LONDON - In the first of two blogs, Jennifer Dell discusses the golden age of the private press and the British artists who led the craft of fine book making, beginning with William Morris and Kelmscott Press.

In a world of global publishing houses and e-books, the concept of the private press seems a remarkable one. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the books produced during the fifty year “golden age” of the private presses remain some of most outstanding and most collectable examples of fine printing ever undertaken.

It is no coincidence that the most influential names in British art also number among the leaders of the English private press movement. Small presses and amateur printers had of course existed since the 15th century, but it was the end of the 19th century and genesis of the Arts and Crafts movement, which saw the most intense period of renewed interest in the craft of book making.

In 1888, the printer and engraved Emery Walker was preparing for a lecture he planned to give at the first exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in November. He was a close friend of William Morris since 1884 (in advance of the exhibition the pair enjoyed long discussions on the merits of fine printing) and by 1891 Morris had founded his own Kelmscott Press and printed his first book, The Story of the Glittering Plain.


The Kelmscott Press would be the last great endeavour of Morris’ life. Ever the proponent of a total work of art, Morris went to great lengths to ensure that every element of his limited edition publications was of the highest quality, designing the typefaces himself and spending months sourcing paper, ink and vellum to meet his own exacting standards. Morris and Walker went on to hand-press over 50 books in the seven years the Kelmscott Press was in operation.

The communion between artist and printer which began at Kelmscott set the model for the private presses that began to appear across Britain at the turn of the century. From Charles Ricketts at the Vale Press and Lucien Pissarro’s own Eragny Press, numerous artists began to turn their hand to book printing with impressive results. Fine examples of the work of numerous private presses, particularly Rickett’s Vale Press, will be offered in our English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale this July. Formerly in the library of Canadian collector the late Gary E. Prouk, among these treasures are books featuring the engravings and designs of Eric Gill, Paul and John Nash, Eric Ravilious, Henry Moore and David Hockney for private presses working throughout the 20th century.

In the next blog Jennifer Dell will discuss the involvement of Eric Gill and Eric Ravilious at the Golden Cockerel Press.