Books at the Limit

By Carol Grossman (Four Rivers Books, Ltd.)
Copyright © 2000 Carol Grossman.
Used with permission.

Scarcity often makes a book desirable, and it plays an important part in the definition of an entire class of collectible books: private-press or fine-press books, limited editions, livres d'artiste, and artists' books. Some believe all these limitations are artificial, but in the case of private-press or fine-press books, livres d'artiste, and artists' books, painstaking production techniques, handwork, and craftsmanship truly limit the number produced. Although it's nearly impossible to create absolute definitions that clearly differentiate one category from another, important distinctions exist and can help collectors organize their research.

Le Creation.
a livre d'artiste of the French art deco period.

Private and Public Interests Private-press books have existed since the very earliest days of printing. The urgent need to distribute political or religious ideas forbidden by government authorities gave them a somewhat rocky soil in which to grow in more turbulent times than ours. Harried printers and publishers, who often disguised themselves to prevent persecution, usually produced modest books that were not very well printed. Content, not appearance, mattered. But over the centuries private individuals, often wealthy or intensely artistic, made books for their own satisfaction rather than for the public weal. This tradition led to the most common definition of a private-press book: a book conceived, designed, and printed by an individual for himself and for his friends' amusement or education, with no regard to financial gain.

This definition has been subject to attack almost from the beginning. Some book collectors, including Horace Walpole, who set up his Strawberry Hill Press in 1757, and Sir Thomas Phillipps, who founded his Middle Hill Press in 1822, enjoyed great wealth and could afford to equip fine print shops and hire expert pressmen to run them. Other artists, such as the poet William Blake, who started producing beautiful books of his poetry in 1789, badly needed the income from their sale. A middle ground included individuals like the Reverend Charles H.O. Daniel of Oxford, who produced many charming little books with his wife and daughters. A man of moderate means, he started printing these books for his friends' enjoyment and to celebrate important family events. As demand for his work grew, he offered a number of books for sale. Both the quality of his printing and the literary value of the contents make his Daniel Press an important precursor of the twentieth-century fine-press movement.

Poems of Shakespeare,
by the Kelmscott Press, one of the first of the
classic fine presses, as well as one of the finest.


Over time financial needs largely edged out noncommercial interests. Most of the finest private presses of the twentieth century did indeed sell their books, including William Morris's Kelmscott Press, C.H. St. John Hornby's Ashendene Press, C. R. Ashbee's Essex House, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson's Doves Press, Charles Ricketts' Vale Press, the Pisarros' Eragny Press, Francis Meynell's Nonesuch Press, and the Golden Cockerel Press. Financial motivations varied: some wanted to encourage craftsmanship or support printers and binders; others sought to subsidize an expensive hobby; some hoped to turn a profit.

The traditional definition of a private press asserts that the proprietor should either personally print books or hire individuals to do so under personal supervision at the proprietor's premises. Nuances of circumstance cloud this distinction, however. What are we to make of the Vale Press, regarded as a private press by virtually everyone even though the books were printed by Charles Ricketts using a press reserved for him at the independently owned Ballantyne Press? What of the Golden Cockerel, where many books were printed under Christopher Sandford's supervision at the Chiswick Press? Where do we place the Nonesuch Press, where the books were produced to painstaking specifications drawn up by Meynell (and often with samples printed by him on a hand press) and actually printed by fine commercial presses such as the Curwen Press or Enschede en Zonen?

Eric Gill, the noted wood engraver, typographer, and book designer, once declared that the private press prints only what it wants, whereas the public (that is, commercial) press caters to what its customers want. A looser definition of the private press may prove more realistic: A private press is owned and operated by an individual or a group of individuals who have total artistic control over the book's content and appearance, and the materials and techniques used to make it. Solidly based in crafting books, the owner or owners produce volumes that please both creators and readers or collectors. While not catering to the mass market served by commercial publishers, most of these presses still need to consider the market for their books. And even though the fragility of the materials and the rarity of the books may limit readership, the medium's raison d'etre always remains: a book is to be read and to convey information. Because this definition flies in the face of many of the older definitions (one wag claims there must be a kitchen table involved in the production process for a book to be considered a private-press book), the term fine-press book becomes preferable, even though private press and fine press often are used interchangeably.

