The Typographic Hub

Printer-poets

5th September 2012

The relationship between author and printer is often vexed, but more often apathetic. The average author knows little about the printing process and is simply motivated by their desire to see their text reproduced: it is not the printing but the getting into print that matters.

On the other hand, there have always been some writers who have taken a great interest in the printing of their works and who believe their responsibilities extend to ensuring that the quality of their work as writers is reflected in the manner of its presentation to the public. Terry Pratchet, V. S. Naipaul and James Herbert are amongst those contemporary authors who frequently involve themselves in the production process and their involvement has done much to give those personal touches that confer distinction on a book and which transform a mere well-arranged bit of text into something special.
 
In the past some authors have been ex-printers who have turned to writing as a natural extension of their interest in words, whilst others were authors who turned to printing in order to free themselves from the control of publishers. In all instances a highly honed typographic appreciation coupled with literary genius have enabled the production of works of great quality.
 
 
Honoré Balzac, 1799-1850
Lost Illusions; Human Comedy
Honoré Balzac, illumine of the French literary establishment, was also a printer. In 1826 Balzac, along with André Barbier a compositor, established a printing house in rue de Marais-Saint-Germain, Paris with money borrowed both from Balzac’s mother and his mistress. The press primarily issued the author’s own work, but it also printed trade directories and political memoirs. Initially business was brisk and the press employed 30 people; later a composing firm was bought to extend Balzac’s control over all aspects of the trade. But the author was a spendthrift with more of a penchant for clothes than business, and the press began to fail leaving him with 100,000 Francs in debts and equipment. Fortunately, Balzac’s first mistress Louise-Antoinette-Laure De Berny paid off his arrears, took over the business and entrusted it to her son, Alexandre De Berny. Alexandre expanded the composing room, contracted his surname to Deberny and ran the business for fifty years. The firm of Deberny became one half of the French type foundry, Deberny Peignot.
 
William Blake, 1757-1827
Songs of Innocence and Experience; Jerusalem; Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright
William Blake was not only a poet he was also an innovative printer and one of the most successful engravers of his time. Blake mastered all the contemporary reproduction techniques: line-engraving, stipple, etching and wood engraving and experimented with lithography. He pioneered ‘illuminated printing’ a process whereby writing was etched in reverse and relief on copper, and designs were added. The result was a new method of reproducing words and an original technique for uniting text and design. Blake produced almost all his published work using illuminated printing: a method not used either before or since. Blake was also a master printer who took great care over his printing, which he did on a wooden press in his printing business in London, where he regularly printed in colours and invented a method of printing in several colours simultaneously. However, his wife, Catherine, printed many copies of his work and inherited the business after his death when she continued to print the great poets work.
 
Benjamin Franklin, 1706-90
Poor Richard’s Almanac; Declaration of Independence
Benjamin Franklin has a wide reputation for his occasional essays, but he is probably best known for his part in the writing of the American Declaration of Independence. Born in Massachusetts, Franklin was apprenticed to his half-brother, a printer, who had just returned from England with a press and some type to set up his business in Boston. Franklin signed his indenture papers when he was 12 years old, and served as an apprentice until he was 21, only receiving a journeyman’s wage in the last year. Three years into his apprenticeship, his brother brought out the first issue of the New England Courant. Franklin not only worked on the composition, printing and distribution of the paper: he was also a regular contributor. Once a journeyman, Franklin set up his own press in Philadelphia with a partner, Hugh Meredith. The two men printed and published the Pennsylvania Gazetter a publication that gave voice to their republican sympathies and venture that brought them much prosperity.
 
Robert Graves, 1895-1985
Goodbye to All That; I Claudius; The White Goddess
In his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, Graves wrote: ‘In 1927 I began learning to print on a hand-press. In 1928 I continued learning to print’. Graves and his mistress Laura Riding, the most original woman poet of the day and authoress of 22 books, founded the Seizin Press in 1927 in Hammersmith, London. Graves knew many people in the printing trade and his typographically aware friend, Vyvyan Richards, taught him how to set type using a Monotype caster and to print on an 1872 Crown Albion Press. The idea of the Seizin Press was that Graves and Riding could print their own work free from the constraints of publishers. Whilst their own work took precedence they also produced work for friends, just managing to pay expenses: binding was done outside, and paper was expensive. Graves and Riding immigrated to Majorca where they printed and published seven books until forced to move by the Spanish Civil War. Graves sold the Albion press on his return to Majorca in 1946.
 
