My name is Steph Bushell and recently I was assigned a collections-based project as part of my MSc in the History of the Book with the University of Edinburgh. Students were asked to select a collection in a holding institution of their choosing and to write a detailed report assessing the status and scope of that collection. Earlier this year I travelled to Manchester to speak with two of the special collections librarians in charge of the Private Press Collection at the John Rylands Library. With their assistance I produced a 4,000-word report on one of the most beautiful collections I’ve had the privilege of working with. In two blog posts I hope to provide a brief introduction to the world of the private press and to talk a little bit about the history and extent of the Private Press Collection in the hope that more people might be exposed to this amazing resource.
What is a Private Press?
Defining the term ‘private press’ is a problem that has long tormented bibliographers. Attempts to circumscribe the evolving process of print have often only led to the development of complicated umbrella schematics (see, for example, Ben Lieberman’s classification of ‘the printer’, in which he distinguishes between true private, patron, personal presses and personal printers) which can leave the amateur historian in knots. As Philip John Schwarz identifies:
The [definition] problem [is] compounded by several factors: (a) the frequently changing aims of private presses; (b) the wide variety of activities engaged in by some presses; and (c) the problem of no two people seeing the same facts in the same light. (301)
Very broadly speaking, however, private presses adhere roughly to the following criteria: they are often small, artisanal operations, concerned with the production of high-quality publications. Usually, there is an emphasis on typographical excellence and traditional craftsmanship, although sometimes there is an experimental slant to the finished product(s).
The so-called ‘golden age’ of the English private press movement, dominated by “the Kelmscotts, [the] Doves and [the] Ashendenes” (Schwarz 297) coincided with the efforts of William Morris and Emery Walker and spanned over half a century or so (from the 1890s to the 1930s). The John Rylands possesses a large quantity of material from this era, in part because its founder, Enriqueta Rylands, began to take an active interest in the acquisition of private press books around this time.
Building a Collection
At the end of the nineteenth-century, Rylands personally purchased all fifty-three of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press publications, at the height of the Victorian Arts and Crafts movement. Often associated with the rejection of industrialisation, the English Arts and Crafts movement focussed on aesthetic excellence and dexterity. As the steam-powered press paved the way to broader textual production, a small number of printers decided to revert to traditional approaches to book-making. These beautiful books were usually hand-bound and printed; paper was often custom-made (vellum, or parchment, was a commonly preferred medium) and traditional inks and typefaces were employed. The ‘golden-age’ of this offshoot movement began to fail in the early 20th century as war loomed, but the movement thrived again twenty years on, resulting in a slew of striking texts and ephemera produced not only in the UK but around the world.
At the time of Enriqueta Rylands’s passing, the Library she had founded was already in possession of an “outstanding collection of the earliest and most important examples of the English Private Press movement” (Riley 73). Over the decades the Library continued to collect large quantities of material produced by presses operating during the fin-de-siècle but also before and beyond it; the collection as we now know it contains specimens from Walpole’s Strawberry-Hill Press, from London’s Nonesuch Press and from the Oldham-based Incline Press, amongst more than 320 others.
As word of the collection spread many presses would send advertisements, catalogues and announcements which were also retained. In the inter-war years, the Library’s budget was restricted, but despite an increasing reliance on the generosity of donors many important private press books were acquired throughout the period. In 1933 Bernard Newdigate of The Shakespeare Head Press gifted an edition of Malory’s Morte Darthur, now the only surviving copy in existence (Riley 86-87).
Prior to the new millennium, these items were housed disparately, separated in spite of their common heritage and increasingly difficult to isolate, promote or exhibit. Consequently, in 2000, it was decided that Rylands’s assembly of private press books would become the foundation of a new artificial collection, dubbed the Private Press Collection. Spanning eleven countries and twenty-two decades, this collection today encompasses over two-thousand privately printed books and associated ephemera.
Riley, David W. “’A Definite Claim to Beauty’: Some Treasures from the Rylands Private Press Collection.” Bulletin of The John Rylands Library, vol. 72, no. 2, 1990, pp. 73-88. Manchester University Press, DOI: 10.7227/BJRL.72.2.3.
Schwarz, Philip J. “The Contemporary Private Press.” The Journal of Library History (1966-1972), vol. 5, no. 4, Oct. 1970, pp. 297-322. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25540254.