Private press books

Russell's Typographical Curiosity
Larger 'Curiosity'

In the second half of the 19th century, the Arts and Crafts Movement set out to maintain traditional skills and workmanship as an alternative to the new technology of mass production. In printing, this led to the foundation of private presses, making small runs of printed books to high standards. This movement should not be confused with the tendency for authors to have their works printed 'privately' at their own expense, or indeed with 'vanity publishing'. Many writers have wanted to have control over the publication of their works, some going to the extremes of the beekeeper Robert Russell of Elgin, who in the 1820s designed and cast his own type as well as printing his own books. However, the true private press movement was more concerned with returning the book to its origins as an object produced by skilled craftsmanship.

The National Library of Scotland has some notable collections of private press books, including a near-complete run of the publications of the Kelmscott Press established by William Morris in 1891. The Kelmscott Press was one of the first exponents of the British private press movement, which had its heyday between 1880 and 1940. It was, in part, a reaction against the proliferation of cheap and ugly books manufactured on the machine press for the mass market, but it was also a celebration of artistry and excellent design. Many presses followed Kelmscott in using quality paper, inks and type founts, such as the Doves Press, founded by T J Cobden-Sanderson, which produced clear work without the busy foliage of the Kelmscott books. The Ashendene, Vale, Eragny and Essex House presses also developed. Others such as the Golden Cockerel Press, owned by Robert Gibbings, emphasised the place of book illustrations, using artists such as Eric Gill. Many of these presses have come to an end (Cobden-Sanderson, notoriously, threw the type from his Doves Press into the River Thames), but others, such as the Gregynog Press, continue to produce fine books, which the Library collects. See the Gregynog Press special collection.

Kelmscott Chaucer
The Kelmscott
Larger Chaucer

In Scotland, there has not been the same drive towards the elitism that tends to mark some private presses; the trend is more towards producing specialist books to high standards, or amateur experimentation. Some Scottish private presses include the Signet Press in Greenock, owned by Thomas Rae, and the Tragara Press in Edinburgh, founded in 1954 by its present proprietor Alan Anderson.

We continue to acquire new private press books. A small number still reach the Library through legal deposit, but we mainly depend on purchase and on donations (the donated Paterson Collection contains a number of private press books). Recent acquisitions include privately printed books relating to the activities of Scots at home or abroad, and representatives from contemporary Scottish and other significant private presses. For example, we bought an edition of the Authorised Version of the Bible (North Hatfield: Pennyroyal Press, 1999, shelfmark: FB.l.281), with 235 engravings by Barry Moser; this could be seen as the last great private press book of the 20th century.

It is not always easy to retrieve private press books from the online catalogue, as many records do not contain details of publishers. We are currently working on a system of bringing together the private press books that are scattered throughout the collections into new shelfmarks.

Further reading

  • Cave, Roderick. 'The Private Press'. London: Faber & Faber, 1971 (shelfmark: SU.37 (shelved at D.1 Cav))


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