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

Sudden Immobility
Selected Poems of Molly Holden.
Summer 2021

Bordering on the Sublime
Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press.
Late 2021

Cover scan

Click on thumbnail image above
for additional images

Bordering on the Sublime:
Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press

by David Jury & Crispin Elsted

ESTIMATED PUBLICation date:
late 2021

Through great good fortune and the generosity of many of our subscribers, in the spring of 2009 we were enabled 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 composed borders which, once printed, had been 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, Enid Marx, Barnett Freedman, 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 E. 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 what little progress we can, largely through the Curwen collection at Cambridge University, which yielded some photographs. Of course we hope 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.

The text of the book is by David Jury and Crispin Elsted. British typographer and printing historian David Jury (author of Letterpress: The Allure of the Handmade and Graphic Design before Graphic Designers) discusses the state of graphic design and printing in England and on the continent between the wars, reviews the history of the Curwen Press, its place in British design, its influence, and its importance, and makes special reference to its use of ornament, providing an illuminating context for the ornamental work of Bert Smith which is at the heart of the book.

Crispin Elsted provides a discussion of the early development of printer’s flowers (as they are often called) and the use these historical ornaments were put to, before tracing the survival of the most popular and representative of these through the many distinct periods of European printing history. He will also consider the Monotype Corporation’s revival of ornaments after 1920 in tandem with its program of reviving and re-cutting classic typefaces, and discuss and give examples of new ornaments commissioned by Monotype and used at Curwen. There will be significant examples of the use of ornaments by various presses and designers, and some reflections on the techniques & typographical decisions required to use them.

The book will include three appendices. The first be an annotated bibliography of books which discuss and display printers’ flowers. The second will be a facsimile of Sarah Clutton’s article, ‘A Grammar of Type Ornament’, published by The Monotype Recorder in 1960. And the third will provide an index of 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.

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

Bordering on the Sublime: Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press will be issued in three states. Our present estimations of the three states of the book are as follows:

A. Probably 60 copies. Full stamped leather, with many borders accompanying the text, some folding out, with 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. Accompanied by a portfolio containing all the oversized borders, possibly recreations of some Curwen borders not present in type, new borders created for this book, plus one original Curwen proof. Approximately 250 pages. Boxed.
PRICE: Approximately C$4,200, SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

B. About 40 copies. As above, but quarter leathe with decorated paper, with a portfolio containing a selection of the oversized proofs, but without the original borders & Curwen proof. Slipcased.
PRICE: Approximately C$3,000, SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

C. Up to 50 copies. Book as in B, but quarter cloth binding. Slipcased.
PRICE: Approximately C$2,000, SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

PLEASE NOTE that the prices given here are only estimates, and may very well rise: costs of paper, binding materials (the bindings are not yet designed), labour, and type continue to rise, and the pricing of books this far in advance, especially books of this complexity (for example, with considerable photographic work having to be sent out of house) is problematic. We have slightly modified the number of copies of the A and B states, because of very heavy demand for the A copies, of which most copies are subscribed. However, if increasing demand for them is made apparent during the first few months of production we may be able to raise the number slightly, perhaps lowering the number of B state copies in turn.

RESERVATIONS are RECOMMENDED. Please contact the press.