Posted tagged ‘William Morris’

Ten Years: Pondering a Decade of a Press

February 12, 2015


Last night I had the very great privilege to speak to the Ottawa Valley Chapter of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild on the origins of the Press.

In preparation for this, I realized that the topic is really quite vast, and could be broken down into several distinct topics. For example, every book printed off the press has its own story, worthy of an entire conversation. There is the business side, of showing and selling, pricing and marketing. And there is the whole messy matter of art. For CBBAG, I chose origins.

I set the start date of Greyweathers Press as 2005, the year that I printed the first book, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. However, the primary urges go back far earlier, rooted in a love of books and story. I loved comics when I was a kid, and still do although I do not collect nearly as much. In the early 1990s I took a bookbinding workshop but otherwise I just thought about producing books.

In 1996, an exhibit of the work of William Morris opened my eyes to the private presses, and it led me to the rich field of printing being done in Canada.


I like Morris’ sensibility here, although it does grate a bit with the border and drop caps from his magnus opus, the Kelmscott Chaucer, in this keepsake created digitally some years ago then rendered into a magnesium plate: “a definite claim to beauty.”

From there, an understanding of letterpress came, but that’s a blog for another day.

Letterpress is an umbrella that that overhangs many differing motivations. Some are called to ‘old school’ printing for the romance associated with the history of printing. There are enthusiasts of the equipment, or those wild-eyed collectors of type of every kind. Commercial letterpress is still viable for high end printing jobs, and lino and woodcut artists love letterpress for its reproduction excellence. For myself, books brought me to letterpress and the desire to produce books keeps me printing. I’m also working in the so-called ‘fine press’ tradition, going to sometimes absurd ends to achieve  quality in printing, inking, impression and binding etc. In fact, there are elements of all these things built into my motivation to print.



Canadian Notes & Queries Keepsake

November 28, 2010

The latest edition of Canadian Notes & Queries

I’ve heard word that the most recent issue of Canadian Notes & Queries has come out complete with the article I wrote on William Morris and (to subscribers) the letterpress keepsake. My friends from Weathervane Press brought a copy to show me, and as I always do, I draw a comparison between the original submission and the final printed version. This was a habit I learned from a client years ago, not intended to generate outrage at changes to one’s pristine and sacrosanct text (ha!) but rather to learn the M.O. of the editor, what they liked or disliked in usage and grammar, what they prefer to cut etc in order to improve the next product you pass by their desk. In the end, doing this in conjunction with reading the periodical, I could custom write for each editor for whom I submitted work. Since editors changed like the hours, it became quite the task, but an invaluable learning tool.

In comparing the two text, I found that two paragraphs have been cut due to length. The first dealt with the challenges of printing large magnesium plates:

While this may seem to be a labour saving move, short cuts can often become long cuts. There are serious printing production issues with large plates, particularly when mixing large dark graphics with fine type. I bet that the fineness of the decorative border surrounding the type would not starve the plate of ink on each pass. Beneath this lie the issues surrounding the use of digital type for letterpress purposes. Fonts designed to print on laser or ink jet printers rarely convert to relief process with quality. We sourced the fonts from the digital font house P22 (, which specializes in restoring historical faces to the digital world, including Morris Golden and our own house font, Italian Oldstyle, designed by the great typographer Frederick Goudy.

The second qualified the Morris-love that infuses the piece. Not everyone holds the old guy with the same doe-eyed admiration that I harbour:

The private press movement did not begin with the Kelmscott Press, but it did inspire numerous typographers and other presses to carry on Morris’ mission in their own manner, albeit with a more stream-lined, less archaic sensibility perhaps. Morris’ aesthetics were definitely not the taste of modernism. Later critics considered him reactionary, which is ironic, since he thought of himself as a revolutionary.

And here is the keepsake:

CNQ keepsake inspired by William Morris

You know, it is ironic that, years ago, I spent a lot of energy trying to get published in Canadian (and American) literary journals, and I finally manage it once I ply my hand to another occupation altogether. Call it destiny, call it chance, call it what you will: it has a sense of humour.

William Morris: A Study in Contradiction

August 12, 2010

(Here’s some of the material cut from the CNQ article, therefore a tad disjointed.)

