Archive for January, 2011

A mention of A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Henry Hébert, author of the Work of the Hand blog wrote a fantastic summary of A History of English Craft Bookbinding TechniqueOak Knoll’s publication, A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique by Bernard C. Middleton. He provides brief descriptions of the chapters and includes some of his favorite images from the book. Thanks so much for mentioning our book, Henry! Click here to read what he had to say.

An excerpt from Nineteenth-Century American Designers & Engravers of Type

January 28, 2011 1 comment

Nineteenth-Century American Designers and Engravers of Type, edited by Alastair M. Johnson and Stephen O. Saxe, was originally written by William E. Loy, a man who knew many of the designers and engravers of type himself. He presents biographies and the behind-the-scenes stories of many of these designers. Check out this excerpt from the book, describing the careers of two designers Alexander Phemister and Alexander Kay, significant influences on the history of typeface design.

Alexander Phemister, the subject of this sketch, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1829. As a mere lad he showed unusual aptitude for designing letters. He naturally became interested in printing types, and at an early age bound himself as an apprentice to William Grandison, Edinburgh, a famous punch cutter. Graduating at the age of twenty-three, Mr. Phemister’s work immediately attracted the attention of Messrs. Miller & Richard, the Scotch type founders, and while in their employ he cut several series of romans, so advancing the style of body-type faces as to make this house famous with English publishers. In 1861 he came to the United States, and after two years with George Bruce’s Son & Co., where he designed and cut several notable romans, he entered the employment of the Dickinson Type Foundry, Boston, later becoming a partner. Mr. Phemister retired from business in 1891, when the Dickinson was merged into the American Type Founders’ Company, and died at his residence, Chelsea, Massachusetts, October, 1894, after a long and painful illness resulting from close application to the details of his work.

It is difficult, at this time, to properly review Mr. Phemister’s labors in type founding. He was one of the few punch cutters of the day who designed and cut his alphabets. His taste was exquisite, and his workmanship the finest; when a letter left his hand it was beautifully perfected, and rarely criticised. No cutter since Caslon has had such influence upon roman letters, or whose work is so admirable in shapes and finish. He cut few job faces, but those he did originate (black letters, scripts, italics, etc.), are of the best, and remain standards of their class. In romans his work includes the Modern Old Styles, brought out by Miller & Richard, and later cut, with modifications, for the Dickinson, under the name of Franklin Old Style. Then followed the Wilson, the Standard, the Riverside, the Full-Grown, and innumerable other series, Mr. Phemister being a rapid and voluminous producer. One bold task he assumed in his prime was a small pica font for the Cambridge University Press. He designed and cut the entire alphabet, driving a punch as soon as it was cut, with the matrix fitter following closely, and the typecaster immediately behind the fitter, delivering Mr. Wilson a two-thousand-pound font within thirty days from cutting of the first punch. In the printed book bound and handed him by Mr. Wilson, Mr. Phemister first saw the proofs of his punches. It was a feat that could only be attempted by a man sure of his powers.

Mr. Phemister was of a delightful personality, with the strong, sturdy Scotch sense of integrity, helpful and considerate of others. He left a memory fragrant with good deeds and honorable living. [June 1898]

Though he is not well known today, Phemister had a significant influence on the history of typeface design. His cutting of Modern Old Style for Miller & Richard, Edinburgh, in 1860 was very successful and within ten years was copied by all the other founders. DeVinne writes: “One of the first, if not the first, of the modernized old-styles produced in this country was designed and cut in 1863 by A. C. Phemister, to the order of Phelps & Dalton [the Dickinson Type Foundery], who called the new letter the ‘Franklin face.’” One of the most popular typefaces of the twentieth century, Bookman Old Style, was derived from Phemister’s Modern Old Style. In America most of his work was for the Dickinson foundry in Boston, and in 1879 he became a partner in the foundry with G.J. Pierce, A. C. Converse, and J.W. Phinney.        – S.O.S

The ordinary reader may be impressed with the pleasing effect of the printed page when set in a certain face of type, but he cannot critically distinguish the qualities which produce this effect.

