Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Restrained Extravagance

In 1897, Charles Ashbee set up the Essex House Press. He hired many of the craftsmen originally employed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press to pursue his own utopian dream of art, craft and labor united. Like Morris before him, he espoused a socialist ideal and actually put it into practice in his worker-owned shop. But also like Morris, the output of his press was far too expensive for the working class.

This edition of Robert Burns's Tam-O'Shanter (London: Essex House Press, 1902) is a case in point.  It was designed and printed to meet the exacting standards of a select and wealthy bibliophile audience. Printed on vellum with hand illumination (yes, that's gold in the letter C) only 150 copies were produced for firms of Edward Arnold in London and Samuel Buckley in New York to sell their clientele.

The book is a model of restrained extravagance that is aesthetically positioned between the over-the-top typography of Kelmscott and the austerity of Doves Press. It is a book that draws you in with its beauty but invites you to read with its clean presentation of the text.

You can see it in the context of the Kelmscott Press between now and August 30th in the Class of 1965 Galleries in Rauner Library in the exhibit When Adam Delved and Eve Span: William Morris and the Politics of the Book.  After August 30th, ask for Presses E78bu.

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