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Barbarian Press
Press Update:
December 2020

Wood engraving by John DePol
(from Utile Dulci: The First Decade at Barbarian Press, 1992)

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Press News Autumn 2020

Jan Elsted writes:


The summer of 2020 marks the final, if prolonged, stage in the long journey toward publication of the Barbarian Press tribute to the ornamental typography of the Curwen Press. The book is in production, and pages of the essay by David Jury are rolling off the press day by day. Photographs of a few of these included below show how Crispin’s design and typography are unfolding. Many pages have second or third colour initials, borders, or original type flowers. As the book progresses, more colour and elaborate border ornamentation will appear, especially as Crispin’s essay traces the development of printer’s flowers and the Curwen Press’ distinctive use of ornaments and borders. The book’s contents have been essentially established from the inception of this project, but the details are now clearer and may be confirmed with greater confidence now that the work of setting and printing has begun.

Bordering on the Sublime will examine the ornamental typography 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 & 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 Europe from the turn of the twentieth century to the period between the wars, reviews the history of the Curwen Press, its place in British design, its influence, and its importance, with 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.

I am looking forward, perhaps with a little trepidation, to the challenges the printing of the book will offer. As the work progresses, and the ornaments and designs discussed become more complex, the intricacies of lock-up, make-ready, and registration — especially registration of the magnificent two-colour borders created by Bert Smith — loom ahead as tests to be faced and conquered.

The book will include three appendices. The first will 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 Curwen Press. It will be available in three states. For a more complete description, please see this page.


It is with a certain sadness that we are saying goodbye to two old friends in the pressroom. Our Chandler and Price vertical platen presses will make room for a Heidelberg Red Ball Platen Press. The Heidelberg is Apollonia’s press of choice, and one came up for sale in Vancouver when David Clifford of Blackstone Press decided that after more than 60 years of printing it was time to retire. David keeps his shop and equipment in immaculate condition, so the Red Ball comes to us as pristine as the day in 1968 when it came from the factory. Apollonia will be its sole operator — as she is the only one of us who knows how to run it — and will be able to print page sizes up to 10" x 15" at greater speed in larger quantities. We foresee the possibility of small chap books and ephemera being created alongside our more expansive book projects.

The older of the C&Ps, dated 1907, and with a platen size of 12" x 18", was the first of our automated presses, purchased in the early 80s when we realized our vision of printing exclusively on our Albion and Imperial handpresses was unrealistic if we wished to make Barbarian Press the source of our livelihood. We affectionately christened her ‘Blunderbess’, because of the clanking, thunking sounds she made in action, and went on to use her as the workhorse of our pressroom for several years. Periodically, a bolt would work loose and I would reattach it with an elastic; in typical Barbarian fashion, we didn’t get around to finding a bolt and nut that would remain firm for years. We had become rather fond of the Heath Robinson character of this repair. We printed the texts of several of our early books on her, among them A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, as well as many of the wood engravings for Endgrain: Contemporary Wood Engraving in North America. Bess also produced thousands of business cards, letterheads, invitations, bookmarks, and other items of job printing. For a number of years we printed runs of 50,000 to 75,000 bookmarks every spring and Christmas, sometimes in two colours, for Duthie Books in Vancouver. Hour upon hour, often well into the night, Bess would be clanking away as one of us hand-fed the four-up sheets of cardstock into the lay pins.

Several years later ‘Sophie,’ a New Style C&P, arrived, the gift of friends in Seattle. She was newer (post WWII) and larger (14.5" x 22", the largest press Chandler & Price ever built) and she was in fine condition. Once she was in place in the pressroom, we fitted her with a variable speed motor and had an overhead track built to carry the heavy full chase from the composing stone to the press where it could be lowered into position by means of a pulley. Bess has one speed — fast — and necessitates very quick fingers to get paper in and out of the press; Sophie may be run as slowly as necessary or revved up to a blinding speed that threatens to lift it into orbit (an option we never tried). Her main claim to fame is that I printed most of the engravings for Endgrain and the first two Endgrain Editions on her. Prodigious amounts of make-ready on the platen were needed to achieve the desired balance between dark and light in the wood blocks, but the final effect could be luminous.

