… jewel like illustrations & quixotic ideals …
One of the most important private presses of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Essex House Press was part of the Guild of Handicraft from 1898 when CR Ashbee bought the Kelmscott Presses from William Morris‘ Estate – three staff: the compositors, Binning and Tippet, and the pressman Mowlem followed.
The collection at Court Barn consists almost entirely of the copies which Ashbee set aside for himself and this current exhibition features the Great Poems of the Language series and The Essex House Song Book.
The Great Poems series of fourteen volumes was printed on vellum. Initial letters and the frontispiece were hand coloured and between 50 and 125 of each were printed. Every book was also bound in vellum with stamped with a rose and the words : Soul is Form (from Spenser’s An Hymn in Honour of Beauty). They are gorgeous objects but not cheap to buy at 2 or 3 guineas a piece. Highlighting the familiar Arts and Crafts quixotic dilemma of beautiful objects priced for the wealthy middle classes rather than an “art for all” approach. Without diving down an economic rabbit hole, I reckon a junior clerk would probably earn a guinea a week – making these books about £1000 -£2000 in today’s prices.
The other half of the exhibition features The Essex House Song Book highlighting another facet of the company’s idealistic, and pedagogic, attitudes. The book was meant to teach the Guildsmen uplifting and worthy songs to foster community spirit and ideals of craftsmanship rather than “Lodder’s rendering of High-tiddleti-i-ti (which) represented the depths of public house vulgarity” according to Janet Ashbee. I can understand their thoughtful, idealistic aims wrapped in wonderful vellum but part of me hankers after the High-tiddleti-i-ti …
Illustrations: John Keats, The Eve of St Agnes (1900) and John Milton, Comus (1902). Both frontispieces by Reginald Savage (1862-1937). Janet Ashbee(ed.), The Essex House Song Book (1903-5) Endeavour type.
The Essex House Press: Poetry and music exhibition is running until Sunday 24 March 2019. So, if you are in the North Cotswolds, do check out this wonderful little Arts and Crafts museum in Chipping Campden. The exhibition runs until July 9 and the Court Barn’s website for further information is here.