The Private Press Movement – the art of the beautiful book

The Private Press Movement – the fine art of the beautiful book

The private press movement is about the art and craft of making beautiful books. Books that are often small print-runs of high quality, produced by individuals and small businesses.

The modern private press movement began in the mid 19th century. The initial movement began when creative forces such as William Morris, Emery Walker and the British Arts and Crafts movement began producing books as an art form. Soon other enthusiastic book lovers, artists, designers and crafts people began to become involved in the production of fine books. Their enthusiastic appreciation of typography, design, illustration, printing and fine binding evolved and grew in Britain and then on into America and other countries.

The Golden Cockerel Press

Golden Cockerel Press Prospectus 1930, Eric Ravilious

A Golden Cockerel Press prospectus from 1930 with a beautiful wood-engraving by Eric Ravilious. This prospectus also announced the new typeface called ‘Golden Cockerel’ designed by Eric Gill and the forthcoming printing of ‘The Four Gospels’.

The Golden Cockerel Press is one of the the most outstanding private presses of the 20th century. It was set up in England in 1920 by a cooperative of four inspired but inexperienced partners in a small village in England. Their venture struggled and grew into a press that is renowned for producing some of the most beautiful handmade limited edition books of the twentieth century – now much sought after by collectors.

The Golden Cockerel Press evolved under different owners, including the artist Robert Gibbings. They produced a wide range of books from 1920 until 1961, and are credited with the revival of wood-engraving in Britain. This fine press commissioned engravings from artists such as Paul Nash, John Nash, Eric Ravilious, John Buckland Wright, Dorothea Braby, John Farleigh, Mabel Annesley, Eric Gill and many others.

The press was a highly creative environment, working with poets, writers and artists. The typeface ‘Golden Cockerel’ was created in 1929, especially for the press, by the stone-carver, calligrapher and wood engraver Eric Gill.

Eric Gill worked closely with Robert Gibbings in the 1920s developing his ideas on typography and book design. Books such as Utopia by Sir Thomas More eventually led to them designing and printing one of the most highly valued books from The Golden Cockerel Press, The Four Gospels, designed and illustrated by Eric Gill and published in 1932. In that same year they also published Twelfth Night, designed and illustrated by Eric Ravilious.

Twelfth Night, Eric Ravilious

Click here to see our copy of Twelfth Night.

The Roycroft Press

One of the early private presses in America was the Roycroft Press. This press was founded in 1895 in the village of East Aurora, New York by Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915). His inspiration for the Roycroft Press press began when, on a trip to England, he met with William Morris and saw the Kelmscott Press in action. Impressed by the books the Kelmscott Press produced and the philosophy behind the Arts and Craft movement Hubbard established his printing press in East Aurora.

Today the Roycroft Print Shop has been re-established at the historic Roycroft Campus in East Aurora. It has a composing room, holds demonstrations on several of the original presses and is home to resident artists.

Visit the Roycroft Campus website.

Roycroft Press, typography

An example of the elegant typography in the Roycroft Press publication ‘Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Musicians’. Published in 1901.

The Kelmscott Press

The Kelmscott Press was set up in 1891 in England by the artist and designer William Morris. He had always been impressed by the beauty of early illuminated books and was also disappointed by the standard of books being produced in his day. The Kelmscott Press drove his desire to produce books of great beauty and quality. These were illustrated books with beautiful typography, fine printing and fine binding.

The books produced by the Kelmscott Press were designed with great care, to be treasured as an art form.

William Morris designed his own typefaces, the books were printed by hand on their own handmade paper and bound by the press. One of their final books, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, is considered to be one of the most beautiful books of its day. It was designed by Morris and illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones.

The Kelmscott Press

The Kelmscott Press as shown in ‘William Morris, an illustrated guide’

The art of the book today

Although we look back now on this golden era for the private press movement there are many private presses and individual publishers, artists and printers remaining active today. Private presses continue to produce beautiful books, some use new technology, many use wonderful old printing machines, Letterpress printing, wood-engraving, specially made paper, bookbinding and fine crafts.

Our links page has information on some of the private presses operating today.

Click here to see our current private press books.

Read our article on collecting illustrated books.

Visit our online bookstore now.