Limited Editions and Their Limits Collectors frequently encounter limited editions. A limited edition is just that--the edition of the book has a stated number of copies produced--but the definition can be slippery. Because of the limitations imposed by hand craftsmanship and the reproduction of illustrations and decorations, private-press or fine-press books almost always fall into this category as well. The expense of the book or its content often restricts its market, so a limitation is natural and reasonable. Typically, owners of private presses or fine presses print in editions of anywhere from a few dozen copies up to as many as a thousand or fifteen hundred, although most issue five hundred or fewer.

A classic American livre
d'artist -- Picasso's Lysistrata, created for
the Limited Editions Club.

A number of publishers of limited editions produce very fine books, quite a few of which can and should be considered fine-press books. George Macy's Limited Editions Club, started in 1929, is one notable example. Macy commissioned the finest book designers, presses, and illustrators to produce his books. Similarly, several commercial publishing houses, including Knopf, Random House, and England's Florence Press, produced limited editions that rank with the fine products of the private presses. They too employed fine American and English designers, illustrators, and printers to produce their books.

The collector must always bear in mind that even a small limitation does not by itself ensure collectibility. The book must have aesthetic or literary value. Many examples exist, going back to the nineteenth century, of artificial limits on the size of an edition in order to enhance the perceived collectibility of the books. Today even a casual browse through a used book store will turn up some of these limited editions, usually priced in the range of a modern reprint of the same work.

Collectors also need to exert some judgment when limitations are unduly large. When a book is touted as limited to several thousand copies or more, for instance, or when it is announced that orders will be accepted only until a certain date, it is not a limited edition in the sense that we mean it here. Such a book may well be produced in numbers similar to a commercially produced book--many commercially produced books have editions of only a few thousand copies (In some cases, because of extensive marketing, print runs of these "limited" editions may be huge.)

This type of book may indeed be desirable, but the collector needs to evaluate other components. What is the content of the book and the method of production? What materials have been used? Is it a first edition or printing? Does it contain the author's signature or a valuable inscription?

Two other publishing ventures warrant mention here. Although neither one primarily produced limited editions, the Heritage Press/Club of the United States and the Folio Society of England have issued handsome books in large editions for many years and have created a much larger audience for the book arts and design. By economic necessity they do not exhibit the handwork or the expensive materials of the other classes of books discussed here. For collectors of fine-press books, it's important to understand where these two organizations fit in the scheme of well-designed books. It can be confusing because they did produce a few limited edition books. At first glance many of their books look similar to volumes in the other categories. Those interested in collecting particular artists may find excellent examples of their work bearing these imprints.

George Macy founded the Heritage Press (and Club) to provide handsome books at a reasonable cost during the Depression. He started out with originally commissioned book design and artwork by such artists as Valenti Angelo and Arthur Szyk but later continued with reprints of his much more expensive Limited Editions Club books. A small number of some of the early works were signed and sometimes specially bound in leather. Collectors still find the earlier ones of interest and charm because of their inventive binding designs and variety of styles. Even today the Easton Press, which obtained the rights to reproduce these books, reprints them in gold-decorated bindings.

Founded in postwar England, the Folio Society got off to a wobbly start because of a severe post-war shortage of paper and other materials. Nevertheless, it found first-rate illustrators, produced well-designed books, and somehow managed to acquire reasonably good-quality paper and binding materials. These early books are very collectible. The Folio Society's strong points include consistently fine illustrations, intelligent selection of classics of English and world literature as well as a number of more obscure works of merit, and generally fine typography. Bindings sometimes have been quite creative and even whimsical; at other times they have been disappointing. Occasionally the Folio Society has issued titles in limited editions under the Folio Press name. These have included a lovely series of shorter works (1987-1991). Overall, the Folio Society has done the public a great service in providing fine books at a cost not too much above the price of common trade books. Two recently issued volumes, the fifty-year bibliography Folio 50: A Bibliography 1947-1996 and the Folio Golden Treasury, represent a Who's Who of the contemporary book-illustrating scene. The British Library celebrated the Folio Society's fiftieth anniversary with a splendid exhibit in 1997.

Revelations: An artists' book which is
also a fine press book -- the artist is
Natalie d'Arbeloff and the printer is
the Old Style Press of Wales.

Lost in the Translation Two terms that often are used interchangeably are livre d'artiste and artists' book. Although they mean the same thing in translation, they really are quite different. Livres d'artiste are books illustrated with original lithographs or other artwork commissioned explicitly for that edition. The artist rarely had much to do with the rest of the production details of the book. Artists' books, on the other hand, are totally conceived and designed, and almost always created, by the artist.

