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The Vale Press and the Modern Revival of Printing

The publication of a new edition of Shakespeare’s works would, from a literary point of view, be at any time an event of some importance; much more is this the case when, besides scholastic qualities, the edition possesses distinct artistic interest, representing in fact the latest development and outcome of the modern revival of fine printing. The Shakespeare in question is the sumptuous edition in thirty odd volumes, about to be issued by the Vale Press at the rate of one per month to a limited number of subscribers, who may reasonably expect in the course of time to find their possession worth considerably more than the sixteen shillings a volume which represents their outlay. One must say “to be issued,” because, owing to the disastrous fire at the Ballantyne Press in the month of December, the “Hamlet,” which was nearly ready for publication,* has had to be reprinted; and not only that, but the whole of the type which was specially designed for the work has had to be re-cast. In judging of the work, therefore, there is nothing at the moment to go on but a specimen sheet of eight pages, of which a few copies were pulled before the disaster occurred. These consist of the title-page to “Hamlet,” the list of characters, a newly designed imprint page, a decorated first page of the play, and three ordinary type pages. The final form of these will however be somewhat different, and only the title-page is here reproduced. It may be said in advance that they present many features which are quite novel in Mr. Ricketts’s art. The new type, which Mr. Ricketts has named “The Avon” fount, just as the late William Morris called the type that was specially cast for his masterpiece by the name of “Chaucer,” exhibits several important departures form that which is associated with the “Vale” books hitherto produced. To begin with, in point of size it is very much smaller and lighter in face. None of the new types hitherto introduced has been smaller than “pica,” the size, roughly speaking, of the Roman types of Jenson and of Spira which served as models both for William Morris and for the first Vale type. As regards individual letters, also, a cursory examination reveals many changes which, though slight enough, perhaps, to the uneducated eye, are almost fundamental from a designer’s point of view. Most noticeable of all are the O and the body of the lower-case g, which from thick rings have become slight ovals with a reverse slope, inclined, that is, from left to right in the downward direction, and swelling on the sides. The seriffs, too, have undergone some alterations, notably in the capital “T,” which from T has become T. Speaking generally, it seems to me that the punch-cutting is more regular and uniform in the new than in the old fount, though the small size may be deceptive on this point. In the older fount there are a few letters which have always seemed to me either unduly heavy or unduly light; of the former I might mention the n, m, w, and x, of the latter the s, as being the chief offenders. But it is possible that some of the extra heaviness was intentional, and due to Mr. Ricketts’s partiality for what he calls “important” letters. The weakness of the “s,” I think, must have been an oversight.

            *Since this article was set up the “Hamlet” has appeared.

    Technical details of typography, however, are not very interesting, except to those actually concerned, and my intention in this article is not to deal with them, but to give as far as I can some account of the origin and history of the Vale Press, and of the work of its founder, Charles Ricketts. Much has been written about William Morris and his aims in founding the Kelmscott Press; scarcely anything about this venture, which, even if it be regarded in its ultimate form as a follower, rather than as the initiator, of a new style, has nevertheless so many points about it of original interest and merit that its work fully deserves the same amount of recognition.

    A bibliophile may consider himself reasonably fortunate if he possesses on his own shelves materials for a complete survey of Charles Ricketts’s work in relation to the illustration and printing of books. Out of deference to what I believe are his feelings, I will not include in this category the numerous designs done by him in early days for magazine illustration, but will take as the starting-point that rare (and now costly) quarto, the first Dial, issued jointly by himself and Charles Shannon from The Vale, Chelsea, in 1889. This contains a lithograph plate in colours and gold, and also an etching (possibly unique) by Ricketts, illustrating a story called “The Great Worm”; it has, besides, twelve designs by Ricketts in a transitional style, which, if I may judge from a beautiful pen-and-ink drawing I have seen of one of them (“Spes”), were somewhat coarsely rendered by line-process. The cover deisgn was, however, cut on wood by Shannon. It was not considered attractive, and was discarded in the second and subsequent Dials in favour of a far superior design, cut as well as drawn by Ricketts. The second Dial appeared in 1892, and has this main feature, that the initial designs, ornaments, headpieces, and culs-de-lampe are printed from wood blocks cut by the artist himself, who thus first appears in the rare capacity of artist-engraver on wood. Subsequent Dials lack this charm for the most part, and exhibit but little of Ricketts’s work, such examples as appear being either reproduced from books, or else, like the fine drawing of Ariadne gazing at the hanging form of her sister Phaedra, being processs reproductions from pen-and-ink designs. The fifth and last Dial was issued in 1897, its swan-song having already been sung to all intents and purposes by the two specimen pages of Vale type which were issued with No. IV. in 1896. The later Dials contain a beautiful series of original lithographs by Shannon, and much other work by three associates of the school—Messrs. Savage, Pissarro, and Sturge Moore.

