Joseph Blumenthal, Fine Printer—Part 2

Joseph Blumenthal and Leonard Baskin

Joseph Blumenthal and Leonard Baskin

Recently I spent several hours with Joseph Blumenthal at his Connecticut hill-top home. I came away with many of my traditional typographic values intensified, and I must admit that in this respect my batteries needed recharging.

Blumenthal, one of the fine American printers of our time, has completed The Printed Book in America, a project in which he has long been interested but which had to await his retirement several years ago from running of The Spiral Press, which closed its doors after over 40 years of distinguished printing.

The demise of this fine establishment was not prompted by lack of business but was based upon the desire of its proprietor to break away from the restrictions of the operation of a successful business firm so that he could devote his remaining years to the chronicling of his greatest love, the art of the printed book.

The first instance of Blumenthal’s ability to properly record the history of the book was immediately apparent with the publication of the catalog of that great exhibition mounted by the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City in 1973.

This exhibition was the best attended showing of printed books ever put on at the Morgan, and unquestionably was a source of inspiration to everyone who took the time to view the show.

On display were those books which in the opinion of Blumenthal best represented the Art of the Printed Book, 1455–1955—the title of the 192-page catalog produced under his direction at the Stinehour Press (Lunenberg, Vt.) and the Meriden Gravure Company (Meriden, Conn.). These firms have now combined into the firm of Meriden-Stinehour and a most felicitous future is predicted for it.

As is the case in almost any exhibition, critics found fault with a number of the choices made by Blumenthal to represent the best examples of printed books over five centuries. But there was certainly, between Number 1—the Latin Vulgate Bible printed in Mainz in 1455 by Johann Gutenberg—and Number 115—Boccaccio’s The Nymphs of’ Fiesole, printed by Giovanni Mardersteig at Verona in 1952—a magnificent selection of books produced by the greatest printers.

But the overall impression these volumes gave was one of astonishing virtuosity in the production of books during every period of printing since the invention of movable type.

The splendid catalog contained illustrations of every book, which would have been reason enough for its printing, but the whole enterprise was brought together by a calm and reasoned 51-page essay, “The Great Printers and Their Books,” by which means Blumenthal justified his selections.

Those printers who feel that we Americans haven’t been recognized enough for notable contributions to fine printing will be delighted to discover that in this catalog the only man represented by as many as three books was Bruce Rogers (1870–1956). And those who agree that such an inclusion is merited will undoubtedly look forward with pleasure to Blumenthal’s forthcoming history in which he devotes some 50 pages to Bruce Rogers.

In our conversation, the author noted with enthusiasm the comment by late Sir Francis Meynell that he believed Rogers to be the finest artist of the book in the whole history of printing.

In our own time far too many exhibitions are mounted which display works produced by the jurors who make the choice, a rather dubious ethical procedure. Blumenthal did not succumb to this modern trend in which judgmanship is voided by one-upmanship. He included in the Morgan show not a single book produced by his own Spiral Press in its 40-odd years of existence, although there were several which could have shared shelf-space with many of the books exhibited. Certainly most of his friends would have nominated the splendid Ecclesiastes, illustrated by Ben Shahn, which was printed in 1965.

But his work has been honored by the Morgan. In 1966 the Library mounted an exhibition, The Spiral Press Through Four Decades, to which the printer contributed a catalog containing a lengthy account of its productions during that period. Here Blumenthal, in his closing paragraphs, sums up his credo as a printer, much as did Daniel Berkeley Updike in the last page of the second volume of Printing Types.

Blumenthal was a printer of the same scholarly attributions as Updike. At his own press he too turned out everything from bookplates to folios with the same impeccable taste as the Boston printer at the Merrymount Press. His remarks are well worth quoting at a time when there remains but a handful of printers with the same standards and dedication to first class printing.

“Fine printing,” he wrote, “is not fancy printing. It is simply (if not so simple) an articulate search for clarity. In every combination of words, in a few characters for a letterhead or in the complete manuscript for a book, there exists inherent form. In the significance of the words lies the content. It is to this that the typographic designer gives form. If the form and the content have been agreeably and imaginatively interwoven in harmonious arrangement suitable to purpose, the typographer has fulfilled his function. In his composition of type, his disposition of space, his choice of materials, his capacities for craftsmanship, and in his competence to fuse these varied elements into a clear and reposeful whole, the designer-printer discharges his duty and adds his mite to the amenities of civilization.”

A few years ago, when The Spiral Press finally closed shop, its proprietor generously allowed me to cull his files for examples of the everyday work of his shop. This material, the ephemera of a careful printer, now sorted by subject, is on file in the Typographic Composition Laboratory of the School of Printing at the Rochester Institute of Technology where it is supplying inspiration in the study of typography and will do so for a long time to come. Blumenthal is presently full of hope that the interest in fine printing as demonstrated by so many young people all over the United States will lead to rebirth of traditional standards in every phase of the craft.

Just as I completed this all-too-short tribute to a fine printer, I read in The New Yorker magazine a brief article also discussing Blumenthal’s work. In replying to a question of how he approaches a piece of work, he replied, “Craftsmanship has always been the core, and I’ve always devoted a maximum of effort to every job, big or small, profitable or not, from a book to a business card. . . .”

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the November 1977 issue of Printing Impressions.

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