Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Men Are Wicked But Their Books Are Good"

By Cokie Anderson

The magnum opus of the Ashendene Press, Dante's Tutte le Opere

The three great English private presses are considered to be the Kelmscott Press of the bohemian and socialist William Morris, the Doves Press of the eccentric and volatile T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, and The Ashendene Press of the astonishingly normal Charles Harry St. John Hornby (1867-1946).

The press was founded by Hornby as a hobby and named after the location of his family home in Hertfordshire. It issued 40 books, plus additional ephemeral pieces, from 1895-1935, pausing production only during the years of the Great War. Originally the work was done by Hornby, his sisters and, upon his marriage, his wife, Cicely Barclay - truly a family affair.

The Ashendene printer's device motto reads "Les hommes sont meschants mais leurs livres sont bons"
(“Men are wicked but their books are good”).

Less elaborate in appearance and design than William Morris' Kelmscott volumes, but more ornamental than the products of Cobden-Sanderson's Doves Press, the Ashendene books have long been considered the most satisfying of English private press books. Hornby’s considerable achievement in design and printing is all the more impressive when one considers that he had a full-time, demanding, and successful career with the bookseller W. H. Smith, then as now one of the largest chains of booksellers in the U. K.

It was Hornby who changed the focus of the Smith’s retail operations from stalls within the railway stations to shops, conveniently located very close to the stations. The railroad companies had demanded an outrageous increase in rent, which Hornby refused to accept. According to the DNB, “Hornby, anticipating the possible loss of the contracts, had set men scouting for possible shop sites, but it was still a considerable challenge to transfer so many of the firm's outlets while keeping the daily business of newspaper distribution running smoothly. Hornby relished a challenge: in ten weeks, 144 new shops were opened on the territory of the two railway companies. This most dramatic episode in the firm's history pointed the way to the future structure of its business, centred on shops rather than stalls, and established Hornby's position as the strategist of the firm.”

The Divine Comedy, in Subiaco type. Woodcut of the Gates of Hell.

In his spare time, as a form of relaxation, Hornby was creating some of the loveliest books of the 20th century. He sought the assistance of his friends Sydney Cockerell and Emery Walker, who created two memorable typefaces for his: Subiaco, based on the first roman typeface, the famous font used by Sweynheym and Pannartz at the press they established in 1465 in Subiaco, about 30 miles north of Rome, and Ptolemy, derived from the font used for the 1482 Ptolemy printed in Ulm.

The Ninth Circle of Hell, from Inferno

The books Hornby chose to print included excerpts from the Bible, essays by Francis Bacon, works by classical authors, and Italian literature, much beloved by Hornby. Two of the highlights of the press were the three-volume edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the folio-sized complete works of the Italian poet (“Tutte le Opere), both in Italian. The former was illustrated with delicate woodcuts here were drawn by R. Catterson Smith and cut by Charles Keates (with some assistance from W. H. Hooper) after the Venetian Dante of Petrus de Quarengiis of 1497. Fellow printer Emily Daniel of the Daniel Press wrote to Hornby, "I think it is the most beautiful modern book I have ever seen."

From Tutte le Opere

"Tutte le Opere" is considered not only the most impressive and important of Ashendene publications, but also one of the outstanding works of 20th century printing. In fact, the Ashendene Dante, the Doves Press Bible, and the Kelmscott Press Chaucer have been called the "triple crown of fine press printing." Franklin writes that "this first major folio from the Ashendene Press has always occupied the summit," and Charles M. Gere's illustrations, inspired by works of the early Renaissance, suit the spirit of Dante perfectly.

Typical Ashendene bindings, vellum with silk ties

Most Ashendene books were bound very simply in flexible vellum, with gilt titling on the spine and silk ribbons (usually green) that could be used to keep them tied shut. Occasionally the vellum would be dyed green or orange. A few works, among the the Cervantes and the Thucydides, were issued in white pigskin.

Deluxe Ashendene bindings

St. John (pronounced "Sinjin", in marvelously British fashion) Hornby proved that it is possible to create great art while still working full time in the mundane world of commerce, that it is possible to create great art while having a normal family life, that it is not necessary to be a tortured soul languishing in an attic or one's parents' basement. The soul of the artist does not have to be crushed by the routine of 9 to 5; creativity can soar in spite of that. I like to think of him as the patron saint of every artist, writer, and artisan who does what is necessary to provide for themselves and their families while never losing sight of their vision and remaining true to their art. So if you're sitting at your desk thinking of the novel you'd rather be writing, the painting or scupture you'd like to be working on, or the hand-crafted book you want to print, take heart. You can do that, too. St. John has shown us the way.


Images courtesy of Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books & Manuscripts

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