Tag Archives: private presses

Happy Birthday, Robert Burns!

Today marks the 257th birthday of Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns (1759-1796). Every year, in Scotland and around the world, admirers of Burns’ work sit down on or around the 25th of January to a celebratory meal of haggis, neeps, and tatties, often accompanied by bagpipes, recitations of Burns’ poetry and a glass of whisky.

A forerunner of the Romantic movement, Robert Burns is is known for his use of the Scots dialect in his poetry. Some of his best-known works include “Auld Lang Syne,” “Tam o’ Shanter,” “A Red, Red Rose,” “A Man’s a Man for A’ That,” “Scots Wha Hae,” and “My Heart’s in the highlands.” In addition to his original compositions, Burns also recorded many traditional Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising them as well.

Although we will not be having a formal Burns Night celebration here in Cardiff University special collections, I have nevertheless taken the opportunity to rummage through the stacks in search of Burns’ poetry in honour of the occasion.

Our oldest piece of Burnsiana is a broadside ballad, published around 1797. It contains words and music to “Gude forgi’e me for liein’,” also published as “Last May a Braw Wooer.”


A broadside of “Gude forgi’e me for lieini'” published around 1797, not long after Burns’ death.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the heyday of ballad printing in Wales. This single sheet is bound into a volume of musical scores and broadsides, one of approximately 700 such volumes collected by Theodore Edward Aylward (1844-1933). In addition to ballads like this one, the Aylward collection includes material on sacred works, songs and singing, dramatic music, orchestral music, solos and studies and music for organ and harmonium, mainly from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Cardiff University’s other major collection of Welsh ballads, forming part of the Salisbury Library also contains at least four different 19th century Welsh-language editions of Burns’ “Highland Mary.”


Three of the Welsh-language versions of “Highland Mary” found in the Salisbury Library.

Burns’ writing is characterised by directness and sincerity.  In the preface to Burns’ first published volume of poetry, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, (1786), the poet presented himself as one who lacked “all the advantages of learned art” and who, being “Unacquainted with the necessary requisites for commencing Poet by rule”, instead “sings the sentiments and manners, he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him, in his and their native language.”

Interestingly though, some of Burns’ poetry was deemed too direct for sensitive 19th century audiences. The editor of one 1858 illustrated edition of Burns’ Poems and Songs felt that only a selection of poems could “with propriety be given in a volume intended for the Drawing-room.”


Poems and Songs by Robert Burns, published in 1858 by Bell and Daldy.

Although Burns was the son of a tenant farmer, his humble origins haven’t prevented him from being picked up by some very upscale publishers.  The 1902 Essex House edition of “Tam o’ Shanter is printed on vellum and adorned with gold leaf.  The beautifully printed colophon assigns the poem a place “among the great poems of the language.”


The 1902 Essex House edition of “Tam O’ Shanter” features colourful woodblock initials and a woodcut frontispiece.

In 1925, the Golden Cockerel Press also produced an edition of Songs from Robert Burns, illustrated with woodcuts by Mabel M. Annesley.


Illustrations from the 1925 Golden Cockerel Press edition of Songs from Robert Burns.

Each of these beautiful editions is a testament to Burns’ continuing popularity. I hope you will join me in raising a glass (safely away from any books, of course) to this well-loved lyricist!


The colophon from the Golden Cockerel Press edition of “Tam O’ Shanter

Call for Papers: The Art of the Book, Cardiff University, December 4-6 2015



In 2014 Cardiff University received a considerable donation of Artists’ Books from Ron King of the Circle Press, one of the most influential practitioners of the Book Arts. In December of this year, the University’s Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR) will be hosting a major international conference to celebrate this bequest. Speakers will include Ron King (Circle Press), Sarah Bodman (University of the West of England), and Chris McCabe (Poetry Library).

Proposals are now invited from practitioners and scholars for presentations of 20 minutes on any aspect of the Book Arts. A brief biographical note, along with an abstract of 200-300 words, should be sent NO LATER THAN October 1, 2015, to scolar@cardiff.ac.uk. Practitioners in attendance are encouraged to bring examples of their work for display at the conference.

Robert Proctor, William Morris and the mysterious death of ‘the great bibliographer’

Exploring our large collection of books by the Kelmscott Press, I was intrigued to discover a set of proofs from The golden legend, printed by William Morris in 1892 and featuring manuscript corrections by Morris himself. This unique volume also includes the personal bookplate of a former owner, a man named Proctor, and the following note: “Given by Mrs. Proctor in memory of William Morris & of her son Robert Proctor”.


Robert George Collier Proctor (1868-1903) was a bibliographer and book collector who is primarily remembered for two very different reasons: firstly, for his revolutionary rearrangement of the incunabula in the British Museum, based on the way in which printing technology spread through Europe in the 15th century; and secondly, for the unsolved mystery which surrounds his disappearance in September 1903.