Aldous Huxley, 1894-1965
Brave New World; Crome Yellow; Point Counter Point; Eyeless in Gaza
Aldous Huxley not only wrote good novels, he also wrote about printing. In his 1928 introduction to Printing of Today by Oliver Simon and Julius Rodenberg, Huxley had much to say on the relationship between type and text: ‘Good printing cannot make a bad book good, nor bad printing ruin a good book. But good printing can create a valuable spiritual state for the reader, bad printing a certain spiritual discomfort.’ For Huxley good printing provides as much pleasure as a fine piece of porcelain. But he was no fan of the private press movement, his interest was in machinery providing high-quality typography for the masses: ‘Machine’s exist; let us exploit them to create beauty—a modern beauty . . . The printer who refuses to tolerate the machine or to make any effort to improve the quality of its output condemns the ordinary reader to a perpetuity of ugly printing. As an ordinary reader, who cannot afford to buy hand-made books, it is only from the man with the machine that I can hope for any amelioration of my lot as a reader.’
 
George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950
Major Barbara; Pygmalion; Saint Joan; The Apple Cart
Huxley was not the only author to turn his pen to the subject of printing GBS too had strong opinions on the subject as his essay, ‘On Modern Composition’, published in The Caxton Magazine, 1902, demonstrates. GBS controlled his books from conception to their reproduction in print. Publishers published, and printers printed under his exact instruction. He paid publishers to carry out his wishes, and he bought his own printing. GBS was a Caslon-man, and held that good typography was like good masonry: simple and unadorned. He demanded well-proportioned pages; typography that achieved its distinction solely from type with no attempt at decoration; and well-printed pages that depended on the evenness of the block of colour presented by the letterpress. The setting of his plays from preface to finis was a typographic triumph. Such was GBS’s respect for good printing that he once re-wrote a page proof where lines were ‘so widely spaced as to make a grey band across the page’. Such was the devotion of the great master of English to good printing that he earned the respect of many good printers.
 
Mark Twain, 1835-1910
Tom Sawyer; Huckleberry Finn
America’s greatest humourist is best remembered for his novels about 19th century life on the Mississippi river. But Twain was also printer who was apprenticed at 13 years old to the local weekly newspaper the Hannibul Courier where he received no wages and was forced to sleep on the shop floor. As a journeyman Twain went on to work for two other papers as a printer and later as a travelling ‘comp’ on New York City, Philadelphia and St Louis newspapers. With the publication of his first novel in 1869 he became famous as a humourist, but retained his interest in printing. In 1885 Twain invested in James W. Paige’s newly invented composing machine, which set, justified and distributed type. The machine had 18,000 separate parts, was 11’ long, and weighed 5,000 lbs: it was a remarkable machine—but it broke down with painful regularity and only two were ever built! Twain lost $170,000 on the Paige fiasco and hit the lecture circuit to raise money to pay off his debts!
 
Virgina Woolf, 1882-1941
To the Lighthouse; Jacob’s Room; A Room of Ones’ Own
The Hogarth Press, founded in 1917 by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, was originally a hobby and diversion from the pressures of writing. Starting with a small hand-press at Hogarth House, Virginia’s Surrey home, the Press emerged as a full-fledged, commercial enterprise following the success of Kew Gardens in 1919. Virginia not only printed and published her own work, but also the work of writers such as Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, C. Day Lewis, Robert Graves and E.M. Forster; in addition the Press provided avenues of expression for many artists, photographers, illustrators and designers. The Hogarth Press was owned and operated by Leonard and Virginia until the end of 1938, when Virginia relinquished her partnership in the business. In 1939, John Lehmann, who had been an assistant at the Press, took her place, and managed the Press with Leonard until 1946, when Leonard sold the Hogarth Press to Chatto & Windus, where it continued to publish in the tradition of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.