My recent blog on the history of the OUP shone my focus on Dr John Fell, a 17th century scholar who did more than any [aside from Laud] to establish the reputation of that institution.
Curious to know more I pulled out another fine volume from my shelves, not seen for many years: The Oxford University Press and the Spread of Learning by Nicholas Barker [1978, mine being the 1978 reprint]. In this it is written of Peter de Walpergen that he was sourced from Holland by Fell (strictly speaking through an agent) as the latter was seeking a craftsman who could cut punches, since hitherto Fell had been purchasing the best type he could lay his hands on from Europe – see Updike, vol II, p.95.
What intrigues me is the tantalising tit-bit given by Barker about the character of de Walpergen: ‘His stay in Oxford, where he died in 1703, was punctuated by troubles, financial and other; his taste for “low company” embarrassed Fell. But he was a good engraver’ (p.18). Low company: what do those two words mask? I wish we had more.
I then turned to the magisterial volume on Fell, Morison’s John Fell: The University Press and the Fell Types, a volume I am proud to own. This is printed entirely in Fell, and was set up by hand, limited to 1000 volumes. It is simply staggering in its beauty and if you have the opportunity to purchase a copy do not hesitate: To the bibliophile it is like owning a Bugatti. [Barker says this book was published on 12 October 1967, the day after the author’s death. Morison worked 40 years on the text: ‘It is probably the last book on this scale in which the Fell types will be used throughout for the actual printing, and it marks an epoch in the Press’s life’, p. 60.]
Returning to point. Morison adds of this punch cutter: that he came to Oxford in or about 1675/76; worked in Christ Church, where Fell was Dean, and received an annual salary of £36, rising to £40. [An inexact measure sourced at random from Dr G… suggests this is equivalent to between £5000 and £1.3m in today’s terms!]
Morison notes: ‘He offended the Bishop by selling punches, which he had said he had cut on holidays, to the London type founders Head and Andrews, Fell contending that De Walpergen had no right to work for anyone but him’ (p.71). Well, proof positive he had financial worries.
Of further interest: de Walpergen may have been born in Frankfurt, while Barker adds he had travelled to the East Indies too – an impressive CV.
De Walpergen was important in giving the Press many fine founts, as shown here so, I attest, can be forgiven for a bit of ‘low life’ company from time to time. After all genius needs recreation.
Note: I did not have Moxon readily to hand when I wrote this entry last night. Having found him under a pile of other books there is some additional information about our man Walpergen. For those interested the source is: Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, Moxon, J [edited Davis, H and Carter, H], 1978. Dover Publications, New York: 376-377.
I present a piece of fiction written two years ago. On re-reading I have concerns about the ending, but I leave it without self-censorship: that is what I wrote then, so be it. This blog has made it quite clear my view on Gill and his legacy in light of sexual abuse of children, noting that most sexual abuse happens within the confines of the family unit. Gill was a serial abuser, of that there can be no doubt. [See here for a previous blog on my view of this man.]
In conversation with Eric Gill, Catholic Englishman
It is mid afternoon, that time when you push through the hours in anticipation of the end of the working day. But when you don’t work there is no relief against the empty hours. I sit alone in one of those concrete shelters on the promenade local councils were once so fond of erecting: a civic contribution to the general wellbeing of the community, a public sanctuary protected from the weather. Protected too from observation, where clandestine rendevous can be arranged. Spies, maybe, to exchange secrets (how thrilling); lovers to furtively enjoy one another (how erotic); older couples to sit silently starring out to sea, their minds blank to the inadequacy of their relationship even if their hands are joined (how melancholy). A shame then that each shelter has a sharp smell of urine and is decorated, if that’s the word, with spray can graffiti. Tags, that’s the word I was searching for. Am I losing it, my wits not as sharp, my synapses – a word I can remember having heard it on the radio this morning – not firing so easily? I am as old as Dante and, I think, my best could be behind me now.
Of the shelters along the sea front I prefer this one since it’s the furthest from town. Too far for families with young children, too distant for the old and infirm for whom this part of the coast attracts with the same hidden force a magnet does metal, and beyond the range of visitors whose time limits them to those gaudy pleasures clustered about the now abandoned and derelict pier: fish and chip shops, shell fish counters, ice cream parlours, candy floss; arcades pumping out music and bedazzling the eye with flashing lights; shops selling last year’s desirables at knockdown prices; and, amid all this trash, a pub dating to the seventeenth century and still displaying its architectural heritage for anyone caring to observe, yet preferring to hide its charms behind contemporary adornments: always-on-TVs broadcasting sport, juke boxes, ‘eat as much as you can’ buffet. These places entice and capture most of those who might choose instead to walk the mile or so to my hiding place, and for the few who do make it this far (locals exercising either themselves or their dogs, in rare cases doing both simultaneously) the sight of me brooding alone is sufficient to cause them to quicken their step, to call their pet to heel, to turn quickly in case our eyes might meet. It’s as if I carry a sign of unwelcome or there is in the air a pestilence that compels strangers to flee. Or perhaps it is just the sharp smell of urine that makes them scamper.