Some men are naturally gifted in this fine perception, but it may be cultivated and made keener. Of noted American cutters none have excelled and few have equaled Alexander Kay, of Philadelphia. This gentle-man was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, June 6, 1827, and after receiving a thorough education was apprenticed to a manufacturer of bookbinders’ tools. In the spring of 1850 he went to London, where he placed himself under the instruction of John Skirving, who was a well-known expert in letter-cutting on steel. Among his patrons were such prominent type founders as Henry Caslon and Vincent Figgins, of London, and Stephenson, Blake & Co., of Sheffield.

Having obtained a thorough knowledge of the art, Mr. Kay began business for himself, and was meeting with success when a tempting offer of a position was received from L. Johnson & Co., of Philadelphia. With the adventurous spirit of young manhood prompting him he accepted, and he reached his new home in November, 1854, after a very stormy ocean voyage. Mr. Kay’s connection with this well-known foundry continued for nearly forty years, until cataract practically deprived him of his sight. His time was given almost exclusively to the cutting of roman faces on steel, and a reference to the specimen book of the MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan branch of the American Type Founders Company will show the reader the skill and industry he possessed. Of faces shown in the specimen book mentioned he cut Agate Nos. 6, 7 and 16; Nonpareil Nos. 6, 8, 9, 10, 15 and 16; Minion Nos. 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15 and 16; Brevier Nos. 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15 and 16; Bourgeois Nos. 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15; Long Primer Nos. 9, 12, 13 and 15; Small Pica Nos. 9, 10 and 12; Pica, Nos. 9 and 13. The foregoing romans with their italics constitute the work of an ordinary lifetime, but he cut, besides, the Binny Old Style in nonpareil, minion, brevier, bourgeois and long primer, and the ever-popular Ronaldson Old Style in nonpareil, minion, brevier, bourgeois, long primer, small pica and pica. Mr. Kay considers the Ronaldson his masterpiece, and if one can judge from its un-precedented sale and the promptness with which it was copied by other type foundries, he is undoubtedly right.

As before stated, Mr. Kay’s work has been chiefly romans, old styles and their italics, but the few series of display faces are all characterized by the same careful treatment. In the same specimen book one may see his Title No. 2 in six sizes, Ronaldson Clarendon, Ronaldson Title Slope, Old Style Title, Caslon’s Anglo-Saxon, the latter in five sizes. He also cut Script No. 2 in English, great primer and two-line pica. The only series cut by him which may be classed as ornamental is Lithographic Slope, cut on steel, in six sizes from brevier to two-line small pica. The only work in soft metal, such as is now generally used by type engravers, is the old but beautiful “check lines.”

Like most cutters on steel, Mr. Kay lays no claims to designing; yet the proper proportioning and forming of the roman alphabet calls for a skill which would be of the highest quality were it developed in combination with a study of ornament. He has combined with his punch cutting the engraving of dies for minting coins, and for several years he did most of this work for the Philadelphia mint.

Mr. Kay still lives in Philadelphia, an old man, it is true, but enjoying the fruits of a well-spent life. Although denied the privilege of close study of type faces by reason of his defective sight, he has not lost interest in his art, and is as enthusiastic as when, a young artisan, he came to the country of his adoption.[September 1898]

Click here to find out how you can read more stories about these designers and engravers of type.

Celebration for Oak Knoll author Gerald Cloud

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a celebration of the publication of Gerald Cloud’s John Rodker’s Ovid Press at the Grolier Club in New York City. It was an enjoyable evening of book talk, anecdotes, and of course, wine! Gerald shared how he chose Rodker as the topic of his dissertation, a great story that we hope he will share on this blog sometime soon.

Gerald also signed some copies of his book at the event, and three signed copies are still available on a first-come, first-served basis. If you are interested in purchasing one, please email

As Gerald is a graduate of the University of Delaware, UDaily published a nice write-up of the event here. Copies of the book can be purchased on our website here.