    Between the dates of the first and second Dials—viz., in 1891-2—appeared the earliest books issued under the joint influence of Ricketts and Shannon, whose collaboration then and for some years later was too intimate to admit of separation. The first was “A House of Pomegranates,” published by Messrs. Osgood, McIlvaine & Co., which in spite of conventional type and a strangely ineffective cover (the only failure in cover-designing ever perpetrated by this school) remains a most original and artistic reproduction. The printing of the full-page illustrations, from “scraper-board” drawings by Shannon, in an almost invisible mauve may be questioned; but the arrangement of Ricketts’s drawings in the text, the drawings themselves, and the use of little roundel illustrations in the margin, are very charming; and although the massing of so much black is quite contrary to Ricketts’s practice in the books which he shortly afterwards published himself, one may be open-minded enough to care for both. The grouping of the type and the designs for the title-pages in this and in some other books of about the same date, notably in “The Bard of the Dimbovitza” (1892), were strictly novel then, though they have since been a fertile source of imitation. This is what the author himself says of the matter in an essay entitled, “A Defence of the Revival of Printing”:—

    “Some of my earliest experiments in the shaping of books, crude and hesitating as they are, were done for Messrs. Osgood, McIlvaine, in 1890 and 1891; to-day these books might almost pass for the works of Messrs. Bell or Dent. At the time, however, though not always strictly shaped according to my wishes, they were unlike the ordinary books in the matter of title-page, proportion of margin, and in the designs upon their boards. …I regret that I had not then seen the ‘House of the Wolfings,’ or the ‘Roots of the Mountains,’ printed for Mr. Morris as early as 1888; these might have initiated me at the time to a better and more severe style, and I am now puzzled that my first impression of ‘The Glittering Plain,’ 1891 (the first Kelmscott book), was one of disappointment.”

    Two other early books designed for another publisher, in this case Mr. John Lane, deserve mention—viz., “Silver Points,” by John Gray, and the “Poems” of Lord de Tabley, the latter containing five illustrations which may serve to show the most ordinary mind what is meant by those who describe Mr. Ricketts as a follower or descendant of the school of Rossetti. The pity is that these five drawings were not cut upon wood by the artist, instead of being reproduced unsuitably in photogravure. Of “Silver Points” it is enough to say that it is shaped like a “saddle-book,” a long, narrow format with abundant margin at the bottom of the page, which greatly excited the risibility of certain critics. The type is in small italic (all but the initial words and the capital of each line), and is arranged with consummate skill as a matter of page design. The cover, moreover, is quite beautiful, composed of wavy gold lines and leaves on a green ground. There is, however, something unduly precious and a little affected about the general arrangement regarded as a piece of practical book-making.

