This week I was asked how the books at the Vale Press were printed, as there seemed to be no consensus about it. Since the press started in 1896, some commentators believed that the books were printed on a hand-press, others that the books were printed by machinery, probably on a rotary printing press.
The contradictory sources have a common root in the history of the Vale Press. Originally, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon used as their publisher's address, the house in The Vale, Chelsea, where they could print their own lithographs. For The Dial, they had to make use of book printers. For the first issue of this magazine, they went to Hazell, Watson and Viney, but the second and later issues were printed at the Ballantyne Press, as were all books issued by the Vale Press between 1896 and 1904.
At the time, no one gave a testimony of the presses that were at the disposal of Ricketts at the Ballantyne Press, which was a large printing establishment in London. The colophons, the prospectuses, even the bibliography of the Vale Press that was edited by Ricketts, made no mention of the presses on which the books were produced. This, obviously, points to a 'normal' procedure, one that was too common to mention.
Here follows a selection of opinions:
Ricketts told an interviewer: 'Fortunately, I have in Messrs. Ballantyne, my printers, and particularly in their London manager, Mr. MacColl, most enthusiastic helpers' (Temple Scott, 'Mr. Charles Ricketts and the Vale Press', in: Bookselling, December 1896, p. 506.)
In 1900, Charles Gerring wrote: 'It might be urged against the Vale books that they are printed by Messrs. Ballantyne. This criticism, however, does not go very far, and the only difference between the Vale and Kelmscott books in this respect is that Morris had the oversight of workmen in his own employ, while the Vale books are printed by craftsmen of a commercial house, but again under the supervision of the designer and builder of the page.' (in Notes on printers and booksellers with a chapter on chap books. London, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., Nottingham, Frank Murray, 1900, p. 32).
Others, at the time, also attested to the fact that Ricketts had his books printed at the Ballantyne Press, 'an arrangement which seems to answer
perfectly', according to H.C. Marillier ('The Vale Press, and the Modern Revival of Printing', in: Pall Mall Magazine, October 1900, p. 188.)
The first testimony of a totally different approach to printing private press books was written by C.R. Ashbee in his book The Private Press. A Study in Idealism. To which is added a Bibliography of the Essex House Press (Broad Campden, Essex House Press, 1909, p. 47): 'Machine printed
books can be, and often are, produced with as much beauty as hand printed
books. I believe I am right in saying that the books of the Vale Press were
nearly all printed by machinery'.
Here, the seeds of doubt were sown, and subsequent commentators were prone to think that Ricketts did not have his books printed on a hand-press. In 1913, Lucien Pissarro wrote to the Dutch private press owner J.F. van Royen that he surmised that Ricketts did not print the Vale Press books on a hand-press (quoted by J.P. Boterman, in Disteltype, corps 15. Over de Disteltype van J.F. van Royen en L. Pissarro, en de literatuur van de Zilverdistel. Amsterdam, De Buitenkant, 2000, p. 29).
W.G. Blaikie-Murdoch wrote that Ricketts decided 'simply to entrust his types to a firm of machine printers, whose doing he supervised with fastidious care' ('The Serbian National Sculptor: Being Some Account of Ivan Mestrovic and His Art', in: Art and Progress, December 1915, p. 450).
G.S. Tomkinson's Select Bibliography of the Principal Modern Presses Public and Private in Great Britain and Ireland provided a new clue: 'Although the actual printing was done on the premises of the Ballantyne Press, the Vale books were built entirely on Mr. Ricketts' design under his personal supervision on a press set apart for his sole use'. The last part of this sentence came to be repeated over and over, without solving the issue (London, The First Edition Club, 1928, p. 163).
The debate about the private press during the late twenties made an issue of printing at home. Will Ransom, in Private Presses and their Books, stated: 'One of the debated points in bibliography is whether or not Vale shall be considered a private press. In actual fact it was not, composition and presswork being done at the Ballantyne Press. Yet certain workmen and a press were assigned to work exclusively on Vale books under Ricketts' personal supervision, and his spirit was so unmistakably identical with that of the men who had their own plants, that the Vale Press is accepted as one of the group' (New York, R.R. Bowker Company, 1929, p. 39)'.
