Cambridge University Library

Historical Printing Room

printing press The Library holds a number of collections of both printed and archival material of typographical interest. Foremost among these is the Morison collection of books and papers, the library of Stanley Morison, probably the most famous twentieth-century British typographer; but there is also the collection of Allen Hutt, historian of journalism and newspaper design, and the Broxbourne collection. Among archival sources the Cambridge University Press collection is probably the largest, but the Curwen Press, Nonesuch Press and Rampant Lions collections are also significant.

However the Library also has a considerable collection of printing artefacts. This began with a decision in the early 1970s to set up a bibliographical teaching press on the lines of those already existing at the Bodleian, University College London and elsewhere. The impetus for this plan came from the late Philip Gaskell, then Librarian of Trinity College. The main aim was to enable students of literature to understand the practical details of hand composition of type and of printing on a hand-press, and thus to appreciate the ways in which both conscious decisions and accidents in the printing house could affect the accuracy of a text.

The equipment for his classes came from a number of sources. Most important was a full-size replica of a late eighteenth-century wooden hand-press which was built to his designs in the workshops of the Engineering Department. This was joined by two presses of his own. The bulk of the type was cast by the University Press, again supplemented by Gaskell’s own. Quite fortuitously the auction of a small printing business provided a fine Albion royal hand-press and a considerable quantity of wood-letter in remarkably good condition.

On this basis printing classes began in 1974, and have continued ever since. The presses and type have been set up in a room off the readers’ Locker Room. There are normally only six students in each class, since we have six pairs of cases of text type. Over the years some additional equipment was received, including an ‘Arab’ treadle-driven press which had been used for the Library’s internal printing for many years, and a Columbian press and a copperplate printing press (designed to print from etched or engraved metal plates).

In the 1980s the continual development in printing technology meant that the Cambridge University Press decided finally to abandon the use of letterpress in favour of computer-generated typesetting and offset lithographic printing. Much of the type and machinery was sold or scrapped, but we were given the opportunity to acquire many founts of type, blocks and some machinery, notably a Monotype keyboard and caster. Even more welcome was the Press’s decision to deposit in the Library most of their collection of historic printing material. These included the surviving punches made by John Baskerville in the 1750s, which had been sold after Baskerville’s death, initially to the playwright Beaumarchais. Later the punches passed to the Didot family, and finally to Deberny & Peignot; Charles Peignot generously donated them to Cambridge in 1953. At this time there were 2750 punches, about three-quarters of which were considered to be original. Equally important is the material from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press; the punches and matrices for his Troy, Chaucer and Golden types, cases of type for each face, two of the paper moulds made specially for Morris’s use and a small stock of his ‘Flower’ paper, named from the watermark which appears on each sheet. This material had been bought by the University Press in 1940.

Other material from private presses includes punches, matrices and brass patterns (from which punches could be made mechanically) from the Golden Cockerel Press, the ‘Brook’ type from the Eragny Press, punches for the Subiaco and Ptolemy types used by the Ashendene Press, punches, matrices and bookbinders’ tools from Count Harry Kessler’s Cranach Press, and punches for Eric Gill’s Perpetua and Joanna.

This collection has recently been supplemented by the donation by James Stourton of the matrices for Gill’s Aries, used exclusively for many years by the Stourton Press, together with some Aries type and a pivotal typecaster.

The Library also acquired a large number of printing blocks from the University Press, in various forms—original woodcuts and wood-engravings, metal blocks, and copper and steel engraved plates. Among these are a large number of ornamental blocks (mostly from the nineteenth century), many university, college and other coats of arms, and illustrations from books printed at the Press. The woodcuts and wood-engravings include work by Gwen Raverat, Reynolds Stone, Peter Reddick, Agnes Miller Parker and others. A particularly interesting group are wood-engravings prepared for Willis and Clark’s Architectural history of the University of Cambridge (1886). The steel and copper plates are predominantly views of Cambridge, though to date no attempt has been made to identify the artists involved.

Printing classes are normally held in the Michaelmas and Lent terms, with two classes per week for eight weeks. Anyone interested in joining a class, or in finding out more about the collection, should contact Nicholas Smith or Colin Clarkson.