– Laura Williams, Publishing Director

An excerpt from John Fuller and the Sycamore Press

January 20, 2011 Leave a comment

In John Fuller and the Sycamore Press, Ryan Roberts interviews publisher John Fuller to find out more details of his press. As Ryan explains, meeting in Fuller’s home in Oxford, the conversation was casual, an enjoyable time to learn the facts of the press straight from the publisher himself. Check out a few of the questions and answers from the interview.

Roberts: So what determined, for the broadsheets, the number to be printed?

Fuller: I suppose we were influenced by the thought that with certain poets we could, in theory, sell a lot of copies. In other cases, I think we just went crazy when printing and there was more daylight than we thought and the paper was there and we just sort of went on for longer doing it. I think that was true of John FullerBernard Bergonzi’s. We had printed a vast number. I seem to remember that it was purely accidental — just a sort of burst of energy. Because when you’re actually out there doing it — there’s the paper, it’s all inked up — you go on doing it as long as you can, until it gets dark. And you want to print them all in one day. So 200 copies is a fair number, but if it’s all going well you can get through many more. The thing goes ‘thwump, thwump, thwump’, and if you’re hand-feeding the paper in regularly and you don’t have to keep stopping for disasters you can get many more done. I think on certain days we found ourselves printing more than we really should have done. I think that’s the answer. It’s pretty arbitrary, actually. It’s to do with printing conditions and whether things have gone wrong or whether the daylight continued long enough for us to print. Not very serious reasons. How many did we do of Thom Gunn — 500? I must have thought, ‘This is Thom Gunn. I can surely sell 500.’

Roberts: And here we come to James Fenton’s Put Thou Thy Tears Into My Bottle.

Fuller: This is the one I misprinted the title. He didn’t seem to mind. I had some theological explanation for sticking with it, quite apart from the laziness in order to reprint the whole thing entirely, having done it. I think we could just draw a veil over that. No doubt if you don’t say anything about it being an error it will become a sort of postmodernist twist on the biblical text by James himself whenever somebody writes up his work. [Turns to Anthony Furnivall’s pamphlet] And then our attempt to print music. He was, I think, an organ scholar at Magdalen. I can’t remember exactly how I decided to print his song.

Roberts: So how did you go about setting the music for this?

Fuller: I used… you know that stuff, which in England is called Letraset, where you rub letters from a sheet? It’s got a slightly sticky back and when you rub it like a transfer the letter comes off. You can get ordinary fonts and John Fulleryou can get a sheet with musical symbols. I got staved paper, Letraset musical symbols, did a score and had a zinc-lined block made from it through a printer. I did the circular staves, by the way, with a pair of compasses. Quite tricky to do them neatly enough to reproduce, and then did the letters around. [Checks ledger book] There is an acute on Mallarmé, obviously, but I wouldn’t have been able to do that on my type. I certainly wouldn’t have done an accent on a little bit of type in the way that I described for the Larkin poem. Furnivall just set this Mallarmé poem, and I was rather intrigued by the challenge of publishing music. It just seemed an interesting technical challenge. And it was, really, because normally music is quite big — you prop it up on the piano and look at it from a distance. That was the largest size I could do getting those blocks into my forme, which is quite small. I seem to remember that the blocks filled out the entire forme.

Roberts: And then there are the Nemos … I’m considering separating them out from the rest of the bibliography, perhaps under a miscellaneous category.

Fuller: I think that in the sort of technical bibliographical sense it was just another of my activities that I brought under the umbrella of the press in order to help to market it. I think I thought I was simply going to account for it in the ledger as though I were publishing it, that I would include it for accounting purposes in case I was ever going to have to pay tax. In at least one instance, I ran out and photocopied some more. [Consults ledger] Yes, Truexpress — I must have taken my last copy along and had them do some sheets from it.

