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Wood engraving by Edwina Ellis
(from A Christmas Carol, 1984)

Musick in partes
Songs & Poems from Shakespeare’s Plays
Spring 2017

Bordering on the Sublime
Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press.
Autumn 2018

Cover scan

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for additional images

Bordering on the Sublime:
Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press

by David Jury & Crispin Elsted

ESTIMATED PUBLICation date:
Autumn 2018

In the spring of 2009 we were enabled, through great good fortune and the generosity of many of our subscribers, to acquire the Curwen Press archives of Monotype ornaments & borders, comprising hundreds of pounds of new flowers in case and in packets from the foundry, with scores of borders composed and, once printed, tied up, wrapped, & stored for future use.

The Curwen Press was arguably the best trade letterpress printing office in Great Britain for the better part of the 20th century. Their book design and presswork were unexcelled. They employed some of the finest British artists & illustrators of the time – John Piper, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, and Claud Lovat Fraser, to name a few – and their jobbing work set standards which still hold today. Their clients included the Arts Council of Great Britain, the British Transport Commission, and the Double Crown Club.

A significant element in their work was the use of ornaments & borders, often printed in two or three colours. These are exemplars of ornamental typography, and they were nearly all created by one man – Bert Smith, who worked at Curwen from 1924 until his retirement in 1964. Mr Smith showed an endless facility and astonishing invention in creating these borders, apparently setting them in a stick and composing them across their width, as one might weave a tapestry.

As one might imagine, trying to trace someone of such a common name is daunting, but we have made some progress, largely through the Curwen collection at Cambridge University, which yielded some photographs, and we are hoping to discover more: there are a few people still available for conversation who worked at Curwen and might have known Bert Smith. The search continues.

Bordering on the Sublime will examine this part of the Curwen Press legacy, reprinting those original borders which remain standing, recomposing, if possible, some of those which were distributed, and showing examples of other decorative elements such as spots and swelled rules which were intended to accompany the borders. In two texts, British typographer and printing historian David Jury (author of Letterpress: The Allure of the Handmade and Graphic Design before Graphic Designers) and Crispin Elsted will discuss the state of graphic design and printing in England and on the continent between the wars, and review the Curwen’s history, its place in British design, its influence, & its importance, with special reference to its use of ornament. There will be a discussion of the use of historical ornaments (and of some modern creations) in the nearly a century since the Monotype revival, notes on significant examples of their use by various presses and designers, some reflections on the techniques & typographical decisions required in their use, and a bibliography of books which discuss and display printers’ flowers. In addition to all this, there will be three appendices. The first will concern the use of ornaments pre-1900, with some discussion of their varying styles. The second will comprise a reprint of a pamphlet called ‘A Grammar of Type Ornament’ published by The Monotype Recorder in 1960. The third will document the make-up of each border in the book by printing, in black, a single example of each of the ornaments used in each border, keyed to the page on which that border appears; this will allow those who are unused to looking at typographical ornament to see more clearly how these small decorative elements combine to create their effects.

The book will of course be lavishly illustrated with multi-colour borders, as well as with photographs of original proofs and other work from the press.

We plan to issue Bordering on the Sublime: Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press in three states. Please note, however, that the prices given here are only estimates, and will probably rise: costs of paper, binding materials (the bindings are not yet designed), labour, and type are rising constantly, and the pricing of books this far in advance is problematic under such pressures. We have also slightly modified the number of copies of the A and B states. (Copies of the A state are already fully subscribed.) A subsequent posting will update these things. However, the present estimations of the three states of the book are as follows:

A. 50 copies. Fully subscribed. Quarter leather & decorated paper, with many borders accompanying the text, some folding out, and a photographic essay showing marked-up proofs, some of the formes made up for printing, details of the printing process, historical photographs, and other Curwen work. With appendices including a facsimile reprinting of ‘A Grammar of Typographical Ornament’ by Sarah Clutton, first published in The Monotype Recorder, notes identifying the individual ornaments used in each border in the book, and a selected checklist of books on typographical ornaments. Accompanied by a portfolio containing all the oversized borders, several new borders created for this book, + one original Curwen proof. Typographical frontispiece. Boxed.
PRICE: Approximately C$3,000, SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

B. About 50 copies. As above, but Quarter cloth, with portfolio containing a selection of the oversized proofs, but without the original borders & Curwen proof. Slipcased.
PRICE: Approximately C$2,000, SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

C. About 60 copies. Book as in B. Photographic frontispiece. Slipcased.
PRICE: Approximately C$850, SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

RESERVATIONS are RECOMMENDED. Visit our Ordering page to order this title.