Wednesday, July 31, 2013

105. An Attack on the Defence of the Revival of Printing

On Friday 19 July, after I delivered my paper on the reprints of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson's tract The Ideal Book at the SHARP conference in Philadelphia, I took an Amtrak train to New York for a meeting at The Grolier Club

The Grolier Club, conveniently located at the Plaza Hotel side of Central Park, at 47 East 60th Street, has its windows temporarily shielded against dust and debris, now that the next door building is being demolished, and a skyscraper is to be erected on the site. Nikolai Fedak wrote about the location - between Fifth and Madison Avenue – that this is 'an address that bests any competing development, and the skyscraper will possess some of the best Central Park views in the city. Designed by Robert A.M. Stern, 45 East 60th Street will rise 52 stories and 780 feet. The tower is expected to contain 40 units, and most floors will be split between duplex apartments, though the top unit will be an enormous triplex.'

The occupant of one of the lower floor apartments will possibly enjoy the proximity of his own books to those in The Grolier Club's library, as the bookcases to the wall in the picture will be adjacent to the new building.
Library, The Grolier Club, New York, 19 July 2013
The Grolier Club building, designed by Bertram G. Goodhue, was built in 1917. Before that, the Club was housed at other New York venues. After its foundation in 1884, the Club first had its headquarter in a few rented rooms at 64 Madison Avenue. In 1890, the Club moved to a Romanesque Revival building that was purpose-built for the society at 29 East 32nd Street; nowadays a designated landmark (I am freely quoting from the society's website). The present Clubhouse is a neo-Georgian six-story town-house.
Bookcase in the Second Floor Gallery, The Grolier Club, New York, 19 July 2013
During my visit, I noticed a Ricketts binding in one of the exhibition cases in the Second Floor Gallery. In the upper right-hand corner one sees a copy of Charles Ricketts's Beyond the Threshold, in the red leather binding that was gilded after a design by the author. The book was published in 1929 in an edition of 150 copies.

The librarian, Meghan Constantinou, pulled out some special Ricketts related items from the Club's vast collection of prints, auction catalogues, books on printing, and fine printing. It gives me pleasure to thank her for this illustration of the institute's kind hospitality.

The Grolier Club copy of Ricketts's A Defence of the Revival of Printing (published June 1899) has a tipped-in letter from Theodore Low De Vinne, one of the nine founders of the Club, to the engraver and art dealer Samuel Putnam Avery, dated 23 October 1899. The book also contains Avery's bookplate. De Vinne's letter reveals his hostility towards the claims of William Morris and other artists who had turned to book design. The letter reads:

Letter from Th. L. De Vinne, 23 October 1899 [The Grolier Club, New York]
300 West Seventy-Sixth Street
23 October 1899
Dear Mr. Avery,
With this I send the two volumes of Mackail's "Life of Morris", Rickett's [sic] "Defence of the Revival of Printing", "The Hymn of Bardaisan", and Morris's "Ash and Beauty of Enoch".
I say with Job - "Miserable comforters are ye all." The amount of sensible and practical instruction is small; the volume of conceit and dogmatism is great. After four hundred years of practice in printing it seems somewhat audacious in men who have never been taught the rudiments of the trade, to put themselves on a high perch and tell printers everywhere that they are the true evangelists in art!'
Yours cordially,
Theo. L. De Vinne

Verso of letter from Th. L. De Vinne, 23 October 1899 [The Grolier Club, New York]
Theodore Low De Vinne, who would publish the first volume of his influential Practice of Typography the next year, also wrote 'Some Comments on the Imitators of William Morris', which appeared in The New York Times Saturday Review of 27 October 1900. In that essay he mentioned Ricketts.

The revival of printing was defended by Charles Ricketts after critical essays about the Vale Press typography. But his tract did not change Theodore Low De Vinne's attitude towards the artists who, following the footsteps of William Morris, trained themselves as graphic designers avant le motFrom this letter it clearly emerges that De Vinne felt hurt by these outsider's comments on the printing trade. In his view, fine printing did not need artists, but well trained printers.