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Art and the Printer

In an article which I contributed some years ago to one of the Reviews, I ventured to hazard the prediction that we were “on the eve of a great revolution in the art of typography and book-decoration”—a remark which, I remember, brought down upon me the comment of some critic that I was “a gentle dreamer.” Since those words were written, the number of so-called “artist-printers” has heen steadily increasing alike in England and America. Already the revolution has been partially accomplished—but it has been a revolution in the wrong direction.

    In his “Note on the Kelmscott Press,” William Morris attempted a final classification of the rules which he considered essential to the artistic production of the printed book. In the course of centuries, the art of printing had undergone a constant degeneration. Increasing demand had led inevitably to haste and carelessness in production; increasing cheapness, through stress of competition, to cramped type, inferior paper, and disregard for margin. When Morris set himself to the study of typography, he was quick to discover that, if he would succeed at all, he must necessarily go back for inspiration to the earliest masters of the craft. He was concerned less with producing what I may term “readably printed” books than with the desire to rescue a lost art from oblivion or neglect. It was the aim of William Morris to revive the former traditions of typography, to design volumes which should be in themselves decorative objects, quite irrespective of their literary value. First and foremost, Morris should be considered as a decorator. Just as he endeavoured to beautify the humblest articles of furniture—a towel-horse, a kitchen dresser—so it was his ideal to beautify the printed book, to show what it might be capable of decoratively in the hands of an artist as opposed to a mechanic. Ornanmentally conceived, the Kelmscott books were intended for ornamental use. For purposes of practical utility, they were not intended.

    Mediæval as he was by instinct, it was natural that there should be an archaic element in everything which Morris undertook. Unfortunately, his followers, getting, as it were, their mediævalism at third hand, in most cases play the mediæval game without his enthusiasm nnd sincerity. No one who paid a visit to the last exhibition of the Arts nnd Crafts Society can fail to have been struck by the prevailing “Morris-madness.” Everywhere one perceived, not new life infused, but the struggle to infuse it by close adherence to Morris and his example. So it was with the books, with the hangings, with the wall-papers ; so it was with the carpets ; so it was with the furniture, twisted and tortured into a semblance of archaic form. Instead of development, there was the going back, not to mediævalisln, but to make-believe mediævalism, according to Morris, based upon Rossetti. Carried to such excess, the new fashion, which Morris inaugurated in domestic decoration, is really more insufferable than Victorian horsehair and shams, because of its greater artistic pretensions.

    Well! If we want to see to what lengths a folly of this kind can be carried, we have only to cross over to America. There occasionally reaches me from New York a stray announcement of one of the latest things in “printing ventures”: the circulars of the Elston Press, an undertaking conducted by Mr. Clarke Conwell upon “artistic” principles. Mr. Conwell is an enthusiastic follower of William Morris. Lest any one should inadvertently suspect him of originality, he has even avoided the temptation to design a fount of type. Instead, he has re-cut the “Troy” and “Chaucer” types of Morris. His volumes are of course printed entirely by hand, in blackest ink, and on the roughest paper. All the blocks for the numerous “very beautiful” borders, half-borders, decorations, and initial letters are “destroyed at once after use.” Art and craft, we are told, “have again united in forming a perfect ensemble, at once beautiful and substantial.” It need not surprise us that Mr. Clarke Conwell is convinced that his books “will quickly become an object of desire.” Indeed, the “specimen pages,” with which from time to time he has presented me, are strangely picturesque with their wealth of ornament and “Gothic” characters. After glancing through them, I begin to wonder whether, after all, I am living in the twentieth century, or whether I have not wandered accidentally into the Middle Ages. When I first had the good fortune to hear of Mr. Conwell, he was on the point of commencing his enterprise with an edition of Mrs. Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese”: a work which, for some reason, appears to be especially favoured by all owners of “artistic” presses. For this purpose, he had made elaborate preparations in the most approved mock-mediæval manner. The completed volume—so far as I am aware, the first book which has been printed wholly on a hand-press, direct from the types, in America, for many years—is a veritable triumph of misapplied talent in book-decoration. Not a few of the ornamental initial letters are undecipherable save by an expert. Such is the plenitude of border, that one is almost tempted to regret the inclusion of the letterpress. As a “new note” in wall-papers, the Elston decoration would be above reproach. Its application to the printed book is calculatcd unduly to distress the reader who has not hitherto conceived of Mrs. Browning in connection with a mural pattern scheme. Mr. Conwell’s productions are books which one would like to stand upon an easel, to respect and admire at a distance, as one might admire the Kelmscott “Chaucer”—in a case at the British Museum. Provided only that with Morris’ mediævalism, Mr. Clarke Conwell may happen some day to combine Morris’ sense of artistic fitness and sincerity. In any event, I am unable to imagine the person who would care to purchase Mr. Conwell’s initial effort with any intention of reading the “Sonnets from the Portuguese.”

