The Trouble with Idealism

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It was towards the end of his long life, after revolutionalizing many other aspects of design, that William Morris embarked on his ‘typographical adventure’ at the Kelmscott Press. Though it survived for less than eight years and was wound up shortly after his death in 1896, it managed to produce 53 publications, including many of his own writings and a celebrated edition of Chaucer in a highly distinctive dark, ‘Gothic’ style. Kelmscott provided the crucial impetus for the four leading private presses considered in an excellent new series from the British Library and Oak Knoll Press. All are lavishly illustrated tributes to some of the great idealistic book-makers, although the volume on the Golden Cockerel Press – where my maternal grandfather was star author, bookkeeper, general helper and sexual fly in the ointment – offers an additional bonus in the form of some fascinating, if mildly embarrassing family history.

Morris was crucial partly because he issued a number of design edicts – about the superiority of certain ‘old-face’ types, the evils of too much space between words and lines, the best proportions for the different margins – which his successors either adopted or reacted against. But it was also because of the way he perceived and promoted the whole enterprise, as an attempt to redeem the grimugliness of late-Victorian mass production.

Intense, idealistic small businesses, as some of us remember from the 1960s, are often torn apart by sexual tensions or squabbles about ideological purity. People who can thunder with indignation about a misplaced margin are sometimes capable of great insensitivity or even cruelty in their personal lives. All these books offer admirable specialist accounts, but two of them – on the Doves Press and the Golden Cockerel Press – are also of far more general interest, gripping stories about the dark side of idealism and sexual experimentation.

The Eragny Press, set up in 1894 by Lucien

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About the contributor

Matthew J. Reisz is the Editor of the Jewish Quarterly and currently researching the story of his grandparents’ courtship.

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