J.H. Mason, who worked for the Ballantyne Press, asserted that 'The Vale was strictly a residential quarter and so Ricketts transferred his Press to Ballantynes' (A selection from the notebooks of a scholar-printer. Leicester, The Twelve by Eight, 1961, p. ).
The Catalogue of the Edward Clark Library had 'typographical notes' by Harry Carter (Edinburgh: Privately Printed for Napier College of Commerce & Technology, Lothian Regional Council, 1976, p. 283) and professes that 'the printing was done at the Ballantyne Press on a hand-press.'
This was repeated by Stephen Calloway: 'The Ballantyne Press was still to be employed to carry out the actual printing, but now a hand press and a press-man were to be reserved there for the use of Ricketts alone' (Charles Ricketts. Subtle and fantastic decorator. London, Thames and Hudson, 1979, p. 18).
The introduction of the hand-press went without a reference.
When Paul Delaney published his biography of Ricketts he asserted that the beginnings of the press were located in their own home: 'At this time Ricketts's and Shannon's publishing venture was also making headway. The first publications from their own press (which they named after the Vale) were albums of prints by Lucien Pissarro and Shannon. An album of Lucien's woodcuts was ready as early as January 1892', and these and later albums 'show that Ricketts had first envisaged the Vale Press as an art, as well as a book, publisher. Lack of funds and equipment (for their press at the Vale was not suitable for books) necessitated a slow and modest beginning.' (Charles Ricketts. A Biography. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990, p. 73).
Susan Ashbrook's wording of the issue was that 'Ricketts subcontracted his printing to the Ballantyne Press' (The private press movement in Britain 1890-1914. Boston, Boston University Graduate School, 1991, p. 81).
None of the above mention a source for either the rotary press or the hand-press.
David Butcher repeated the statement about the hand-press that was set apart for the Vale Press: 'Ricketts supervised the printing of Vale books by a pressman at the Ballantyne Press on a hand-press kept exclusively for Vale publications' (British Private Press Prospectuses, 1891-2001. Risbury, The Whittington Press, 2001, p. 59).
There was, however, an eye-witness report that went unnoticed and unpublished for almost a century. Charles Home McCall, son of the manager of the Ballantyne Press, had left a testimony, which was quoted, in an edited form, by Maureen Watry in her book The Vale Press (2004). At the back, a portion of McCall's memoirs is printed, but the parts about the Vale Press are dispersed over quotations in the introduction. Almost no quote in this book is free from errors, as I explained in my review of the book for The Library, and this means that one has to find a way to quote the original unpublished notes to be sure.
Nevertheless, the evidence points to the use of a hand-press, because, at the time, hand-presses were set apart for limited editions, and also for printing large paper copies, for economical reasons.
|An Albion press|
Watry, perhaps accurately, quoted McCall on the actual printing of Vale Press books: 'Imposition was by half-sheets for printing on a "work-and-turn" basis, each sheet thereby yielding two copies of eight pages each, rather than one of sixteen pages. The commercial output of the Ballantyne Press was imposed in multiples of thirty-two or sixty-four pages for machine printing, whereas Vale Press volumes were printed four or eight pages to the sheet on a hand[-]press. The imposition of fewer pages at a time ensured "a more evenly perfect inking and impression as can be on a small sheet".' (p. 42)
The books were printed on Albion presses, 'by "a famous Albion press-man", Mr. Arnold, assisted by "a senior apprentice, Mr. Crews".' And Crews 'would pass the doubled-banded inking roller over the forme, then swing over the tympan, run in the forme on the press by use of the handle and draw-over the impression lever' (p. 42-43).
When I reviewed Watry's book many years ago, I pleaded for a complete (facsimile) edition of McCall's memoirs of the Vale Press. I will not repeat myself, but surely, someone can publish scans of the original manuscript online?
They constitute our only reliable source for this issue.