Small, Fine & Private Presses
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Printing evolved rapidly as a commercial venture through the hand-press period and into the industrial revolution. In the mid-19th century, as mechanization enabled faster, cheaper methods of printing, private presses began producing books as purely artistic ventures.
The Private Press movement, closely associated with the Arts & Crafts movement in Great Britain and later, in the U.S., upheld the elite craftsmanship of early printed books. Presses produced book design, typography, bindings, illustrations that were easily distinguishable as fine art. William Morris, designer, writer and socialist, founded his Kelmscott Press in 1891, based on a desire to return to tradition as the craft declined with mechanization. The Kelmscott Press modeled its design features after the 15th century incunabula. Printing was done in black and red on heavy paper, leaving wide margins, and books were simply bound with the idea that buyers would rebind to suit their own tastes. The press printed 300 copies of Sidonia the Sorceress, most bound in limp vellum with silk ties. Other well-known private presses in Great Britain include the Essex House, Doves, Chiswick, Ashendene and Vale Presses.
As the Arts & Crafts Movement migrated over to the United States, communities of craft workers and artists influenced American architecture and design. In 1895, Elbert Hubbard founded such a community, known as the Roycrofters, near Buffalo, New York. The Roycroft Press, inspired by Morris and Kelmscott, was founded with renowned printer Dard Hunter beginning his career there. The goal was the same - a return to tradition and an affinity for hand-made quality. Dante Rossetti’s So This Then is the House of Life embodies the overlapping ideologies of the Arts & Crafts Movement and the Pre-Raphaelites, ever in pursuit of Romanticism and the religion of beauty.
Nonesuch Press was founded in London in 1922 by Francis Meynell, Vera Mendel and David Garnett. The press printed over 140 books in its time, beginning with John Donne’s Love Poems. Nonesuch stands out amongst private presses because it used a hand press to establish an initial copy of each book, and then had them printed commercially to bring fine press standards to a wider market at more affordable prices. This translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is among their finest work.
“Fine press” denotes any book printed to aesthetic standards intrinsic to the publishing firm’s stated mission, and usually in limited qualities so as to uphold the value and collectibility of the specimen. Fine presses include small private presses as well as larger commercial ventures, given that the primary aim is the beauty and quality of the production. Melville’s Moby-Dick, or The Whale was one of the earliest books printed by the Arion Press, a fine press established by Robert Grabhorn and Andrew Hoyem in 1974 on the tails of its predecessor, the renowned Grabhorn Press. Arion Press ran 250 copies of this massive tome, shown to the left, containing 100 wood engravings by renowned artist Barry Moser. It is hailed as “a modern masterpiece of bookmaking.”
Small presses operate with limited budgets and annual production runs, usually in niche literary genres. Their books may be considered fine press, depending on the printing run and quality, or they may lean more towards mass readability. The Black Sparrow Press, founded by John and Barbara Martin in 1966 in Los Angeles, is best known for publishing almost all of Charles Bukowski’s major works, as well as other more avant-garde writers of the time. In its most active years, John Martin operated as chief publisher and editor, while his wife, Barbara, was behind the distinctive cover and title page designs of almost all of their publications. Black Sparrow books are highly collectible, and represent a high point in mid- to late 20th century small press activity.