.


MLA citation:

“The Revival of Printing: A Bibliographical Catalogue of Works issued by the Chief Modern English Presses” Rev. of The Dial, 1910-1914,The Academy, no. 2089, 18 May 1912, p. 615. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.