Books as Art: The Private Press Movement at Salisbury House

We have a ten-page typed document in our files with a hand-written note atop the first page reading: “Guide to Salisbury House, by Carl Weeks. Prior to or at the time of ISEA possession.” It is a first person narrative describing many of the important objects in the Salisbury House public spaces. Interestingly, it is not actually Carl Weeks’ telling of the tale, as the unnamed narrator often refers to “Mr. Weeks” when discussing the acquisition, provenance or assessment of particular pieces.

There are elements in the narrative that we now know to be apocryphal or erroneous, so the document often has to be taken with a grain of salt from an historian’s perspective. But some of the anecdotes related therein are so unexpected or unusual that we feel they accurately reflect Carl or Edith Weeks’ very unique perspective on their own collections, perhaps representing oft-repeated anecdotes that our anonymous tour-guide of 1955 heard and found memorable. One such anecdote quotes Carl Weeks as saying:

“There have been three great books printed. The first great book was the Gutenberg Bible. Since a Gutenberg costs about $150,000 Mr. Weeks didn’t buy one, but he did have a leaf out of one of them . . . The second great book to be printed was the Kelmscott Chaucer. One was sold the other day for $1,600 that does not compare with the copy in this library. The third great book was the Oxford Bible, and this is the only copy in existence that has the leaf in it that tells how many were printed: 200.”

Pigskin cover of the Kelmscott Chaucer

Pigskin cover of the Kelmscott Chaucer; click all images to enlarge

Obviously, no one would argue the import and greatness of the Gutenberg Bible, which represented a fundamental change in man’s ability to widely, consistently and quickly reproduce the written word in a (relatively) affordable fashion. Our library contains what is known as a Noble Fragment of a Gutenberg Bible, purchased after a collector dismantled a damaged copy in 1921 and put the intact leaves on the market individually. We also have a 1920s full-sized reproduction of the two-volume, 42-line 1455 edition of the Gutenberg Bible, and it is plain to see that it was clearly a grand and imposing object of art in its own right.

But why would Mr. Weeks have selected the Kelmscott Chaucer and Oxford Bible as peers in greatness to the Gutenberg Bible? (Note that these aren’t their full and proper titles, but I will continue to use them for ease of discussion). Especially given how common their texts are: you can get a copy of the Bible or a copy of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer in pretty much any bookstore, in relatively cheap pressings. So why do these particular editions rise to the status (in Mr. Weeks’ estimation) of the Gutenberg Bible?

Title page from the Kelmscott Chaucer

Title page from the Kelmscott Chaucer

The answer to that question lies in the very high regard that Carl Weeks held not only for books, but also for the art of bookmaking. He was an avid reader, so he viewed books as repositories of information or entertainment, certainly, but he also saw beyond the words into the physical elements that make up the book as an object. He valued the inks, the papers, the typefaces, the binding, the illustrations, the design, and all of the myriad small details that can turn even the most mundane of texts into something sublime.

The library that Carl and Edith Weeks built is filled with books that stand alone as works of art in their own right. And Carl and Edith were particularly fortunate to have been collecting such books during the absolute height of what is now known as the private press movement, when many small, independent publishers were producing extraordinarily high quality books in tiny press runs for discerning collectors, like the Weeks Family.

Kelmscott Chaucer, "The Knyght's Tale"

Last text page of the Kelmscott Chaucer

When viewed through the distinctive cultural lens deployed by private press aficionados, then, Mr. Weeks’ choice of the Kelmscott Chaucer (1896) and the Oxford Bible (1935) become more understandable, because in many ways, they mark the alpha and the omega of the private press movement itself.

The private press movement is generally considered to have been launched with the founding of Englishman William Morris’ Kelmscott Press in 1890. Inspired by John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, Morris believed that beautiful objects could counteract the negative cultural impacts of the modern, industrial world. He and his many disciples eschewed the cheap, poor-quality, mechanical book production methods that prevailed in their era, and chose instead to return to traditional or classical design, paper-making, printing and binding techniques.  They viewed bookmaking as a manual skill, uniquely suited to human hands, and they considered the products of their presses to be works of art, not just convenient vehicles for the transmission of information.