Yet today will be unlike every other day for today I will meet Eric. We met yesterday when our paths crossed, quite literally, at the train station though the more I think about it the less I believe it was chance. For what is chance but our laziness to recognise a pattern in all that happens in our lives. He had emerged from the footplate amid steam rising from the boiler. He was laughing and clearly in high spirits, cracking a final joke with the fireman with whom he had shared the journey. He had the demeanour of a boy and seemed to skip away from the locomotive with a lightness of foot that is without care or consequence. I watched as he adjusted his glasses, removed the cloth flat cap he was wearing, slapped it against his thigh to remove any lingering soot ash, replaced it and nodded to young couple passing just then, his eyes fixed, one might say penetrating the woman’s clothing as in his mind he began to sketch her naked. He was, after all, an artist. I think she understood for she looked behind to receive his smiling invitation. Eric, I thought, you are no different from what I imagine you to have been. As the woman’s male friend dragged her away (she complaining) his attention turned to me. ‘Are you really going to say something?’ I thought. His course was set. It was inevitable we met.
Eric Gill, he said.
You know me?
I was once a fan of yours.
I mean I was once a letter carver like you.
You made a living at it?
Then you cannot call yourself…
What are you?
What am I?
Are you deaf? What is your occupation?’
I do many things.
Any of them well?
I think so.
What? What in particular do you do well?
Isn’t that enough?
You are asking me that?
Who are you to judge?
Considering this he lit a cigarette.
I will see you tomorrow, he said and walked away.
I watched until he vanished amid a circle of dancing children.
I smell the cigarette before I see him.
You’re late, I say.
He sits close, our thighs almost touching, and crosses his legs. He wears something like a kilt and grey woollen socks come just below the knee. He adjusts them, a band behind the turndown needing to be slackened. In the burnished shine of his brown leather shoes I see clouds reflected. The cigarette smoulders at the end of a long mottled Bakelite holder. He looks out to sea then closes his eyes.
Do you believe them? he asks.
Without hesitation or reflection I answer. It is what I have waited to say.
What you did was vile. It was unconscienceable. I don’t know how you were able to live with yourself knowing you had violated your own. If then it was not a crime, today you would be sent away and, good riddance, Mr Gill.
But was it unholy? His eyes are open now.
How can you hide behind false gods?
I am off track already, my long-prepared assault on his reputation has been easily parried. It’s like he was expecting it all along, had determined to take me on at the outset without the distraction of introductions or well-mannered small talk.
My dear child, he begins. Everything we do is holy. Everything I did was promoted by that desire also to be truthful.
You fucked your own daughters, I shout.
There is no need to be vulgar. Intercourse is a beautiful partnership.
Not with your own.
Why ever not? I am surprised how orthodox you are. These taboos you speak of have been placed there by institutions keen to clamp our spirits.
I am becoming angrier. I force myself to calm down, take a moment to draw a deep breath.
Even your own fucked up religion does not tolerate incest.
Not incest, he counters, his voice rising an octave. No! It was not incest.
Then what is it?
A partnership mutually agreeable, he answers.
It sounds rehearsed as does what follows.
There was never dissent. After I had drawn and sketched her we lay together.
Then you took her every which way you liked.
I pause to allow the words find their level, attach to memories I sense are flooding his mind.
You took her and you knew she would never protest, call out, scream, tell her mother.
Mary knew, he says and his eyelids close.
Open them, I shout.
I stare at him. He focuses on mine, his glasses now reflecting the shit grey sea. Way above us a seagull cries. There is almost a thin smile of triumph moving across his face. I want to hit him but he is a shade from another place so my words must do duty.
I hesitate. I have long thought of this moment, triumphant in my moral justification, imagining him squirming at the end of a well placed, one might say clinical demonstration of reasoned judgement. I had considered my words, prepared a mental script. I was incisive in my preparations. I’d make him seek mercy as the magnitude of his sins were revealed. But now with him here by me I cannot. My mind is blank. Everything has been deleted. This man is Eric Gill and I can’t continue for at another time I cherished him, loved him like my father even if he was dead. I feel I should apologise for my outburst. He leans forward, takes my right hand in both of his, pulls me closer.
Dear child, he says gently. Be angry. You are right. I did wrong. I was a bad man, a bad father, a bad husband to my wife. Know this though: What I did harmed no one. It was God’s gift.
The End – so to speak…
Books sit patiently on the shelves of our libraries – those still fortunate to have their own private library in this digital world. Sit there collecting dust and household debris [unless you also happen to employ someone to ‘bang the books’ for you], perhaps for years. Then one day an idea takes hold, you recollect a volume, have a vague idea where on the shelves it nestles. Usually our own libraries do not follow Dewey, so a Jane Austen novel might share a shelf with Ten Ways to Skin a Cat or something prosaic.