Proctor’s method, now referred to as ‘Proctor order’, arranges incunabula (books printed before 1501) by country and city, and then by printer and edition. His development of this scheme for the British Museum and Bodleian Library collections radically advanced the study of early printing, earning Proctor the title of ‘the great bibliographer’.

IMG_1381Proctor was a fanatical follower of William Morris, who he first met in 1894, and an avid collector of books and ephemera from the Kelmscott Press, established by Morris in 1891 with the aim of showing that the high standards of medieval book production could be reproduced by skilled craftsmen in the present. Books produced by the Kelmscott Press were modelled on the incunabula of the 15th century, which perhaps accounts for Proctor’s great interest in Morris.

Throughout his life, Proctor had enjoyed taking long walking holidays, often with his mother who accompanied him until well into her seventies. IMG_1386However, on 29 August 1903 Proctor left London without her for a solitary tour of the Austrian Alps. The trip was scheduled to last three weeks and he wrote to his mother each day until 5 September, when Proctor told her not to expect another letter for some time. He was never seen again. Weeks later, Mrs Proctor, worried that she had not heard from her son, tried to arrange a search of the area but it was too late. No body was ever recovered and it was presumed that Proctor had perished in the mountains after losing his footing and falling down a crevasse.

Some people, including his friend and fellow collector Sydney Cockerell, believed that Proctor had committed suicide. Proctor’s diaries suggest that he was suffering depression due to failing eyesight and impending blindness. The day before Proctor left for the mountains, he wrote out a list of ‘wishes and bequests’, possibly the clearest indication that he did not plan to return.


A handwritten letter from Cockerell accompanies another of our unique Kelmscott items, a volume of cancelled pages from The sundering flood: “… Mrs Proctor, the mother of Robert Proctor of the British Museum who was lost in the Tirol last September, asks me to send you these two books for the Library of the City of Cardiff”. The ‘great bibliographer’ was just 35 years old when he died, but he achieved much in his short life and his ‘Proctor order’ is still followed today in the major collections of the world.

Bowman, J.H. (ed.), A critical edition of the private diaries of Robert Proctor: The life of a librarian at the British Museum. Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston  Queenston  Lampeter, 2010.
Downes, Michael, People from the past: Robert Proctor (1868-1903), http://budleighbrewsterunited.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/robert-proctor.html, 2011

Printers and bookbinders visit Special Collections and Archives

soc_binders2Special Collections and Archives recently hosted visits of the British Printing Society (South Wales branch) and the Society of Bookbinders (South West England branch). Both groups were particularly interested in our large collection of privately printed books, by presses such as Kelmscott, Eragny, Cuala, Ashendene, Essex House and Doves.


soc_printersBoth groups were delighted to have the opportunity to examine the collections.  It was fascinating to discuss these examples with members of the present-day book trade, all of whom were highly trained experts in their field.

In the footsteps of Dante

In 1302 the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, was permanently banished from his beloved Florence, the city of his birth. Forced to spend the rest of his life in political exile, Dante travelled throughout Italy wandering from city to city, and was eventually inspired to write about his journeys in the largely autobiographical Commedia.


Any scholar hoping to follow in Dante’s footsteps would do well to studyP1200500 these beautiful hand-coloured maps, produced in 1892 by the English artist Mary Hensman and now held in our Private Presses collection. They include all the places supposedly visited by Dante in his exile or named in his works. The first map shows the whole of Italy in the time of Dante, “Onorate L’Altissimo Poeta”, surrounded by an elaborate border made up of Guild emblems, while the other highlights Tuscany and central Italy.


The maps were produced in London by Charles Robert Ashbee’s Guild ofP1200502 Handicraft as coloured photolithographs, printed on a single large linen-backed sheet and folded into a maroon buckram case with Hensman’s preface and gazeteer mounted on the front pastedown. The hand-colouring was apparently completed by Hensman herself with Ashbee’s assistance.

On the morning of Christ’s Nativity

MiltonChrist'sNativity6Miltonchrist'sNativityOn the morning of Christ’s nativity” was composed by John Milton in 1629 when he was just 21 years old.  According to Thomas Corns (2003, 216), the poem has “…generally been recognized as Milton’s first manifestation of poetic genius…” which is an impressive accolade for one so young.  As a celebration of Christ’s birth it is also part of a trilogy commemorating important Christian events which assured his popularity as a poet in the 17th century even before he wrote Paradise Lost.

MiltonChrist'sNativity5This edition, produced in a print run of only 100 copies, was published in 1930 by the Pear Tree Press, which was founded by the poet and printmaker James Guthrie in 1899 at Ingrave, Essex.   This volume is one of the Black Letter Series;  the covers of this series are black and silver decorative paper covered boards, with a paper label for the title. 

MiltonChrist'sNativity3Inside this volume are black and gold illustrations which were drawn by Sheila M. Thompson, she was also the one who hand printed the volume for the press.  Thompson illustrated many of the Pear Tree Press books, whilst learning the printing trade from Guthrie, and was known as a close friend of his.