    We come now to three books of a very distinctive character indeed: “Daphnis and Chloe” (1893), “Hero and Leander” (1894), and “The Sphinx” (1894)—the two first published by Messrs. Ricketts and Shannon at the Vale Press, the third designed and illustrated for Mr. John Lane. These three books are all scarce, and fetch a high price nowadays, but they are essential, together with the Dial, to students of Mr. Ricketts’s work. The “Daphnis and Chloe” is a pleasant quarto volume, printed on a rather dark-toned paper in an old-face pica type, and profusely embellished with woodcuts and initial letters. These were designed and engraved indiscriminately by both artists, and occupied eleven months of their time. The style is frankly borrowed from the earliest Italian illustrated books, of which the “Hypnerotomachia” is the best known and most classic example. The “Hero and Leander” (Marlowe’s and Chapman’s version) is an altogether smaller and simpler work; the illustrations depend more on outline, and so adapt themselves in tone to the lighter type, whilst the initials are smaller and generally speaking more elaborate. They are few in number compared with those in the older book. What will strike the unsympathetic observer most strongly in both cases is the severe and attenuated drawing of the figures. This is partly an archaism, partly a deliberate artistic canon. Any one who is familiar with Mr. Ricketts’s earlier work, as well as with his finished pen-and-ink drawings, knows that he has a perfect mastery over form, and that if he elected to draw long, gaunt figures as illustrations for his books it was with an idea of spiritualising and avoiding realism in his ornament, just as an artist in vitraille would avoid putting rounded realistic figures into a stained-glass window or any other scheme of decoration requiring flat treatment. So much is this the case that in his “Defence of the Revival of Printing,” Mr. Ricketts makes no apology whatever for the severity of the designs, but contents himself with remarking that “’The Hero and Leander’ is well printed, and in margin and proportion of page quite what I would do now.” He also notes that the first “paragraph mark” used by the Vale Press, a small leaf in outline, appears in the “Hero and Leander,” and that the paper for the first time has a V.P. watermark. A long note might be written on the successive pressmarks, devices, ornaments, and imprints which have appeared in the Vale books, but perhaps the specimens given will suffice to show the variety of at any rate the first mentioned. The punning title of the third bears reference to the Ballantyne fire. It is used exclusively in the Shakespeare. One other point about the “Hero and Leander” is its exquisite vellum cover with a geometrical design in straight lines and violet leaves in each corner. In a few cases this design was tooled blind, but in the ordinary edition it is gold, and is successful that I personally know of no cover of modern times to compare with it, unless it be the equally simple one designed by Aubrey Beardsley for Wharton’s “Sappho.” I am not referring, of course, to tooled bindings for individual books, but to what may be called trade bindings. “The Shpinx,” the third of this trio of volumes, has also a vellum cover, with ties, and a design in gold of figures somewhat after the Greek Vase pattern. It is a flat, small quarto volume, consisting of very long line couplets, with the initials printed in green, the text in black, and the illustrations and headlines in red. The pages vary considerably, some containing no more than two, some as many as nine couplets. The illustrations (reproduced in zinc, not cut on wood) are very open, to consort with the light arrangement of type, and are probably as fine as any examples of such work that exist.*

                *In this connection I may quote the following passave from an article by the Late Mr. Gleeson White in “The Pageant,” 1896, dealing with these very designs: “Such work never has been, and is likely never to be, popular with the multitude. The simplicity of the commonplace they understand; the perplexity of the complex is also sufficiently dazzling to charm, if not to convince them; but the final simplicity which is not to be appreciated without equal knowledge of the unexpressed but deliberate ignoring of all but the essential—that can never appeal to any but those already in touch with the idea. Merely to be misunderstood is no proof of genius; but to be misunderstood of the careless or ignorant, and yet understanded of artistic people, has often been the reward of an artist.”

    Mr. Ricketts says of “The Sphinx”: “Here I made an effort away from the Renaissance towards a book marked by surviving classical traits, printing it in capitals. In the pictures I have striven to combine, consicously or unconsciously, those affinities in line-work broadcast in all epochs. My attempt was to evolve what one might imagine as possible in one charmed moment or place, just as some great Italian masters painted as they thought in the antique manner, studying, like Piero della Francesca, for instance, to fulfill the conditions laid down by Apelles, whose work he had never seen but had taken on trust.” Here we have the artist’s avowal of his indebtedness to the ancients for inspiration, as well as of the limitation which he set upon it. That “imagining of some charmed moment and place” represents the informing touch of original genius which removes his work at once form the range both of plagiarism and of mere eccentricity.