Today I delighted on Mr Middleton Murry’s The Problem of Style, a text I’ve not read fully for some 40 years when it was a High School exam piece. I’ve two editions – a cheap paperback [from memory possibly light-fingered from the school library] and a hardback edition of 1925, quite possibly a first though the paperback records earlier, 1922 to be precise. It is, however, not a booksellers delight, being ex-University of London Library, Extra-Mural Library to boot – and stoutly Cancelled by a rubber stamp in blue ink.
[For the record Mr Middleton Murry was sharing space on the shelf with none other than TE Lawrence and The Mint. No doubt both quite placidly, being contemporaries and reminiscing on glories past.]
Anyhow, I got to examining the title page noting Humphrey Milford as the Imprint and then a list of cities – shown in this image – ranging from London through to Shanghai, via Copenhagen and Madras. I got thinking. Whatever was the OUP doing in Shanghai in 1925, let alone three cities in India?
Fortunately I had the answer at hand. I re-entered the library [no need for a Readers Pass] and headed straight for the Stacks. This is where ‘important’ volumes are kept in a bookcase with doors preventing the ingress of too much of that dust and household debris – as I, alas, cannot, nor would I even if I could, have access to a ‘book banger’.
The doors opened and I immediately knew where to go. Second shelf down [for here there is some nod to Dewey and books keep rightful neighbours with whom they can consort – though some find this tedious: would not a volume on Caxton like to flirt with Gill?] I run my fingers along the line and ease out The Oxford University Press 1468-1921.
What a thrill, what rapture to open again this slim [13mm] edition that bears proudly on the Title, having swept away the tissue protection: OXFORD AT THE CLARENDON PRESS MCMXXII.
Here all the answers to my questions are displayed: ‘The Chinese Agency of the Press is at C 445 Honan Road, Shanghai, of which Mr T. Leslie is the present Representative…’; and ‘The activities of the Press in India are of a relatively recent date. Until 1912 when a branch was opened in Bombay…The increase of staff has made it possible to open a new branch in Calcutta – a sub-branch in Madras had already existed…’.
And as for The Clarendon Press. Well, that is the be all and end all – ‘By Clarendon Press Books are meant the learned, educational and other ‘Standard’ works produced under the close supervision of the Delegates and their Oxford Secretariate, and printed at Oxford’. Indeed. For Humphrey Milford [recall him?] was no more than a minion in the outskirts of the big smoke of London [then at Amen Corner, EC4], a publisher and not, for heaven’s sake, a printer in the city of Dreaming Spires.
There is more. Take this at random from the list of Oxford Medical Publications [of 1922 – not long after the Great War]: ‘…further important additions have been made, including…War Neuroses and Shell Shock by Sir Frederick Mott, K.B.E.,’
My edition contains a slip note written many years ago by an earlier hand of mine stating this volume was printed in Fell types, as noted in Updike. I quickly pulled him from the Stack – the plump two volumes being easy to find [second edition, second printing, hardback]. Here Updike confirms in a footnote (vol II, p.97) that Some Account… is indeed produced from Fell. However, I notice he refers to a 1926 edition, not that of 1922. A small detail, minute in fact, yet to a bibliophile as seismic as an earthquake in the hills of a medieval town in central Italy. [I have now amended the slip – so whosoever considers this volume in the future can rest assured of some closure.]
In closing, may I wish readers a satisfying end to this year and may sense prevail in the one to come.
The good people at Google inform us that today is the birthday of Mr Biro himself.
Five years ago I published this piece. You may like to have a read. Biro
The patent was later purchased by Mr Bich. Still going strong. I purchased these classic Bic Cristal (medium) a year or so ago in Australia. The motto: ‘Writes First Time, Every Time! Long-lasting dependability and smooth writing. Our Quality Comes In Writing!’ This set was made in Mexico. I have not tested the affirmation…
The Book Club of California has just published The Noblest Roman: A History of the Centaur Types of Bruce Rogers by Jerry Kelly and Misha Beletsky ‘an immersive dive into the history of the Centaur typeface, complete with rarely seen drawings and proofs from the Monotype archives and the Library of Congress’. Do check it out….
For more on Bruce Rogers see my post here
A good friend in the UK suggested this link to a newspaper that is still printed letterpress in the US.
Do have a look
And note that Australia still has its own letterpress newspaper. See my blog here and search for the Don Dorrigo Gazette.
No, the Quiz 2015 did not show an organ. I quite simply do not understand how no one got that this is an illustration of the Monotype Keyboard piston block. Wasn’t it obvious. Shame on you! Taken from the essential Book of Parts, dated 9/56. [Better luck next year.]