    Mr. Clarke Conwell is an excellent example of the fallacy which, consciously or unconsciously, Morris undoubtedly encouraged. There are many bibliomaniacs who suffer from a similar delusion: that no book-lover can be truly happy unless he possesses at least two editions of a favourite author, the one, simple, to be read; the other, fearfully elaborate, to be kept in tissue paper nnd occasionally exhibited to visitors—after preliminary washing of the hands. It is quite possible to understand even a reader delighting in the ownership of an old book in an old dress; a folio “Montaigne” has a charm which is denied to its reprint in Messrs. Dent’s far more convenient Temple Classics. But the “Sonnets from the Portuguese” in imitation Gothic! A man must surely be lacking in a sense of humour who does not feel the incongruity.

    Philistine, indeed, as we may be, we no longer live in the Dark Ages. The twentieth-century mortul has ceased to chain his volumes to a lectern, albeit it is alleged that in some American public libraries the practice might be profitably revived. Many of us have learnt by experience that “artistic” chairs are not always comfortable to sit upon, however ornamental they may be as furniture. In the same way, “artistic” books are rapidly becoming an object of aversion to those misguided creatures who still buy books for the mere pleasure of reading them, and who are not disposed to view their acquisitions in the light of so many items of æsthetic upholstery. A Kelmscott volume may lend itself admirably to a general scheme of decoration ; none the less it is just as much a piece of furniture as is a Morris bedstead or a waste-paper basket from the design of Mr. Walter Crane.

    I am not myself a practical printer, nor can I claim to have ever set up a page of type. It is not without a certain diffidence that I venture to commit myself to an assertion so strongly at variance with the existing theories of “artist-printers” as that the first essential of the printed book is perhaps, after all, not “art” but legibility. With the mediæval craftsman generally, ornament was only incidental. The mania for elaboration, which is so curious a characteristic of present-day mock-mediævalism, has tended to raise ornament out of all proportion to utility.

    “Dignify thyself with modesty and simplicity for thy ornaments” is an old-fashioned motto which might be suitably suggested for the use of “artist-printers.” On most of the occasions on which Morris employed his three founts of type, it was in conjunction with a mass of bewildering initials, letters “an ell long,” buried among foliage. Sometimes a spray of vine leaves would wander by the side of the page. Often it was barely possible to see the wood for the trees. Certainly it is in the best interests of typography that Morris’ designs and blocks have been immured for the next century in the British Museum.

    I suppose that Mr. Ricketts’ Vale Press may be considered the most important undertaking in “artistic” book-work now among us. Like his fellows, Mr. Ricketts prefers to regard a printed book as a mere piece of decorative furniture. He is apparently unable to understand the attitude of a man who values a book for its legibility as much as for its outwardly artistic beauty. This peculiarity of Mr. Ricketts’ temperament is the more to be lamented since, in several of his later volumes, it is possible to detect a new endeavour towards simplicity which seems to indicate that some restraining influence has at last been exerting itself to good purpose in the Vale workrooms. The “Shakespeare” especially marks such an improvement in Mr. Ricketts’ methods that one is almost inclined to quarrel with his determination to close the Vale Press on its completion. In these volumes, while there is, as usual, a quite unnecessary luxuriance of leaves and floral ornament, Mr. Ricketts has heen at the pains so to dispose his half-borders that they do not materially interfere with the comfort of the reader, while the excellence of the type and the absence of initial letters combine to render the books very nearly as suitable for use as for display. The affectation displayed in the lettering of the half-title is, I imagine, to adopt Mr. Ricketts’ own expression, “no more than a matter of opinion.”

