The golden age of the early English private press movement in the 1890s corresponded with the building and foundation of The John Rylands Library, thus ensuring strong collections in this area. In addition to all of the major publications of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press and the Doves Press of T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, the Library holds a fine collection of books printed by C. H. St John Hornby (1867-1946) at his Ashendene Press. These include such masterpieces as Le Morte Darthur (1913), Il Decameron (1920), Don Quixote (1927-8) and Thucydides (1930).
Charles Harold St John Hornby was introduced to printing in the Printing Works of W. H. Smith & Son, where he was employed as a partner and later Managing Director. The experience inspired him to become an ‘amateur printer’ in his leisure hours, and he set up a small Albion Crown Press in the summer house of his father’s home, Ashendene, in Hertfordshire at the end of 1894. The press remained there until 1899 when it was moved to Shelley House, Chelsea, following Hornby’s marriage. From humble beginnings, using borrowed type and employing only the help of his brother and sisters, Hornby learnt his craft ‘in the school of experience’ and went on to become an accomplished private printer. He had two typefaces – Subiaco and Ptolomy – designed specifically for his press, and always remained ‘hands-on’, never employing more than a single pressman and a single compositor at a time. The final work of the press – a magnificent bibliography issued in 1935 – listed 40 books, 12 minor pieces and 10 items of ephemera.
The early Ashendene Press books, those issued in ‘the little garden-house of happy memory’ were printed in very small editions for private distribution only and, as such, were not represented in the Library’s collections. Following the recent sale of Private Press books collected by the late Clarence B. Hanson Jr (1908-83), an American newspaper publisher, the Library has been able to redress this imbalance by purchasing seven out of the ten major titles printed in Hertfordshire. These include the very first book issued by the Press, The journal of Joseph Hornby (1895) which was based on a diary kept by St John Hornby’s grandfather’s during a trip to Paris in 1815. The book, which Hornby himself described as ‘a very indifferent piece of work’, provides a fascinating contrast to the mature output of the Press. Also present is Three poems of John Milton (1896), which was the first book for which Hornby used his own paper made by Messrs Batchelor with a special watermark for the press, and Two essays of Francis, Lord Bacon: Of building and gardens (1897), of which only 16 copies were printed. As Hornby commented in his Bibliography : ‘This is the rarest of the Ashendene Press books … I cannot say why so few copies were printed. … It provides at any rate good sport for collectors!’