William Morris is generally credited as founder of the English Arts and Crafts Movement, and is remembered best for his floral wallpaper, rugs and upholstery patterns which grace the walls, floors and furniture of wealthy chatelaines to this day. He wrote: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Later in his life, he applied his skilled design hand to books, thankfully.

Morris believed that Victorian design had strayed from the core aesthetic of beauty, that being nature. “Everything made by man’s hand has a form,” he said, “which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with nature and helps her; ugly if it is discord with nature and thwarts her; it cannot be indifferent.”

Anyone in design will be aware of Morris and his influence, but outside of that world he is not widely known. In terms of contemporary understanding, if Adam Smith equals Gutenberg, then Milton Friedman would be Morris. Morris would have blown a gasket, or even stroked out completely (he was known for occasional violent outbursts, even fits), over that unabashed capitalistic comparison, he being a committed late 19th century socialist, or what would be considered today by many North Americans, a communist.

Taking a page from Ruskin, Morris tapped the art and guild crafts of the European middle ages for his ideal union of form and beauty. This dovetailed with his own romantic notions of the middle ages, forming one of several contradictions in Morris’ philosophy that perplex critics to this day, in this case the harsh reality of social and artistic life in medieval times as opposed to its romantic ideal. He founded Morris & Co. to create objects of beauty for the working man, but could not produce them within reach of any other than the wealthy, who bought Morris’ designs and brought them into their homes with pleasure, cost being no objection. Needless to say, his personal brand of aesthetic socialism caused Morris, himself a gentleman of considerable independent wealth, some headaches.

I’ve never had much interest in his politics, although as socialists go, he came at it from an interesting angle: while most of the other radicals had eye on the money, or redistribution of said money, Morris was concerned about how things would look after the revolution. Inevitable political discouragement came for Morris, but his leaving the party coincided with reinvigorated enthusiasm in printing books from the Kelmscott Press, which was a lucky stroke for posterity.

The same contradictions in Morris’ philosophy find a home in his book designs. The socialist in him believed beautiful books could be made for every worker and housed in a library on every street corner. Yet, he could not restrain in himself the compulsion to adorn his books so richly that only the wealthy could afford them. Morris even extolled the virtues of cheaper papers and the most modern mechanical process to print and bind books, but when it came to his own creations – he simply could not help himself – old iron presses, custom made paper, ink imported from Germany, wood engravings (already made obsolete by photomechanical processes), costly bindings etc.

It’s hard to be a creative ideal contortionist without being something of a romantic. Morris had the utter audacity to dream big; he believed his books and designs would change the course of civilization. He said “if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”

As someone who prints books by hand, I have some sympathy for Morris and the contradictory nature of his thinking. Printing this way is senseless, yet it offers a satisfaction that one cannot find in contemporary processes. I don’t have Morris’ ambitions, let alone a fraction of his genius. My goal isn’t to change the world; rather, I hope to make the lives of a few people in the world richer by printing beautiful books.

I could go on, but instead I’ll let Morris sum it up with elegant, old world polished prose, and the quote I used for the CNQ Keepsake:

I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters. I have always been a great admirer of the calligraphy of the Middle Ages, and of the earlier printing which took its place. As to the fifteenth-century books, I had noticed that they were always beautiful by force of the mere typography, even without the added ornament, with which many of them are so lavishly supplied. And it was the essence of my undertaking to produce books which it would be a pleasure to look upon as pieces of printing and arrangement of type. Looking at my adventure from this point of view then, I found I had to consider chiefly the following things: the paper, the form of the type, the relative spacing of the letters, the words, and the lines; and lastly the position of the printed matter on the page.

Three type faces designed by William Morris, along with the Kelmscott printers mark.

Kelmscott Press treatment of Ruskin's 'The Nature of Gothic'

A page from the Kelmscott's Troilus & Cressida

The CNQ Morris tribute keepsake on the press at Greyweathers.

A glimpse at the keepsake magnesium plate.

A detail of the printed keepsake, showing the intricacy of the border, Morris' Golden type, and Greyweathers' house font Italian Oldstyle riding up the vertical.

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