    One of the grounds upon which I base my criticism of Mr. Ricketts’ work relates to his distressing habit of placing in a page of capitals a single word or letter in the lower-case. Any one who owns to an elementary acquaintance with the productions of the Vale Press will find it easy to unearth a number of examples. I fancy that it was in the “Chatterton” that I came across the extraordinary word “SKyNS.” The Vale edition of “The Passionate Pilgrim,” to select another instance, opens with a leaf printed entirely in capitals, after the manner of the Kelmscott books; the single word ‘young, however, figures among its brethren in lower-case letters, owing to considerations of spacing, which Morris certainly would have avoided. The eye, looking at the page, is at once arrested by the incongruity, and unnecessary emphasis is imparted to an unimportant word. In his “Defence of the Revival of Printing,” Mr. Ricketts comes forward with an explanation. It is “a trifling eccentricity that no one regrets more than I; it occurs in some ornarnental pages where the text is cramped between the border and initial ⋯ and against this blemish we must set the decorative advantage of a beautiful page of capitals.” Unfortunately, it is precisely there that I join issue with Mr. Ricketts. At the best of times, a “beautiful page of capitals” makes hard reading. Framed as a picture one might possibly appreciate it. In a printed book, it is a trifle disconcerting. Mr. Ricketts’ ingenuous plea, that his “eccentricities” occur only in some ornamental pages “where the text is cramped hetween the border and initial,” is of course in reality no defence at all. Surely if decoration be indeed needful to the printed book, it should be at least subordinate to the exigencies of the text. The border must be arranged to fit the text and not the text the border. It must harmonise with and be subservient to the entire scheme. If a border, however beautiful in itself, cannot be used without cramping the text into fantastic attitudes, why then—l would suggest that the border might be better dispensed with altogether. The “decorative beauty of a page of artistic lettering” is not enhanced by eccentricity of setting. Let me quote “from another place” so eminent an authority as Mr. Ricketts himself! “Use decoration only when it can be urged as an added element of beauty to the book, let it accompany the text and not gobble it up!”

    It is always easy to say that these things are trifles and of small importance. Perhaps it is for this very reason that I have dwelt on them. They may be insignificant in themselves. Mass them together, and their effect upon the printed book becomes self-evident.

    One of the things which I have never been able to understand in “artistic” book production is the apparent relationship between foliage and printing. It has come to be inevitable that an “artistic” volume should be liberally besprinkled with imitations of a garden product. In some of the works of the Vale Press a small leaf is prefixed to every paragraph; I have counted as many as nine upon a single page. Morris occasionally indulged in the luxury of an entire branch, while there exists an American printer who exhibits a cluster of roses at the head of each new chapter.

    Mr. Ricketts owes much of his success to his wonderful skill in designing ornamental borders. I can conceive that it was his desire to produce borders which first suggested the thought of the Vale Press. Not the most carping of critics could withhold his admiration from these unconventional adaptations of foliage and flower. There has been nothing of the kind in our time more exquisite than the border of violets in the “Campion,” or that of wild hop which decorates the “Constable.” I possess a copy of the latter which has been coloured by the hand of some artist, and makes one of the prettiest decorative pictures imaginable. It need not surprise us that Mr. Ricketts looks upon the printing of books mainly as a vehicle for the display of his borders and initial letters.