The traditional livre d'artiste was first produced in France in the nineteenth century by publishers such as Ambroise Vollard. Vollard enlisted many of the finest artists of France, including Bonnard, Renoir, and Degas, to execute illustrations for both classical literature as well as for contemporary works. These books contain exquisite examples of the graphical works of many important artists. Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Miro, Maillol, and others have created artwork for the books, most often lithographs or etchings. Typically these volumes were limited to no more than a few hundred copies. The tradition, which continues, is largely a French one although some notable books have been produced outside France, including the famous Limited Editions Club Lysistrata (Picasso) and Ulysses (Matisse). More recent examples include Limited Editions Club books such as the Three Poems (Robert Motherwell) by Octavio Paz and Maya Angelou's Our Grandmothers with lithographs by John T. Biggers; and the Arion Press's Apocalypse with woodcuts by Jim Dine and The Physiology of Taste with drawings and color lithographs by Wayne Thiebaud.

W. H. Murray. A Night on the Cuillin.:
A one-of-a-kind book with calligraphy
and watercolors on each page, as well as
the front and back cover as shown here,
executed by Nicholas Parry of the 
Tern Press in Shropshire.

Artists' books are very much an international twentieth-century phenomenon. Practitioners include Guillaume Apollinaire, Sonia Delaunay, Max Ernst, and many artists of the Italian and Russian Futurism schools. Even though artists assume almost total control over the entire conception of artists' books, some components, such as binding, may be delegated to other craftsmen. In many cases the traditional craftsmanship of the book is either ignored or challenged. Unlike the other types of books we have reviewed here, artists' books frequently question the meaning and role of the book as an art form. Often the artists hark back to the original idea of a clandestine private press and use their artistic abilities to underscore their own political or social ideas.

As a general rule, one can expect private-press or fine-press books, or livres d'artiste, to be more in the classical tradition of book design than artists' books. Although considerable creativity and artistic expression exist in the more traditional styles, they usually take place within the discipline of classical typography and book construction. However, no book artist works in a vacuum. Illustrators do take full advantage of the various media available for reproducing images: lithograph, wood engraving, mezzotint, collotype, linoleum cut, stencil, silkscreen, and so on. Papermakers experiment with different fibers for their works. Binders use new or nontraditional binding materials and alternative binding techniques, many of which are also used in artists' books. For example, Claire Van Vliet, one of America's finest book designers, produces works of art that possess elements of the classical tradition but which also experiment with new techniques. Her illustrations may be traditional woodcuts and some of her bindings are conventional but she also uses non-adhesive bindings and unusual materials such as hand-stained birch boards for binding her books.

Laura Wait. Squaring the Circle:
A recent artist's book by Laura Wait of Denver,
who has had numerous books included in national
and international juried exhibitions of artists'
books and fine bindings). The images are painted
on acrylic sheets and paper, and the binding, also
by Laura, is stained oak boards with a decorative
square of metal on the front cover, with the
signatures sewn over leather strips.


Artists' books are much more experimental. Typography becomes part of the artist's expression. This may range from the careful placement of the elements of a poem on the page, as in Prosper Mallarme's Un Coup de Des (A Throw of the Dice), to unusual arrangements of letters of various sizes and fonts as part of the design. A recent example is the Old Stile Press's Book of Revelations. Instead of the traditional signature structure, an artists' book may use elaborate foldouts or accordion folding. Bindings, if used at all, range from traditional to non-adhesive, in which the signatures of the book are sewn together with the boards without using glues. The sewing often becomes an integral part of the decoration of the book.

Although the differences that distinguish these varieties of books can help collectors organize their research, these volumes have much in common, and many book-artists create works that could be considered crossovers. Under whatever name we might choose to apply to these works, their creators engage their own artistic vision to create beautiful objects to delight and intrigue book collectors.


Further reading:

Castleman, Riva. A Century of Artists' Books. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994.
Cave, Roderick. The Private Press. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1983.
Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists' Books. New York: Granary Books, 1995.
Hogben, Carol, and Rowan Watson, eds. From Manet to Hockney: Modern Artists' Illustrated Books. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1985.
Strachan, W.J. The Artist and the Book in France. New York: G. Wittenborn, 1969.


This article originally appeared, with some differences, in Biblio Magazine.
This article is Copyright © 2000 Carol Grossman. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the author's express written permission.


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