Wednesday, October 14, 2015

220. Proctor, Ricketts, Morris, Pissarro, Cobden-Sanderson

Monomaniacal readers are of all times, and in the nineteenth century some of them ended up in a library. More than 120 years ago this happened to Robert Proctor (1868-1903), who became assistant in the British Library department of printed works. In this capacity he developed into an expert of incunabula and typefaces. From the type in a book, he could deduce in which city and in what year a book had been printed. Nowadays, scholars know that there is more to it, such as paper and the watermarks in the paper, but Proctor established a sort of standard, and reached international fame for his descriptions of the incunabula in the British Museum collection. He could not enjoy his new status for long; he was 35 when he disappeared during a walking tour in the Alps. 

A Critical Edition of the Private Diaries of Robert Proctor.
The Life of a Librarian at the British Museum
His diaries survived, and were published in 2010 (edited by J.H. Bowman, and published by the Edwin Mellen Press). The entries are rather short, and sometimes cryptic, basically describing the weather. One day it is sunny, another one it rains; and day after day, year after year the daily reports on clouds, showers, heat and fog can guarantee nothing else than tedious reading. However, his notes on the commuter's railway journeys to London acquired the dreariness of an obsolete mantra; he routinely wrote down at what time his train had departed and when exactly he changed trains, or arrived at a certain station, and what the weather was like over there - but with some patience, every now and then, one meets a remark that is noticeable.

Robert Proctor, diary note for 21 July 1903
His views on current matters in typography and the book arts are those of an impassioned scholar in his thirties, blunt, deeply felt, and totally black-and-white. He adored the work of William Morris, whose every piece of paper he ardently collected (not for the B.L., but for his private collection), paying barely affordable prices for books and pamphlets at auctions. He vehemently rejected the books of other private presses: Charles Ricketts and his Vale Press were only capable of muddling, and Lucien Pissarro's Eragny Press was even worse.

Robert Proctor, diary note for 22 July 1903
He loved Doves Press books, as they had been designed by his friend Emery Walker who had also been an important inspiration for Morris; however, the other Doves Press owner, Cobden Sanderson was rated a fool.

For now, I am not concerned with the accuracy of his findings; what is fascinating in his diaries, is the emotional power of his remarks on modern typography. His diary is one of the few sources for contemporary enthusiasm for William Morris and the Kelmscott Press expressed by a member of the younger generation. We know that Morris was revered by many, but seldom we hear the voice of the younger acolytes. The force of their adoration underlines the importance of the revival of printing that Morris brought about. 

Morris was dead by the time Proctor started his diaries in 1899, and he belonged to a past generation of Pre-Raphaelites, whose Arts and Crafts movement educated the audience's taste for a new approach to typography, forcing commercial publishers to adapt the style and the materials of their books; Morris's views eventually brought about major changes in book design, and resulted in graphic design as we know it today. 

Proctor's alacrity for every scrap of paper touched by Morris's ideas, and his zeal for a modern typography was important at the time, and can only be compared to the admiration of the earliest disciples of Steve Jobs, and the worship of Apple products. William Morris was the Steve Jobs of the nineteen-nineties.

This adoration for Morris played a distinctive part in the export of private press ideas to other countries. We can detect this early enthusiasm outside Great Britain, for example in the Netherlands, or in Belgium, where one of these early fans was the artist, architect and book designer Henry van de Velde. 

[Part of the Miraeus lecture, held at the Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience in Antwerp on 6 May 2015].