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The Book Beautiful: William Morris, Hilary Pepler and the private press story

12 September 2016 - 23 April 2017

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In 1916 Hilary Pepler acquired a stately 100-year-old iron hand-operated Stanhope Press (on permanent display in the museum’s Print Gallery) and founded St Dominic’s Press in Ditchling, and so began a significant new chapter in the history of the private press movement in England. In ‘The Book Beautiful: William Morris, Hilary Pepler and the private press story’, we explore the influence that William Morris and his prominent Kelmscott Press had on the development of St Dominic’s Press.

London’s Hammersmith provided the crucible for many artistic movements in the late 1800s and was home to leading Arts and Crafts figures such as William Morris, Emery Walker and T J Cobden Sanderson. When Morris attended a talk given by Walker in the1870s, he apparently felt as if all his frustrations and ideas regarding contemporary printing had been given a voice. The spark kindled by their meeting gave rise to the establishment of Morris’ Kelmscott Press in 1891 (and later to Walker and Cobden Sanderson’s Doves Press).

When Pepler moved to Hammersmith, he met a kindred spirit in another recent arrival, Eric Gill. Pepler and Gill sought out the congenial atmosphere established by the old guard of the arts and crafts movement, and struck up friendships with Walker, Cobden Sanderson and William Morris’ daughter, May, as well as Gill’s old friend Edward Johnston. The spirit of reform that animated this group in Hammersmith resonated strongly with Pepler’s own ideals and began his involvement with the local Hampshire House Workshops, of which he was a co-founder. Pepler followed Gill to Ditchling in 1913 and set up the Ditchling Press (re-christened St Dominic’s Press in 1918) 25 years after Morris’ Kelmscott Press. In his biographical essay ‘The Hand Press’ (1934), Pepler maps Hammersmith as the locus for the private press movement, noting the “influence of that Borough upon Typography”.

Included in the exhibition is the most prominent book to be published by the Kelmscott Press, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, designed by Morris and the leading PreRaphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (completed in June 1896). The book is considered a masterpiece of both fine printing and the Arts and Crafts movement. Other works include the Doves Press’ ‘The English Bible Volume 1’, and works printed by St Dominic’s Press, featuring Ethel Mairet’s instructional text ‘A Book of Vegetable Dyes’, wood engravings and other works by a number of artists including David Jones, Gwen Raverat, Eric Gill and Edward Johnston.

The exhibition is curated by Professor Dennis Doordan, Visiting Fellow from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, to the University of Brighton.

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