    A study of “artistic,” presses, indeed, brings one to the conclusion that the professions of an artist and a printer are not compatible with one another. Bearing in mind that simplicity is of the very essence of legibility, and that a hook which is not legible is no book but a piece of decorative furniture only, it becomes necessary for the would-be “artist- printer” to efface his own personality in a way which, under modern art conditions, seems impossible. The beauty of a book is one thing, the beauty of a picture is another, the beauty of a chair or table is another. To treat a book decoratively, as one might treat a chair or panel, is to misunderstand the function of the printed volume. It is the individuality of the artist showing through his work which makes the difference between one decorative object and another. In the printing of books the contrary should be the case. It is imperative that everything should be in absolute subordination to the subject-matter. The artist may be there, but he must not he visible. If any one, it is the author in whom we should be interested, not the artist. The “new theory” of artistic typography yields the chief place to the “decorator” as opposed to the real author. In other words, it is as if, in painting, the frame-maker or the gilder should be accorded pre-eminence over the mere painter, and the picture admired in proportion to the excellence of its decorative setting. In the production of books, the artist should be satisfied to occupy a position of secondary importance. Morris in his Kelmscott Press, Mr. Ricketts in his Vale Press, and their followers almost without exception, make it their first object to centre upon themselves the attention of the reader, to the exclusion of the author and his subject-matter. It is Morris and not Keats whom we are called upon to admire in the Kelmscott edition of that poet’s writings; it is Mr. Ricketts and not Keats of whom we are to think when we turn over the pages of the Vale edition.

    Would we estimate at its real value the work which Morris has accomplished in the domain of book-production, we should do well to set the Kelmscott books altogether on one side. It has, in fact, been reserved for Morris’ executors to make the first real application of the typographical principles which he advocated and which his decorative instincts hindered him from following. There is a series of “Lectures by William Morris,” which has been for some time in process of publication by Messrs. Longman. One of these volumes, “Art and the Beauty of the Earth,” now lies before me. It has been “printed at the Chiswick Press with the ‘golden’ type de- signed by William Morris for the Kelmscott Press,” and is published on behalf of his executors. The book is completely free from foliage or ornament. It is printed in black, very plainly and simply, on paper similar to that used by Morris. There is no opening page of capitals, no ornamental border, not even an initial letter. The closest scrutiny has failed to reveal the presence of a paragraph-mark. The margins are correct, the spacing between words is properly preserved. The book is unassumingly enclosed in blue-grey boards, with a linen back.

    I am far from asserting that there should not be individuality in the printing of books as in every form of art. Only let that individuality be such as is requisite to the proper presentment of the author and no more. Throughout it should be in harmony with the subject-matter, in sufficient harmony, that is to say, to be inseparable from it, in no way forcing itself independently upon the notice of the reader. Decoration, if it be used at all, should be used sparingly and should be unobtrusive. The type should be square and clear, and large enough to be read with comfort. The volume should be light, and of a convenient size to hold in the hand. There should be no vestige of eccentricity nor affectation. Once these conditions are comformed to, the individuality of the “builder” may be permitted to come into play. It is merely necessary for him to remember that in the printing of books such individuality must be confined strictly within limits. “La vanité, c’est un sentiment contre lequel tout le monde est impitoyable.”

    I doubt whether in this respect there exists in England at the present moment any more singular example of artistic peversity than is afforded in the case of Mr. C.R. Ashbee, of the Guild of Handicraft. The object which the Guild sets before it in all its undertakings is “to make things that shall be serviceable and at the same time beautiful, and this only when their production is carried on under healthful and pleasurable conditions.” Good handicraft, it is explained, cannot be produced except with “the good will, the fancy, and the content of the handicraftsman,” and it is the purpose of the Guild to encourage, wherever possible, that individuality of its members which they in their turn seek to impress upon the work of their hands. I am, I fear, hardly competent to speak as to the “conditions” which may prevail in Mr. Ashbee’s workrooms, but I may be pardoned for hoping that the “plate, pottery, table service, jewellery, lustre ware, furniture, and personal adornment” of the Guild of Handicraft display the beneficial results of the “good will, the fancy, and the content of the handicraftsman” in a more marked degree than do the printed volumes which are issued by the Essex House Press under the Guild’s direction. Among the numerous books which have been “built” by Mr. Ashbee, it would, I fancy, be difficult to find one which is not distinguished above all rivals by some eccentricity of form or setting. “Historiated bloomers” are the prevailing characteristic of the Essex House edition of the Psalms of David; Erasmus’ “Praise of Folly” is diversified with a “cloth cover in motley” and a “set of illustrations, borders, frontispiece and initial”; Walt Whitman’s “Hymn on the Death of Lincoln” is printed throughout on vellum with a new hand-coloured “alphabet of bloomers” and a coloured wood-block frontispiece. Mr. Ashbee’s crowning achievement is, however, less his “historiated bloomers” than his extraordinary fount of type. The earlier volumes of the Essex House Press were printed in a type which, if not exactly beautiful, was legible. Since then, Mr. C.R. Ashbee has been at the pains to design a type which is more in harmony with his ideas of book-making. This new fount is sufficiently fantastic to gratify the most fastidious book-lover. It is clear that simplicity offers no attraction to the minds of those who are responsible for the Essex House productions. The irrational swellings and projections which make early printing so difficult to read must be as child’s play to such persons as are accustomed to peruse the Psalms of David in Mr. Ashbee’s version. There is scarcely a character in Mr Ashbee’s fount which does not exhibit the highest degree of development to which whirls and twirls are likely in our day to attain. The ingenuity displayed in the contraction for “and” or in the formation of the lower-case “g” ought alone to ensure for Mr. Ashbee a typographical position inferior only to that of the more illegible “Gothic” printers of the Middle Ages.