    Up to this point indeed there is little, except as regards the style of the woodcuts, to suggest a direct revival of old printing in books issued from the Vale Press or produced under Mr. Ricketts’s guidance; but in 1891 Mr. William Morris had started the Kelmscott Press, taking as his models definitely those Venetian and German printers of the fifteenth century whom experts have agreed to regard as the most perfect artists of their craft. It is significant of the difference between the two revivalists that while the one was devoting his genius and fertility of invention to the production of original books with modern appliances, the other should have struck boldly at the root of the matter, and with infinite research and experiment evolved a series of printed works based upon ancient masterpieces in respect of type, paper, ink, margin, press-work, and ornamentation, all combined. It is no disparagement of Mr. Ricketts to say that he was quick to recognise in this ensemble the fullest realisation of his own aims, and to perceive (possibly for the first time) the advantage of designing a fount of type free from the many imperfections and weaknesses which a long period of decay had introduced. Familiar as we are in our best books with Caslon’s reformed types, the utter badness of modern type in general probably does not strike every one with equal force; but Caslon stopped short of perfection. His letters lack the generous fullness, the dignified form of Jenson’s or of Spira’s. The pitiful economy which led to the gradual narrowing, cramping, and fining down of type, until all meaning and grace had been squeezed out of it, lay upon him, and prevented as wide a departure as he might have made from the bad traditions surrounding him. William Morris, and after him Mr. Ricketts, were hampered by no such restrictions. Independently each modelled his type on the finest work of the ancient die-cutters, and produced founts which, though different essentially in points of technical detail, are yet so colourably alike that a window-full of books printed in both will often give the impression of being all from the same press. The differences do not call for mention. Speaking generally, it may be said that Morris’s type has more freedom, as might be expected from a skilled caligraphist, and Ricketts’s more artistic pedantry. One point common to both which I have never seen noted by any of the writers on the subject is that they are alike heavier in face, and produce a far heavier page, than the models they profess to follow. A page of Jenson’s Pliny resembles in tone a page of Caslon more than a page of Kelmscott or Vale Press printing, which indeed is as black as the Gothic printing of Caxton. Mr. Morris was so ardent a worshipper of Gothic, and followed German models so closely in his decorations, that I could understand this in his case; but why Mr. Ricketts’s fount should also be so heavy I confess has puzzled me. I should have thought that the “sunny pages of the Venetian printers” by which he admits himself fascinated would have led him to something lighter and sunnier than the severe black and white adopted in the Kelmscott books. Possibly in both cases allowance is made for the mellowing and yellowing influences of time. Yet I would not be sure even of this, for on the first page of that very “Defence of the Revival of Printing,” which is his confession of faith, Mr. Ricketts has used a deocration blacker far than anything that ever came out of the Italian Renaissance, blacker almost than Ratdolt, and the solid designs of William Morris. In general, however, it must be admitted that he uses open work in his borders, and to a large extent in his decorative initials also.

    The new Vale Press was ushered in, as I have already mentioned, by a pair of specimen pages, intended for a quarto edition of Adlington’s “Cupide and Psyches,” which were issued with The Dial for 1896. The book, however, was abandoned in the form then contemplated, and came out finally as an octavo with “roundel” illustrations in 1897. Many of the projected designs for the larger book have been published in The Dial, The Pageant, and The Magazine of Art. The first work actually printed in the Vale type was “The Early Poems of John Milton,” a handsome quarto volume decorated with initials and a rich frontispiece all cut by the artist himself on wood. It is of interest to compare this with one of the Kelmscott frontispieces, in order to realise how completely individual in each case, and how different, is the design of the borders. There is nothing in all the flowing tracery of William Morris which remotely resembles the intricate knot-work and geometrical orderliness of the Milton border. Mr. Ricketts has a marvellous fertility of invention in this field, based as it is upon the almost more marvellous, and certainly more laborious work of Continental designers. There is no one to equal him in it now, except Mr. Laurence Housman, whose work stands to his in some sort of filial or fraternal relationship. Since the Milton some thirty-one or thirty-two books have issued from the Vale Press, which still retains the name of its original habitat, although since 1896 the firm of Hacon and Ricketts, which carries on the business, has been located “At the Sign of the Dial” in Warwick Street, Regent Street, and has more recently moved to No. 17, Craven Street, Strand. The works include Poems of Sir John Suckling, Landor’s “Epicurus, Leontion, and Ternissa,” “Spiritual Poems” by John Gray, Shakespeare’s Songs and Sonnets, Michael Drayton’s “Nimphidia,” Campion’s Songs, Matthew Arnold’s “Empedocles,” two plays by Michael Field, two volumes of Blake, Sir Philip Sidney’s Sonnets, Keats (2 vols.), Brownings “Dramatic Romances,” Shelley’s Lyrical Poems, and Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner.” In addition to these may be mentioned an essay in French on the “Art of Typography and William Morris,” three tiny books (“Sonnets from the Portuguese,” and Rossetti’s “Hand and Soul,” and “Blessed Damozel”), and a few volumes illustrated by Lucien Pissarro, including a charming version of the Books of Esther and Ruth, “Contes de ma Mère Loye” (with gold decoration), two volumes of “Moralités Légendaires” by Jules Laforgue, and the rare “Queen of the Fishes,” a tale printed in colours from wood blocks throughout at the artist’s private press, and only included by courtesy among the Vale productions. At this point I may mention that Mr. Ricketts does not, as William Morris did, keep presses of his own, but has the press-work done under his supervision by Messrs. Ballantyne & Hanson, an arrangement which seems to answer perfectly. Most of the above-mentioned books have certain features in common: generally a frontispiece, or a light floral border containing the opening lines in capitals, and initials either geometrical in designs, or floral, or a novel combination of both. Some of the smaller books are ornamented with red lines and rubricated. In one is attempted the experiment of black initals with red type and red initials with black type juxtaposed on opposite pages. It cannot be pronounced successful, and has not been repeated. In the matter of covers, some have plain white buckram, others have boards covered with daintily-patterned papers, like end-papers, in the designing of which Mr. Ricketts has shown great taste. The cream of the whole series is, I should be inclined to say, the Keats, which already bids fair to equal its Kelmscott rival in scarceness. Most of the Vale books, however, have gone out of print, some of them long before the date of issue, so wide, or at all events so vigorous, is the appreciation felt just now for this essentially national revival of a long-lost art. The fancy prices paid for Kelmscott books (combined, no doubt, with the very moderate cost of the Vale books) has reacted on the latter, and may be partly responsible for their rapid absorption.