[Corns, Thomas. “‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, ‘Upon the Circumcision’ and ‘The Passion'” in A Companion to Milton. Ed. Thomas Corns. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.]

Private presses printer’s devices

Eragny Press

At the end of the summer we completed cataloguing the Private Presses within the Cardiff Rare Books collection.  With a wide range of presses represented we also had a delightful array of (modern) printer’s devices.  Printer’s devices are symbols or vignettes that identify the printer or press, acting as their trademark.  Fust and Schöffer were the first to use such a device in 1462 and by the end of the 15th century the idea was firmly established.  Ranging from simple designs based around initials, to much more elaborate engravings, devices were useful and popular for several hundred years.  Originally conceived to help prevent against the pirating of books, the opportunity to produce ornamental designs was soon grasped.  Placed in the colophon or on the title-page the devices advertised who was responsible for the book.  In the modern period the printer’s device has mainly been replaced by publisher’s logos, and even by the end of the 19th century they were not utilised to a great extent.

Bronze Snail Press

Boars Head Press

The exception to this was with the private presses that emerged as part of the Arts and Crafts movement, and were attempting to create books that were objects of beauty.  The presses embraced the concept of printer’s devices and devised many artful creations, reflecting their names, intials, locations and concepts.

Swan Press

Ashendene Press

Dolmen Press

Astolat Press

Caradoc Press

Full cataloguing of Cardiff’s private presses collection now complete

We are very happy to report that cataloguing of SCOLAR’s extensive collection of private press books has now been completed and that all 1,300 items are available to view on Cardiff University’s Library Catalogue. We hold books by all the major presses of the Arts and Crafts movement, including near-complete runs of publications from the Golden Cockerel Press, Cuala Press and William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.

The beautiful embroidered binding on Cardiff’s copy of “The Floure and the Leafe” published by the Kelmscott Press

These have been wonderful books for us to work on, with many delightful illustrations and beautiful bindings to enjoy, and there have been some great surprises along the way. We’ve discovered books signed by A.A. Milne, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and W.B. Yeats, unique proof copies with comments by William Morris, Elizabeth Yeats and Lucien Pissaro, and works finely bound by some of the leading craftsmen of the day.

Illustration from “La belle au bois dormant” by Charles Perrault, printed at the Eragny Press in 1899

With cataloguing finished on the private presses, we are now moving on to SCOLAR’s unique collection of Restoration dramas, many of which are heavily annotated. I will also be continuing to work on our English early printed books, the first 1,000 of which have been added to the catalogue over the first year of the project.

“Samson and Delilah”, printed at the Golden Cockerel Press and bound by Sybil Pye in red morocco with Art Deco inlays

A true collector of the Kelmscott Press

As I was happily working away on some of our Kelmscott Press books, I discovered this wonderfully detailed bookplate in a copy of William Morris’s The roots of the mountains. Although we have yet to learn the identity of Robert Hall, the plate certainly suggests that he was an enthusiastic collector of Kelmscott publications.

On the library table are copies of several well-known Kelmscott works, including  William Morris’s The glittering plain and his 1895 translation of Beowulf. All the books are clearly bound in the distinctive Kelmscott full limp vellum tied with silk ribbons; The wood beyond the world is open to show a Morris-designed woodcut border and frontispiece.

Leaning against the bookcase is a copy of the 1896 edition of Chaucer, the most important publication from the Kelmscott Press and arguably the greatest of all the private press books. If this delightful bookplate provides us with an accurate glimpse into Robert Hall’s private library, then he was indeed a true collector of Kelmscott.

Magnificent bindings by Sangorski & Sutcliffe from the Cardiff Rare Books Collection

“The deserted village” by Oliver Goldsmith (1855), bound in green morocco with gilt and colour inlays by Sangorski & Sutcliffe.

I was recently asked to put out a display of books from our modern fine bindings, which gave me a perfect excuse to rummage through the stacks of the Cardiff Rare Books Collection pulling out some our most beautiful items. We are lucky to have a number of exceptional bindings by some of the leading craftsmen of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including several outstanding examples from the famed London firm of Sangorski & Sutcliffe.

Back cover of “The deserted village”

Formed by Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe in 1901, this bindery was best known for producing elaborate bindings inlaid with gold and encrusted with precious stones. Their most famous work was a fabulous copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, with a lavishly decorated binding designed by Sangorski that took the firm over two years to produce. Finally completed in 1911, the Great Omar was shipped off to America on the maiden voyage of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic and was never seen again.

“The book of wonder” by Lord Dunsany, published by Heinemann in 1912 and bound by S&S in full deerskin with a spider web design in gilt.

Back cover of “The book of wonder”.

Detail from “The first crusade” (1945), three-quarter-bound in vellum over orange cloth with a wonderful gilt design.

Ivor Bannet’s “The Amazons” (1948), published by Golden Cockerel Press and three-quarter-bound in brown morocco over marbled paper-covered boards.

These are just a few examples of the fine bindings in the Rare Books collection, with many more waiting to be discovered and featured in future blog posts.