Roberts: So Standard Press would have done the original, but Truexpress would have handled the copies?

Fuller: Truexpress was just a little local print shop that would John Fuller & the Sycamore Presshave given me something I could bind myself. I must have had a cover block made of the whole of the typographical cover of the Standard Press edition, just for convenience. And then I printed it on this yellow Glastonbury where I obviously had an awful lot of it as I’d used it often. So that was in 1973 that the press itself would have printed off the covers. I think Nemo’s presence in the ledger was just a sort of accounting thing. I sort of associated Nemo with the press, because I was doing the publicity postcards and it was something I was doing…

Click here to see how you can learn more about John Fuller and his Sycamore Press.

Oak Knoll author, Ryan Roberts, tells his story

January 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Read the first post in our new series of blogs, where Oak Knoll authors take us through their experiences in their field and as an author. In this post, Ryan Roberts, author of John Fuller & the Sycamore Press, explains what sparked his interest in publisher John Fuller and how he used his interest to create his first book.

John Fuller & the Sycamore Press: A Bibliographic History developed from my interest in the works of the British poet James Fenton. Since 2005, I have maintained Fenton’s official website at, a privilege that arose from my experiences managing the official websites of Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. As I compiled information to post on James’s website, I noticed his earliest works were published by John Fuller’s Sycamore Press. Fuller had been Fenton’s tutor for his first two terms at Magdalen College, Oxford, and the two remain close friends.  As I looked more deeply into the press’s output, I became intrigued by the scope of its production and became greatly impressed by Fuller’s keen knack for promoting young, exceptional writers, including Mick Imlah, Alan Hollinghurst, Elise Paschen, Fenton, and others.

James soon put me in touch with John Fuller and served as our host when my wife and I visited Oxford in June 2006, making sure to arrange lunch at John’s house so that bibliographer and subject could be properly introduced. I fondly remember that first visit — talking with John after lunch, my wife trying elderberry liquor for the first time, and the thrill I felt as John returned from the other room with a small stack of Sycamore pamphlets and his Sycamore Press ledger book for us to examine. He kept meticulous notes about his press work, including the cost of all supplies (paper, linen string for the sewn bindings, number of envelopes purchased, etc.) and, most importantly, the number of items produced and the date of publication. John graciously allowed me to keep the pamphlets, including some ephemeral off-prints, and borrow the ledger book to aid my research.

A collection of pamphlets published by the Sycamore Press

I returned to Oxford in early April 2007, and spent five days with the Sycamore Press archive, which John had organized in preparation for the Bodleian Library’s eventual acquisition. I again visited John to go through a draft of the bibliography and to discuss his work with the press. I recorded our conversation as a way of documenting details and notes about specific publications, only later deciding it might well serve as an interesting addition to the book itself. John’s recollection of details about the printing process for specific works was remarkable, and I hope the conversation reads not as a formal interview, but as a generous and open sharing of memories from the printer himself.

When I first conceived of the Sycamore Press bibliography, I remember talking it through with my wife on one of our evening walks: “In addition to a bibliography of the press’s output, wouldn’t it be nice to also have contributions from some of the authors about their experiences being edited and published by Fuller? A piece by James, for instance, or Alan Hollinghurst?” With this in mind, I wrote to as many Sycamore Press authors as possible and, in time, received replies from nearly everyone, which says a lot about how much the authors admire John’s work. The author contributions soon became more interesting than the bibliography itself, which is why they receive such prominence in the book. As I suspected, they show John Fuller to be a marvelous editor and judge of quality writing, and, especially for the younger poets, reveal the importance of his encouragement of their work.

Click here for more information on how to order Ryan Robert’s book, John Fuller & the Sycamore Press. After all, even Ryan’s son knows a good book when he sees one!

Keil Roberts with his father's book

Keil Roberts with his father's book


An excerpt from Bookbinding & Conservation: A Sixty-Year Odyssey of Art and Craft

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

With the new year, we have added a new section to our blog. Similar to our blog entries containing excerpts from Bob Fleck’s book, Books about Books, we will be posting small sections from various Oak Knoll publications.

