Casting a Spell

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Late one dark December afternoon in 1981, I came across a well-lit window in King Street, St James’s, displaying the work of four artists associated with the Whittington Press, a private press named after its Cotswolds village location. Lured inside by this bait, I was soon hooked and the gallery landed two sales without difficulty.

One of my purchases that winter afternoon was the first issue of Matrix, a journal full of information about presses, type and typecasting, wood-engraving and printing. Reading it I soon realized how little I knew about what’s involved in designing and printing fine books. Almost a quarter of a century on, I’ve developed a good eye for well-balanced illustration and text, and have derived a huge amount of pleasure from reading and collecting private press books. Graham Moss at the Incline Press has characterized the genre pithily, from the printer-publisher’s perspective: ‘The many shades of meaning contained in the term Private Press ought to boil down to a single common denominator: we publish what pleases us, rather than what pays.’

You need patience as well as cash to collect books published by contemporary presses. Years can elapse between ordering one from an enticingly worded prospectus and hearing the thud on the doormat that heralds its delivery. I’m impatient by nature, so I’m frustrated when books aren’t published on time. However, the waiting always seems worth it in the end.

Given that we’re talking in years, it is ironic that the book that stimulated this article deals with the most ephemeral entomological order, poetically described by Louis MacNeice as ‘One only day of May alive beneath the sun’. The American artist Gaylord Schanilec is illustrating and writing Mayflies of the Driftless Region, which he plans to publish in the autumn of 2005 under his Midnight Paper Sales imprint.

Matrix has consistently championed Schanilec’s work. I didn’t take much notice of a brief note in Matrix 8 regarding his book about the demolition of a river br

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About the contributor

Colin Martin is an Australian freelance writer on art, based in London and the Cotswolds. He has a passion for well-illustrated contemporary private press books and spends more money on collecting them than his wife thinks prudent. Although she and their son would prefer a less dilapidated family car, she kindly suggested he read Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘Mayfly’.

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