The Book of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (to give the Kelmscott Chaucer its full and proper title) was illustrated by by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, edited by F.S. Ellis, engraved on wood by W.H. Hooper, and printed by William Morris, and it is generally considered to be the apex of Kelmscott’s work, and one of the most beautiful books ever printed. It was completed in May 1896, a mere six months before Morris’ death. Carl Weeks bought his first copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer from rare book seller Philip C. Duschnes of New York for $600 in March 1942, then in November 1944 traded his version back to Duschnes for an extremely rare (48 copies only), $1,300 version bound by T.J. Coben-Sanderson (more on him below) in pigskin. We still have this version in the Salisbury House Library.

Morris and Kelmscott’s influence was immediate and far-reaching, and the private press movement expanded rapidly in Great Britain and the United States through the first three decades of the 20th Century. The Salisbury House Library is home to many fine, limited edition works from a variety of influential private presses, including such titles as:

  • The five-volume Doves Press Bible (1903), printed by T.J. Coben-Sanderson, who bound the rare Kelmscott Chaucer in our colletion
  • Many books, periodicals and pamphlets published by Roycroft Press of East Aurora, New York, which was founded by Elbert Hubbard, about whom I have written before
  • Nonesuch Press’ The History of Herodotus of Halicarnassus (1935)
  • Numerous works illustrated, written or designed by Eric Gill, now best remembered as the creator of the hugely influential Gill Sans and Perpetua typefaces, many of them issued by Golden Cockerel Press
  • The Revelation of St. John the Divine (1932) and The Lamentations of Jeremiah (1933) from Gregynog Press, which was founded by Welsh sisters Margaret and Gwendoline Davies
  • The Complete Works of Gaius Petronius (1927) and Ecclesiazusae (1929) from Fanfrolico Press
  • Ashendene Press’ The Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, commonly called Ecclesiasticus (1932)
Front cover "alpha" on the Oxford Lectern Bible

Front cover “alpha” on the Oxford Lectern Bible

Bruce Rogers was a particularly prominent figure in the private press movement, achieving acclaim as an illustrator, typographer and printer both for his small press works, and for the high-quality production aesthetic he brought to retail publishers such as Houghton Mifflin’s Riverside Press and the Cambridge and Harvard University Presses. Rogers also later designed books for the Limited Editions Club, to which Carl and Edith Weeks subscribed for 21 years, leaving us a rare complete collection of this legendary publishing house’s offerings.

Back cover "omega" of the Oxford Bible

Back cover “omega” of the Oxford Bible

From 1929 to 1931, Rogers worked at the Oxford University Press in England, and it was here that he received the commission to design a new lectern Bible embracing the best facets of the private press movement. His masterpiece, formally known as The Lectern Bible for Oxford University Press, was completed in 1935.

There were only 200 copies printed of the largest version of this two-volume Bible, one of which was purchased by Carl Weeks for $600 in March 1944, also from bookseller Philip C. Duschnes, who noted that it was a “special copy bound by Wiemeler of Germany”. We can see a tiny impression of the name “Ignatz Wiemeler” in the gold trim inside the back cover of the Oxford Bible, and his exquisite binding work leaves the massive book surprisingly easy to manipulate, its form clearly supporting its function as a working text for church use.

By the time that the Oxford Bible was published, the private press movement was rapidly dwindling as the worldwide demand for such luxury items crashed during the Great Depression. Fortunately, some of the greatest works of that beautiful, brief creative moment — including some of the most magnificent books ever printed — still live with us here at Salisbury House, a lasting testament to Carl and Edith Weeks’ acuity and refinement as book lovers and collectors.

Title Page of the Oxford Bible

Title Page of the Oxford Bible

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