    During the last few years much has been written on the subject of the printed book. We have been told ad nauseam that the earliest books are as admirable as most of the later ones are bad. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, we live under different conditions from our ancestors, and what was suitable for them is not invariably suitable for us. The progress of civilisation has been slow indeed if, to ensure beauty, we must necessarily re-model our efforts upon those of the Dark Ages. By way of apology for the oddity of his interrogation mark, Mr. Ricketts has pleaded “extenuating circumstances, having detected a form, like the one I use, in Jenson.” For my own part, I fail to see what Jenson has to do with it. As a printer, he was possessed of many excellent qualities— beauty, clearness, legibility. It by no means follows that his methods, however commendable in his own generation, need be slavishly copied in the twentieth century. The value to us of the early printers lies in certain traditions which have been handed down by them. There is the question of margin: the inner margin the narrowest, the top somewhat wider, the outside wider still, and the bottom widest of all. There is the question of type: that it should have boldness, system, and conformity. There is the question of spacing: that the spacing between words should be as nearly equal as possible. Lastly, there is the question of ornament: that the ornament, whether pattern-work or illustration, must submit to certain limitations, must be as much a part of the page as the type itself, and must be strictly subservient to the entire scheme. These traditions of typography are all that need concern us as our inheritance from the first printers. That they were lost sight of during the last three centuries and are not even yet correctly grasped by a majority of printers is—or should be—the reason of the existing revolution in the art of printing. That this revolution, instead of confining itself to these principles, has wandered off into a circle of over-elaboration is a direct result of the decorative movement which was inaugurated by William Morris and of the mock-mediæval temperament which influenced his labours.

    I have selected Mr. Ricketts as the most prominent type of the “artist-printer” now among us. Space alone would prevent me from mentioning his numerous followers and rivals. Of these, by far the most satisfactory is probably the Doves Press of Mr. Cobden Sanderson and Mr. Emery Walker. Unlike the majority of their competitors, the projectors of the Doves Press have hitherto wisely eschewed all decoration in their work. Were it not, indeed, for a certain thinness in the type, and the annoying use of an obtrusively black, old-fashioned paragraph-mark, the specimen page of their folio edition of the Authorised Version of the Bible would be deserving of unqualified approval. There is no trace of eccentricity, no “historiated bloomers” such as disfigure Mr. Ashbee’s volume of the Psalms. The printing is throughout plain and straight- forward ; even the abbreviated “and”—one of those needless contractions upon which the “artist-printer” delights to lavish all his ingenuity—requires no previous “art training” for its immediate recognition.

