August 18

Harold Curwen, proprietor of the distinguished English printing office, the Curwen Press, wrote under this date in 1920 to Oliver Simon, a recently demobilized young officer of the 53rd (Welsh) Divisional Cyclist Company:

“I think I shall get this through all right but I’ll have to speak to the whole of the Combined Chapel before you can start. They are a little shy of it till I’ve had a chance to explain that I don’t intend having a continuous string of pupils nor is there any prospect of my clearing out any of the staff as a consequence of any insight you might gain as to their qualities. . . .”

A few months earlier, when Simon, the son of a retired Manchester cotton merchant, had gone to London to seek employment he had, according to his autobiography, Printer and Playground, “. . . happened to pass Sotheran’s bookshop, then in Picadilly, where an astonishing window display of sumptuous, dazzling, richly decorated books caught my eye and arrested my steps. I felt compelled to enter and make inquiries and was told, for the first time in my life, about William Morris and the Kelmscott Press, and of the Kelmscott Chaucer in particular, which held a place of honour in the window. As I left, I knew I could abandon my vague and unenthusiastic plans to enter the cotton trade, forestry or bank: it was plain to me that I must become a printer.”

Through a chain of fortunate friendships Simon ended up at the door of the Press with the request to learn the business of printing. Curwen was successful in persuading his employees to accept the young man for a year of training. Simon was entranced with his new life as a printer. Fortunate, too, were both the Press and the cause of good printing everywhere, as Simon became a leading figure in English typography for the next forty years. Within three years Simon was a founding editor of the fine journal of typography, The Fleuron, which was a contributing force in the flowering of historical research in printing which took place between the two World Wars. In 1924 he helped to organize the Double Crown Club, the distinguished dining club composed of people intimately concerned with the arts of the book.

Simon’s next important contribution was the founding and editing of Signature, a quadrimestrial journal of typography and the graphic arts, which continued on a somewhat smaller scale the idea behind The Fleuron. First published in 1935, it ceased publication in 1940. A bomb struck the Curwen Press on October 7th, smashing all of the windows in the roof of the pressroom. Fortunately the weather was fair, as the last forms were printed under the sky. Signature for these five years set a standard which has never been surpassed by any printing periodical.

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