John Windle Antiquarian Bookseller has issued a new "short list" of 34 Fine Press Books. These are mostly books that emanated from the fine presses of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century. They are the children of William Morris and his Kelmscott Press. Morris was among those who reacted against the industrialization of printing in the 19th century. Large presses could spit out huge volumes of reading material at a low cost. However, the artistic beauty of the old hand presses was missing, something that Morris and many others since have restored. These fine press books often (but not always) have significant text, but the text could be had in much cheaper copies. What makes them special is their artistic qualities. Hence, these printers are known as "fine presses." Here are a few examples.
There is no better place to start than with one of the works from Morris' pioneering Kelmscott Press. Kelmscott only operated for a short time during the 1890s as Morris died within a few years of its opening. Item 24 is one from 1896, Poems Chosen Out of the Works of Samuel T. Coleridge. This was from a run of 300 copies with decorative woodcut borders and initials at chapter headings. It is printed in black and red. What is amazing is that Morris chose some of Coleridge's poems to create a book, since for the most part, he had a very low opinion of him. Morris wrote of him, "Coleridge was a muddle-brained metaphysician who by some freak of fortune turned out a few real poems amongst the dreary flood of inanity that was his wont. It is these real poems only that must be selected or we burden the world with another useless book... There is absolutely no difficulty in choosing, because the difference between his poetry and his drivel is so striking." Priced at $3,000.
When Morris died, the Kelmscott Press continued only long enough to complete the work he had started. Then it was shut down. C. R. Ashbee was a devotee who desired to keep Morris' tradition alive. To be as true to Morris' work as he could, Ashbee bought up Kelmscott's presses and hired Morris' principal compositors and pressmen. Item 7 is Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith, published in 1904 by Ashbee's Essex House Press. It is number 99 of a limited run of 150 copies. This is Goldsmith's elegy on a wholesome rural community ravaged by the claws of capitalism. Not only would Morris have approved of the fine press work, but also the sentiments, he being a dedicated socialist. $975.
Next we have a leaf book from what was perhaps America's greatest fine press, California's Grabhorn Press, which operated during the middle decades of the twentieth century. The title is Original Leaves from the First Four Folios of the Plays of William Shakespeare, 1623, 1632, 1663, 1685 (with an Introductory Essay by Edwin Elliott Willoughby). This leaf book was published in 1935. Windle describes it as "one of the finest leaf books ever published." It contains facsimiles of the title page of each folio followed by a leaf from each of the four folios. This is number 63 of 73 copies published. It comes with the original prospectus loosely inserted. Item 25. $12,500.
This book comes from another of the early fine presses, the Ashendene Press of Charles St. John Hornby. Hornby did not rush out his new editions. He operated his press for 40 years, from 1895-1935, and in that time printed just 40 books. This is an overlooked Ashendene book, Il Libro di Messer Giovanni Boccaccio...chiamato Il Decameron... Printing began in October 1913, but war intervened. It was not completed until 1920. It was limited to 105 copies. This book is considered the equal of Ashendene's greatest works, earning plaudits from experts such as "a truly magnificent volume & without a flaw," and "the finest piece of modern bookmaking I have ever seen." The likely explanation for it often being overlooked is that the book is in Italian. Item 1. $7,950.
Here's a book whose pages required a lot more than seven years to be assembled and published. Item 18 is Kuthan's Menagerie Completed, published by the Heavenly Monkey Press in 2003. This book was originally published in 1960 by the Nevermore Press under the title Kuthan's Menagerie of Interesting Zoo Animals. It was intended to be published in a print run of 130 copies, but only 60 were ever bound. The remaining pages languished at the bindery for another 40 years. It was then that Heavenly Monkey gathered up the remaining leaves and finally published them in this edition. The Heavenly Monkey edition adds some new material to the original book. $2,000.