December 11

Writing in bed at No. 7 Hammersmith Terrace on Sunday, this day in 1898, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson stated in his journal, “I must, before I die, create the type for to-day of ‘the Book Beautiful,’ and actualize it—paper, ink, writing, printing, ornament and binding. I will learn to write, to print and to decorate.”

Thus, at fifty-eight years of age, this proud, introvertish lawyer and fine amateur bookbinder, began to think of becoming a printer, under the direct influence of William Morris for whose Kelmscott Press Cobden-Sanderson had produced some magnificent bindings. His dream came to full fruition in the establishment of the Doves Press in1900. From it was to come during the next sixteen years a stream of books which can only be described as being inspired.

Cobden-Sanderson’s thoughts on printing are probably best known through his essay, The Ideal Book or Book Beautiful, published by the Doves Press in 1901 in which he wrote:

“The Ideal Book or Book Beautiful is a composite thing made up of many parts and may be made beautiful by the beauty of each of its parts—its literary content, its material or materials, its writing or printing, its illumination or illustration, its binding and decoration—of each of its parts in subordination to the whole which collectively they constitute: or it may be made beautiful by the supreme beauty of one or more of its parts, all the other parts subordinating or even effacing themselves for the sake of this one or more, and each in turn being capable of playing this supreme part and each in its own peculiar and characteristic way.”

As the books produced by the Doves Press were without illustration and were ornamented only with initials, they can truly be said to be almost purely typographic. Cobden-Sanderson’s statement on typography is one of the great short paragraphs on the art and should be required reading wherever designers attempt to work within the restrictions of the typographic art.

“The whole duty of Typography, as of Calligraphy,” he wrote, “is to communicate to the imagination, without loss by the way, the thought or image intended to be communicated by the Author. And the whole duty of beautiful typography is not to substitute for the beauty or interest of the thing thought and intended to be conveyed by the symbol, a beauty or interest of its own, but on the one hand, to win access for
that communication by the clearness and beauty of the vehicle, and on the other hand, to take advantage of every pause or stage in that communication to interpose some characteristic and restful beauty in its own art.”

The ideal represented by Cobden-Sanderson was honored in the Doves Press books, both in their typography and in meticulous printing, but in the words of Sir Francis Meynell, “was not, in fact, sufficiently adventurous.” There is a placidness about all of them, a feeling of perfection of detail, that in the long run is somewhat cold. Cobden-Sanderson himself became aware of this and in 1909 he told Edward Johnston that he wished that he could put up a notice on his workshop door, saying, “For God’s sake do something careless!” The Doves press continues, however, to represent the private press idea at its finest and must remain a model for everyone who aspires to produce beautiful printing.

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