    How long it will be possible for a press to go on issuing classical works which, with a few exceptions, are bought rather for their printing than for their intrinsic desirability as books, it is difficult to say. At present no falling off in the demand is visible; and Mr. Ricketts, as has already been mentioned, is committed to the monumental task of producing an entire Shakespeare, decorated throughout by himself, and critically (but conservatively) edited by his friend Mr. Sturge Moore. Side by side with this venture we have various competitors in the same field. The Daniel press at Oxford has for years past been producing, in Fell’s old type, works of at all events individual interest. Mr. C. R. Ashbee, of the Guild of Handicraft, has acquired the remains of the presses and workmen employed by Morris at Hammersmith, and he also is said to be designing a new type. The latest information is that Mr. Emery Walker, who took a leading part in connection with the Kelmscott Press, has joined Mr. Cobden Sanderson, the bookbinder, in a scheme to revive the actual Roman type of Jenson—an idea so sensible that one can only wonder it has not been done before. These printers will begin operations with a Latin edition of the “Agricola” of Tacitus. Nor have less original imitators been lacking. So far, therefore, from threatening to die out, the movement appears to be thriving and spreading, and may be expected to bear fruit outside the narrow artistic circles in which it has hitherto travelled. Already there are on the market two or three founts of type more or less slavishly copied or pirated from Mr. Morris’s designs, and their popularity both here and in America, the land of their origin, has been phenomenal. At present they are unintelligently used for the most part in conjuntion with common type for purposes of that abomination which printers call “display”—a method of jumbling as many styles together as possible. But here and there they have fallen on better soil, and both amongst country and town printers can be found men who are apt and willing to profit by the pure examples afforded them. The revival of printing is still so young (a decade covers its whole history) that too much must not be expected; but England at the present day leads the whole world in respect of it, and the influence once started cannot fail to be lasting. Popular taste may eventually detect its beauties and enforce its canons, for the purpose of all literature, that is, in which the illustrations can be made to subserve and harmonise with the text— work of a romantic, narrative, and poetical character. Come what may, however, the initial experiment at least has an undying interest, and forms a distinct chapter in the history of modern art. On this account, if on no other, collectors will continue to hold in high esteem the outcome of that effort, and will prize for their rarity as well as for their beauty the handsome volumes of the Kelmscott Press and those due to Mr. Ricketts’s genius which have been briefly described and catalogued in the foregoing pages.

H. C. Marillier

MLA citation:

“The Vale Press and the Modern Revival of Printing.” Rev. of The Dial, vols. 1-5, 1889-1897, The Pall Mall Magazine, Oct. 1900, pp. 179-190. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.