As the years — and I as chief printer — wore on, standing at either of the C&Ps for hours on end and lifting chases in and out became increasingly difficult. The purchase of a Vandercook Universal I cylinder press, and then a few years later, a Universal III with its automated delivery system, shifted the vertical platen presses into a secondary role in the pressroom, used when larger runs of ephemera or job work needed to be done. Most recently, Apollonia returned to Bess to print thousands of Christmas cards and notecards, intended to display ornamented borders in anticipation of Bordering on the Sublime beginning production this year. She flipped cards in and out of Bess with youthful zest and flying fingers.

While the cylinder presses have made printing more straightforward, and certainly less physically demanding, they do not possess the character of Bess and her companion, Sophie. Neither has been named or loved. Beyond our feeling of sentimental attachment to the ‘old girls,’ I miss the ease and precision with which the finest make-ready can be done on a platen press, especially for wood engravings. Practicality has trumped sentiment, but we will bid a fond and grateful farewell to Bess and Sophie when they are lifted out of their Barbarian home in mid-September; we will likely even shed a tear or two.

Thankfully, this is not a last farewell: there is a happy conclusion. Both the presses are going to friends in the area who will require instruction and assistance as they begin their relationships with our two old workhorses.



In early September, in the midst of a flurry of reorganizing the pressroom prior to the big press move, calamity struck. As I was coming out of the pressroom with my arms loaded with detritus, I stumbled, turned my right foot over, and fell gradually to the ground. I had broken the fifth metatarsal in my foot. The prognosis was not too bad: the break was minor and should heal on its own within six weeks. I was consigned to sitting with my foot elevated for as much as possible through the long, frustrating weeks. I watched the drama of the departure of Bess and Sophie from a chair placed on the road with a view to the heart-stopping swinging of the presses as they were loaded onto a flatdeck truck. By mid-October I was feeling sufficiently better that I returned to the pressroom to continue printing the Curwen book. This was a mistake. An x-ray revealed that the bone had not healed, and now in late December I await news from an orthopedic surgeon about the likelihood of surgery in the new year. But this was not all . . .

Crispin had not been feeling up to snuff all summer, and as September rolled around, he had increasingly frequent bouts of dizziness and even black-outs. His doctor suspected a heart problem. In early October, when he failed a stress test miserably, the cardiologist recommended he remain in hospital while he waited in the queue for a pacemaker. It was a relief to us all that a solution was in sight, and that in the meantime he could be cared for in the safety of ICU. Within ten days he had his pacemaker inserted, and his heart began to tick over with a regularity he had not experienced for many years. He was forbidden from playing squash, chopping wood, or hitting a bucket of golf balls for six weeks while the incision healed — hardly a deprivation for Crispin, as he has no interest in sports, although he enjoyed chopping wood in younger days. Now, as Christmas nears, he is a new man, with more energy than he has known in recent memory. As I write, he is the pressroom, composing stick in hand, setting a previously unpublished short story by Canadian writer, Carol Shields, commissioned by the University of Winnipeg as a fundraiser for its writing program. Apollonia will be printing it as a first assignment for her newly acquired Heidelberg early in the new year.

How does all this affect our grand plans for the press? Well, sadly, my ailing foot will slow down the printing of Bordering on the Sublime; however, Crispin is carrying on with composing the text. With my foot encased in an air cast boot, I expect I will be able to hobble out to the pressroom from time to time in the new year to assist Apollonia in carrying on with the printing. She will be well occupied with the Shields commission in January while continuing printing Sudden Immobility, our selected edition of Molly Holden’s poems. Crispin will take on more of the typesetting of the Holden book to free her up for printing. I, meanwhile, will cheer from the sidelines, and perhaps occasionally run a few sheets through the automated return Universal III Vandercook.

Given the much greater woe suffered by so many as a result of the coronavirus, we count ourselves fortunate to be working together still in loving comradeship — however temporarily limited by circumstances — and looking forward to a Christmas together in our little village of four.


In the summer of 2019, the construction of a septic field for Apollonia and Andrew’s new house necessitated some cutting back of the woods adjacent to the north end of the pressroom. As the jungle of salmon berries and weeds was pulled away from the building, a problem was revealed: rot had damaged the sills of all three windows and parts of the wall. Thanks to the advance installments for Bordering on the Sublime supplied by subscribers, we had sufficient funds in reserve to replace the windows in November with larger ones. The result is a gleaming new face: light fills that end of the room where the new Heidelberg and Crispin’s alcove for setting Curwen borders and ornaments sit. The picture below captures the luminous interior from the outside one autumn evening.

Pax et bonum
Jan and Crispin