Private Press Books at St John’s College

Chiswick Press

William Morris’s Kelmscott Press may be the earliest press associated with the Arts & Crafts inspired “private press movement’, but he was not the first one to respond to the industrialisation of book-making with an artisan ambition. One forerunner was the Chiswick Press, although it was not founded by Charles Whittingham I (1767–1840) as a private press in 1811. It only became influential under the management of the founder’s nephew, Charles Whittingham II (1795-1876), who introduced quality printing in 1844. The Chiswick Press published some early designs by William Morris and when Kelmscott Press was closed their remaining paper and the fonts were given to Chiswick Press.

St John’s holds several Chiswick Press volumes. Among them is this first edition of William Morris’s fantasy novel The Roots of the Mountains printed in 1890 (shelfmark: Vet. Engl. 62).

The textile binding is instantly recognisable as a Morris design. A quick search online revealed that many copies of this first edition are bound with this Morris design textile. But the ones I’ve seen are all slightly different because they used different sections of the cloth. Of this superior edition on Whatman paper, 250 copies were printed by the Chiswick Press, although the publisher is named as Reeves and Turner. This is not unusual, other private presses also collaborated with commercial publishers, too.

Like several other private press publications of William Morris at St John’s, this copy was part of the Skilbeck donation mentioned earlier in connection with the Kelmscott Press’s Golden Legend.

Two later Chiswick Press publications have arrived at St John’s as part of Robert Graves’s library. The first is an editions of Graves’s war poem Goliath and David printed in 1916.

The other one is a volume of 10 poems, entitled Treasure Box printed in 1919. The little drawing on the title page was made by Nancy Nicholson, Graves’s first wife. Chiswick Press printed 200 copies of this little volume for Graves personally, as Treasure Box was never meant to be sold.

This all suggests that Chiswick Press printed a great variety of books – from more luxurious volumes like Morris’s novel to small pamphlet-like publications today perhaps better described as privately printed.

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