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Barbarian Press
About the Press

From a drawing
by Louis Turpin

The Press

A few words about Barbarian Press

By Crispin and Jan Elsted

We founded Barbarian Press in Boughton Monchelsea, Kent, in 1977, having conceived a love for beautifully printed books and a determination to see what we could do ourselves in that line. We were trained in letterpress printing by Graham Williams at the Florin Press, and in 1978 we returned to Canada with presses and type and established the press on five wooded acres in Steelhead, British Columbia, near Mission, about 50 miles east of Vancouver in the Fraser Valley.

Initially the press occupied an old shed on the property, but in 1988 leaking roofs, collapsing floors and overcrowding forced a change, and the barn was converted into a 1,000 square foot shop containing a pressroom and composing room. Barbarian Press is a full-time operation for both of us. Publication decisions and editing are shared, but generally the design and typesetting are done by Crispin, and the presswork by Jan. Initially the type for the books was entirely set by hand, but in the last few years we have occasionally bought in composition as a means of increasing our holdings of type. In 1996 we acquired a hand bindery which is housed in a wing off the main shop, and some of the binding is now done at the press, although most is still contracted out. The first book bound in-house was the 1996 publication Rufinus: The Complete Poems, which won the Alcuin Society Citation for Excellence in Book Design in Canada. Inishbream, a novella by Theresa Kishkan with wood engravings by John DePol, was published in 1999, and the binding of the regular and deluxe states of that edition were both carried out at the press under the direction of the award-winning Québecois binder Hélène Francœur. Other titles, among them 21 Small Songs, Gallipoli, the portfolio Under Strange Sail, and the components of The Seasons have also been produced here, but most of our binding now is done by Alanna Simenson at The Mad Hatter Bookbinding Company in Sooke, B.C.

Barbarian Press remains an entirely letterpress operation. Our ten presses include three 19th century handpresses – a super royal Albion (1850), a foolscap folio Barrett Albion (1833), and a foolscap folio Sherwin & Cope Imperial (1854) – two Chandler & Price vertical platens, Vandercook Universal One and Universal III horizontal cylinder proof presses, a 12 by 8 Craftsman press, and the two Adana 8 by 5 tabletop presses with which we began the press, and which we still use for labels, cards and envelopes on occasion. The range of typefaces at the press includes a number of favoured text faces – Bembo, Joanna, Van Dijck, Poliphilus & Blado, Garamond, and Cancelleresca Bastarda – and a large and growing collection of titling and display faces. The press also holds a significant collection of type flowers and ornaments, including the entire Monotype ornament collection of the Curwen Press.

Our aims have not substantially altered since we founded the press: to publish poetry, translations, classics, and belles lettres in a style which both glorifies the text and reveals it to the reader with a minimum of interference. To these we have added an important interest in wood engraving, which began in 1984 with our commissioning Edwina Ellis to illustrate A Christmas Carol, or, The Miser’s Warning, a pirated play based on Dickens’ story and first produced in 1844. This was followed by a companion volume of The Chimes in a dramatic form approved by Dickens, and in 1995 we published Endgrain: Contemporary Wood Engraving in North America, a survey of 121 engravers, which Simon Brett called ‘a major achievement, a milestone in the documentation of wood engraving’.

Most of the press’s books now include wood engraved illustrations, and in May 2000 there appeared the first in a planned series of Endgrain Editions, each devoted to the work of a single engraver, which has now reached four volumes, with several more planned.

Over the years Barbarian Press has also acquired a reputation as a teaching press, reflecting our determination to help keep the crafts of hand setting and printing alive and to pass them on. A number of people have worked with us as apprentice/interns for varying periods of time. Every June for some years, under the auspices of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild, we offered a six-day intensive workshop at the press, introducing participants to the basics of letterpress design and printing, salted with talks on the history of the book and informal discussions of book design and printing. Unfortunately the pressures of work and age have forced us to stop this, although we sometimes have people come to the press for informal workshops of a few days, or to work with us regularly one or two days at a time over a period of weeks. Several of these participants have gone on to set up their own presses, or to develop the work they were already embarked upon, often as binders or papermakers, in the direction of printing and publishing. This dissemination of experience and interest continues to be important to us.

While we don’t, by any means, eschew light experimental touches – non-adhesive bindings, mono-printed cover papers and so on – the press’s style is relatively conservative. Unlike those of many printers of fine books, our backgrounds are in literary studies and writing rather than graphic and studio arts, and we make our books to be read, not merely looked at. We feel that nothing should come between the text and the reader, and it is our view that typography should have, in Robert Bringhurst’s phrase, ‘a statuesque transparency’: like good film music, the best typography is effective to the degree that it is unobtrusive – supporting, not supplanting, the principal experience of the reader. Private press printing is a craft, not an art. The design and making of beautiful books is only secondarily a matter of self-expression; its first excellence is to serve the author and the reader.