    The work of Mr. Cobden Sanderson and Mr. Emery Walker is the more notable as an endeavour in the true direction of simplicity, since it is capable of such effective contrast with the absurdities of the modern typographical art movement. It is becoming increasingly difficult to enter one of the larger bookselling establishments without being confronted with the perpetrations of some new “artistic” printing press : the Caradoc, the Bedford Park, the Tulip. But it is by no means only among the misguided enthusiasts who are responsible for these undertakings that the new tendency reveals itself. Nearly every day one comes across books in which the text is almost swamped by a gigantic border or which are disfigured by some atrocity in the form of title-page or of initial letter; an example is to be found in many of the volumes which are published hy Messrs. Dent and others with “decorations” by such artists as Mr. W.B. Macdougall. Mr. Walter Crane, especially, has won for himself renown as a prime offender in these matters; of him it may be truly said that he touches nothing which he does not adorn. His sumptuous edition of Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” issued some years ago by Mr. George Allen, is a remarkable illustration of how a book should not be decorated. Doubtless it is only natural that “trade commodities” should so take their cue from the productions of the “artist-printers.”

    This craving for excess of ornament is above all regrettable since many of the “artist-printers” are, in other respects, fully in agreement with the correct principles of book-production. That the effect of their collective efforts has not been more salutary is due mainly to their reluctance to efface themselves. It may be that to ask a modern artist to efface himself is to inflict too severe a demand upon his powers, for we live in an age when the artist seems hardly capable of existence without the aid of self-advertisement. But until the artist shall have learnt this lesson of effacement, it were the wisest part of modesty for him to abstain altogether from troubling the condition of the printed book. When I look at a pastel by Mr. Rothenstein, it amuses me to read that artist’s personality into his drawing. I have encountered Mr. Walter Crane in a set of fire-irons and have derived pleasure from the meeting. I have caught a glimpse of Ford Madox Brown in a bedroom towel- horse, and of William Morris in a row of hat-pegs. In neither of these cases have I experienced a sense of disappointment. On the other hand, should I be ever tempted to embark on a course of “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” I should be distinctly annoyed to find Mr. Clarke Conwell or Mr. Ricketts perpetually bobbing up between the verses. Probably Mr. Clarke Conwell would barely have the temerity to “beautify” Mr. Rothenstein’s pastel with the addition of a floriated border. It is surely as unfair to the respected memory of Mrs. Browning that he should be allowed to “ornament” her “finished work- manship” with fanciful devices.

    There exists a race of journalists after the school of Mr. Andrew Lang who consider it a bounden duty to “improve” the simplest English classics by means of prefaces and annotations— often of larger dimensions than the text itself. “A bountiful inclusion of ana,” to quote from a publisher’s announcement now before me, “cannot but impart to the authorised text an undeniable literary quality.” In the same way, I suppose, the decorative “ana” of Mr. Ricketts is primarily designed, like the critical “ana” of Mr. Andrew Lang, to impart to the writings of the hapless “English classic” that undeniable artistic and literary quality which alone can prevent their relegation to an upper shelf. Among the “ana” of a new reprint of Stevenson’s “Father Damien” in my possession, are to be found comments in verse and prose by Stevensonians, the bibliographical story of the “Open Letter,” extracts from letters by Stevenson, quotations from Archibald Ballantyne, H. D. Rawnsley, Browning, and Shakespeare, and an “illuminative study” entitled “Stevenson’s Literary Apprenticeship.” The “Father Damien” itself occupies but an inconspicuous position in the volume. In the modern “decorated” production of the “artist-printer,” the importance accorded to the mere text of the author is perhaps no greater. The attention of the printer has been directed to more serious essentials than the legible arrangement of so many pages of what after all is only literature. Instead, we are bidden to admire the “symbolical” frontispiece, the marginal foliage, the printer’s mark. Sometimes, as in a recent edition of Ben Jonson’s “Volpone,” a series of five or six initial letters is held to justify the addition of an essay on “the genius of the artist.”

    No doubt, us the “decorative movement” progresses, the author will gradually sink still lower. I do not altogether despair of a near future when Mr. Stephen Phillips may be commissioned by some “artist-printer” to compose an epic poem “which should harmonise in treatment with the enclosed historiated bloomers.” That we are slowly drifting towards some such millennium is a theory which can be hardly dismissed contemptuously as one outside the bounds of possibility. Already art and the printer have done their best to reduce our books to the level of so many items of æsthetic furniture.

MLA citation:

Cotton, Albert Louis. “Art and the Printer.” Rev. of The Dial, The Monthly Review , vol. 11, no. 32, May 1903, pp. 128-142. Yellow Nineties 2.0 , edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.