A publisher visits Arcadia

The development of e-books has – as I argued in previous post (‘Enhanced p-books?‘, 20 April) – created a context for publishing ‘enhanced p-books’. I outlined the argument as follows:

1. E-books provide serious competition for p-books, especially paperbacks …

2. So if we want people to continue to buy p-books, we are going to need to give them some reasons for doing so.

3. And there are ways of doing so. We can enhance those qualities that have always attracted bibliophiles. We can give them beautifully designed jackets and much-better-than-perfect bindings. We can use paper that appeals to more than one sense.

I mentioned there what may be called the extreme wing of this tendency, namely the Fine Press Book Association (FPBA). The association’s members not only fail to adopt the latest digital technology: they consciously seek to use and preserve traditional technologies, materials, and methods. This weekend the FPBA held its biennial fair in Oxford. It offered a convenient opportunity to take stock, not of the latest developments, but rather of the lack of them.

I found the fair an extraordinarily exciting event. In my review (16 April) of this year’s London Book Fair (LBF), I argued that the twin conceptions of that event, as both fair and festival, sat uneasily together. The reverse is true of the FPBA’s fair: the event is both a fair – with publishers eager to re-acquaint themselves with the patrons on which they depend – and a festival. It celebrates the survival of a number of crafts as living traditions: they include, besides publishing and printing, typography, calligraphy, woodcutting and engraving, binding, tanning, and the manufacturing of fine papers. The event is, in short, a wonderful, multifaceted, celebration of creativity in traditional forms.

Perhaps I can give something of the flavour of the occasion  by identifying some of my favourite exhibits and exhibitors. First come The Celtic Cross Press and Tern Press. The former describes itself thus in the fair’s catalogue:

We began printing books by letterpress in 1984 and we use a 1950 Vandercook machine. Typesetting is usually done by hand with Rosemary [Roberts]* doing all the design and art work – wood engravings, linocuts and line drawings printed in colour. We use a variety of fine papers, and books are usually bound in full cloth-covered boards, or sewn into card covers.

The catalogue copy for Tern Press runs a follows: 

Founded in 1972. Literature set, printed, illustrated and bound by Nicholas & Mary Parry. Handwritten texts with watercolour. Lithographs printed from the stone. Use of Tiern type, 200 titles in which all aspects of production attempt to enhance and reflect the subject.

I bracket these somewhat contrasting presses together because both provide suitable starting points for an incipient collector. Their books are readily appreciable and their prices do not break the bank (the Wordsworth selection that I purchased from Celtic Cross cost £50; Tern’s Piers Plowman selection , which I have my eye, on is priced at £90).

Then, from New York, there is Russell Maret. Even my untrained eyes could see that his Specimens of Diverse Characters is a tour de force. His blog describes the two editions (standard and deluxe) as : 

bound using a modified Bradel binding that opens beautifully flat at every spread. The standard edition has a red leather spine with paper covered boards printed from my foundry Lisbon Ornaments. It is housed in a cloth covered clamshell box with an inset red leather label stamped in silver foil. The deluxe edition uses the same structure but the boards are covered in gray leather with a specimen of Iohann Titling stamped in silver foil on the front cover. In addition to the book, the deluxe comes with a portfolio of progressive state proofs of three complex prints and a selection of five unbound prints from the book. The book and portfolio are housed in a clamshell box with a leather spine and foredges. At the back of the box is an inset window behind which is a setting of Harry Carter’s passage Type is something that you can pick up and hold in your hand in a special issue of Iohann Titling foundry type cast on a 30pt body.

Two books appealed to me more than any others. The first was The Gregynog Journals, in which artist Jonas Jones’s evocative writing is illustrated with his own watercolours. The book is published by Scene & Word as part of a set that contains a second book (The Lakes of North Wales) three prints, and a CD. It is almost achingly beautiful. If I’d been awarding prizes, that would have received my silver medal.

And the gold medal would have gone, unquestionably, to the appropriately named Extraordinary Editions for its edition of the King’s Survey of the Channel Islands – 1680, described in the catalogue thus:

Perhaps the most beautiful book about islands ever made and certainly fit for a king being nearly royal folio in size and containing 40 large fold-out maps and watercolours … It is bound in leather with hand-made marbled cover papers. 

It achieves the difficult feat of being both expensive and good value at £1,500.

As I hope even this brief selection indicates, there is a wonderful diversity to the event. As one moves from one stall to the next, one never knows what to expect. This is a tribute to the another creative craft, additional to those I itemised above – namely creative micro-entrepreneurship (probably not a term that the presses’ owners would typically use) .

Though one doesn’t normally talk of entrepreneurship as a ‘craft’, somehow it seems appropriate here. It is an unusual kind – one that eschews the kind of clustering characteristic of creative industry in favour of splendid provincial isolation or even remoteness. In the UK, fine presses house themselves – often in old converted buildings or outhouses – in all kinds of out-of-the-way places, many of them with fine Saxon or Celtic names**.

Overall, one can think of the FPBA fair as a sort of antidote to contemporary industrial fairs: it is small, backward-looking, creative, and fun. I guess if publishers make it to heaven, this is the kind of thing they find.

*co-owner of the press

** For example: Lastingham (Yorkshire), Quenington (Little Downham (Cambs), East Cramlington (Northumberland), Hinton Charterhouse (Avon), Linstead Magna (Suffolk), and Llanhamlach (Brecon), Llandogo (Monmouth), and Tregynon (Powys). Exhibitors also came from America, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, and Korea. 

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2 Responses to “A publisher visits Arcadia”

  1. […] Extraordinary Editions, whom I featured in my review of the Fine Press Book Association fair in […]

  2. […] Fine Press Book Fair is held every two years. I posted a review of the 2011 event here (6 Nov 2011). The 2013 fair, again in Oxford, will be held on the weekend of 2-3 November. […]

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