26 April – 1 July 2012.
The Essex House Press was set up in 1898. It was one of a small number of private printing presses established in the latter part of the 19th century as a reaction against the mass-produced works that had been developed in the Victorian era. These private presses were concerned with the look of the book as a work of art; the quality of the paper, the typefaces, the illustrations and the bindings, the ‘book beautiful’.
The Guild of Handicraft had bought much of the equipment from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, the first of the English private presses. They acquired two of the Kelmscott Albion presses and employed three of their staff.
In March 1898 C. R. Ashbee wrote to his fiancée:
The great event of the week has been the purchase of the Morris press by the Guild of Handicraft…next Monday there will be vans of presses and gages [sic] and chairs and tables and paper and machinery – lock, stock and barrel – moving East from Hammersmith. We are thinking of a musical procession!
The first book published from Essex House, East London in December 1898 was Benvenuto Cellini’s The Treatises on Goldsmithing and Sculpture. In all some 90 titles were published on a wide range of subjects some using Caslon type and some with Ashbee’s own type designs, Endeavour and Prayer Book. They chose the white pinks as its symbol.
The essence of a private press is that the printer produces works that he or she likes, not necessarily what the public demands. This is an extremely important aspect of the Essex House Press as the books published reflect Ashbee’s personal interests: the ideals of the Guild and craft production, architecture and the preservation of historic buildings. Court Barn now holds the largest single collection of Essex House Press books. It came from his daughter Felicity Ashbee and consists almost entirely of the copies which Ashbee set aside for himself, many of them annotated or personalised by him.
A book accompanying the exhibition can be purchased from the museum or from the online shop