March 13

On this day in 1895 a young man named Charles Harry St. John Hornby sat down to tea with William Morris, following an inspection of the Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith. The Press was then engaged in the printing of the great folio Chaucer. Just one year previously Hornby had started a small private press, as he later stated, “solely for the sake of the interest and amusement I expected to derive from it.” It was the discussion with Morris which provided the inspiration to go beyond the needs of a simple hobby, however. From that point on, Hornby was conscious of the desire to produce printing which would conform to the highest standards of craftsmanship.

The Ashendene Press, which was to be one of the triumvirate of great English private presses, along with the Kelmscott Press and the Doves Press, began its existence with a few fonts of 12-point Caslon type, an Albion Crown hand press, and the necessary auxiliary equipment. Later on some fonts of the famous Fell type, obtained from Oxford University Press, were used by Hornby. He, with his sisters, a brother, and a cousin, filled in spare hours by setting up and printing several books with extremely short press runs. The first two books were printed on a machine-made paper and a Japanese paper. But from that time on, all of the printing was done with hand-made paper. From 1902 several copies of each edition were printed on vellum.

In 1900, Hornby met Sidney Cockerell, who had been Secretary of the Kelmscott Press and who was then in business with Emery Walker. Walker was a process engraver whose knowledge had made him a guiding force in the design of the Kelmscott types. Cockerel1 induced Hornby to secure his own type for the Press. After some discussion they agreed to look into a re-cutting of the type used by Sweynheim and Pannartz in 1465 at the monastery at Subiaco, on the outskirts of Rome. Morris had also been interested in this letter, which was a transitional form between blackletter and roman. With the aid of Walker, photographs were made from a copy of Cicero’s De Oratore, printed at Subiaco, and then in the British Museum. E. P. Prince, who had cut the punches for the Kelmscott types and the Doves type, was persuaded to cut the Ashendene letter. This letter was first used for an edition of La Commedia de Dante. The Subiaco type was employed for most of the Ashendene books except for a few set in a type named Ptolemy, cut in 1927.

From 1906 until 1935 the Press issued about one book a year. During the life of the Ashendene Press forty books were printed. in addition to a number of ephemeral items. While a pressman was employed, along with a compositor, Hornby continued to perform a great deal of the work himself. In order to meet costs, subscriptions were taken for each book, beginning in 1902. Throughout its long career, its operation was financed by the books produced. “If the interest,” Hornby later wrote, “which it has added to life be put upon the credit side, it has brought a more than rich return.”

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