June 25

The Journal of the Printing-Office at Strawberry Hill contains in its first entry, upon this day in 1757 the simple statement, ”The Press was erected. Wm. Robinson, printer.” The proprietor of the press was the English essayist Horace Walpole, younger son of the great prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole.

Walpole’s attitude to printing may be noted from a letter which he wrote to Sir Horace Mann, saying, “In short, I am turned printer, and have converted a little cottage here into a printing-office. My abbey is a perfect college or academy; I kept a painter in the house, and a printer.” Such a grand seigneur viewpoint no doubt accounted for his inability to hold on to his printers who “had not even an aide-de-camp or devil” to assist them. “I am plagued with a succession of bad printers,” he finally wrote in 1860. The third printer he employed annoyed him so much that he wrote to a friend: “At present my press is at a stop; my printer, who was a foolish Irishman, and who took himself for a genius, and who grew angrywhen I thought him extremely the former and not the least of the latter, has left me. I have not yet fixed upon another.”

The fourth printer, Thomas Kirkgate, was a fine craftsman who also became Walpole’s secretary, and served him until his master’s death in 1797. The types of the press were cast by William Caslon, whose ledger records the sale on August 13, 1768 of 282 lbs. of “English” (a size of typeapproximately 14-point) for the sum of fourteen pounds and two shillings.

Walpole had built himself a gothic castle at Twickenham which became a showplace. The press was part of this idea, and represented a dilettante’s approach to the craft. Disraeli wrote of Walpole that he was “conscious of possessing the talent of amusement, yet feeling his deficient energies, he resolved to provide various substitutes for genius itsself, and to acquire reputation, if he could not grasp at celebrity. He raised a printing press at his castle, by which means he rendered small editions of his works valuable from their rarity, and much talked of because of seldom seen.”

A criticism of Walpole’s printing was the frequent appearance of typographical errors, which he attributed to “the knavery of his printer.” His disdain for such matters is obvious from his remark, “I hope that future edition-mongers will say of those at Strawberry Hill, They have all the beautiful negligence of a gentleman.”

Walpole’s interest in fine printing was not limited to his own work. The literary world of his own time was becoming excited about typography through the influence of such great printers as Baskerville and Bodoni, from whom Walpole commissioned printing. The output of the Press at Strawberry Hill was therefore part of, and a contributor to the lively interest in fine printing. The books printed there were of better quality than the commercial printing of the times and are so remembered.

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