Our first entry is from Bookbinding & Conservation: A Sixty-Year Odyssey of Art and Craft by Don Etherington. Read about how Mr. Etherington first developed his skills in bookbinding.

In preparation for my interviews at the Central School the three crafts I felt would interesting to pursue were jewelry, engraving, and bookbinding. These courses lasted for three years and combined academic classes with the craft sessions. Bookbinding was actually my preferred choice at that time, though I have never really discovered why. In preparing a small portfolio of work for these interviews I had designed a complete alphabet of floriated capitals in color, a connection I imagine to those early classes of Miss Blades in copperplate handwriting. I was excited at being given this chance to interview at the Central School and I felt very sure that I wanted to pursue a career in which I could use my hands in a creative way. I interviewed at all three departments with the head instructors, and fortunately I was accepted for one of the six places available in bookbinding. The academic classes were held in a schoolhouse near Covent Garden, one or two miles from the Central. This entailed a lot of running between the two facilities when attending both academic and craft classes on the same day.

To gain furthers skills I also attended evening classes at the Central with instructors other than the daytime teachers. My instructor in the daytime was George Frewin, who had worked as a coverer for Sangorski and Sutcliffe, one of London’s finest binderies. He is pictured in the third row behind Stanley Bray, who is holding the firm’s cat. Also teaching at Central was Fred Wood, a wonderful craftsman.


Sangorski and Sutcliffe staff, June 3, 1947 (Stanley Bray is seated in the center holding the bindery cat, and George Frewin is in the third row behind Stanley)

Our class of six was very fortunate in having these two teachers, though in the beginning we had no idea how fortunate we really were. The evening teachers included Mr. Parks and the renowned binder William Matthews, who was Deborah Evetts’ teacher. Deborah Evetts became a very well known bookbinder and conservator and worked for many years at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Only a couple of us from the day class also attended evening sessions, and I believe I was the only one of my day session classmates to enter the craft of bookbinding and continue working in that field as a career. At the same time i was at the Central School another student named Bryan Maggs was studying with William Matthews and became a very good binder in his own right. His family owned Maggs Brothers, one of the most famous rare bookshops in London. Bryan was for many years the chief librarian at the Paul Getty Collection, housed in a castle-like building near Oxford. This amazing collection includes a significant number of bindings of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, and it is where I discovered his use of the concertina guard on his bindings.

My early bindings executed at The Central School when I was fourteen

My early bindings executed at The Central School when I was fourteen

The day classes under Ferwin and Wood were very important to me in those formative years. Their emphasis on quality work and patience was planted deeply within me. One aspect of their teaching that has stayed with me all these years is the minute accuracy that was demanded in all the steps we perform in bookbinding. For example, when placing the book in the laying press prior to trimming the edges with the plough,

I always had to have one of the instructors check to see if the book was exactly parallel to the checks of the laying press. Often I would have to take the book out not once but a number of times to achieve perfection. Having to satisfy them certainly tested one’s patience. This exactness was required of every operation. At times it drove all of us crazy, but I know now that these were important lessons to learn, particularly at the age of thirteen and especially at the beginning of a career in bookbinding. Amazingly, after only the first few weeks of classes I was completely enamored with the craft, and I have never over the course of more than half a century been bored by or tired of the work. I believe to this day that my work still reflects their standards. The debt I owe them is great and their spirit is passed on to all of the students I have taught utilizing those very same principles.

The Last of the Great Swashbucklers Reviewed

January 10, 2011 Leave a comment

The Last of the Great SwashbucklersHere is a recent review of The Last of the Great Swashbucklers: A Bio-Bibliography of Rafael Sabatini by Jesse F. Knight and Stephen Darley. The book was reviewed by Cindy Vallar of Pirates and Privateers The History of Maritime Piracy.

Thank you Ms. Vallar!

Click here to see what she had to say.