The Chestnut Press:

An introduction and history

 

The Chestnut Press is my publishing imprint for fine letterpress limited edition booklets of poetry. None are made available for sale, but are instead privately distributed gratis to a select few. My publications are simply a way of satisfying my wish to design and have printed letterpress items that I want to have on my shelves and share with others.

For those of you who may be interested, the following essay is a history of my publishing activities and what led me to embark on them.

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Why am I so enamoured with fine press printing? Just what is so special about it that I happily spend all my spare time, effort and money on collecting, and even publishing, fine press items myself? Surely a book is a book isn’t it? I would strongly disagree. For me, it’s all about visual and tactile beauty; the ‘Book Beautiful’, as T. J. Cobden-Sanderson put it. I certainly find that I enjoy texts more if the form in which they are presented also gives me pleasure.

Although there are rare exceptions, I just can’t get enthusiastic about modern books printed offset litho. I generally find them flat, mechanical and lifeless. Give me some expertly printed letterpress on a good rag paper though, and it’s a very different matter. I love the look and feel of a well executed production; the finely judged typographic setting of well designed typefaces cleanly impressed into a quality hand- or mould-made paper. I believe that books can be works of art; a pleasure to gaze upon as well as read. To look across a page and see the miniature landscape where shadows are cast from the gently bevelled impression of the type is a joy.

Since first encountering fine letterpress, the experience of handling and reading such items has been an ever-increasing joy, and building my personal collection has been a most rewarding pursuit. Very little else gives me as much pleasure, and in hindsight I think publishing fine press was pretty inevitable. But what actually led me to do so; what is the history of the Chestnut Press?

 

Several years ago I had the good fortune to become acquainted with Peter Scupham, poet and one-time partner of the Mandeville Press. Occasionally Peter would invite me and my then partner – his grand-daughter – to stay at his beautiful old manor house in the midst of the Norfolk countryside.

I’d just turned 26 when I was there on one such visit in August 1999. At the time I was not by any stretch of the imagination a bookish person, and had never really taken much notice of all the wonderful books to be found about the house. On the afternoon of the last day of my visit though I found myself upstairs alone in Peter’s library, browsing through a section of his own published work. As I casually flicked through, I happened across a slender little volume titled Natura. Being a nature lover, the title led me to look through. Everything about this item in my hands was a joy; the poems, the typeface, the wood engraving, and the handmade papers for the text and cover. I was instantly taken by it, and on rejoining everyone downstairs I asked Peter whether he’d consider selling it to me.

We both returned to the library to see if there was a spare copy but, alas, there wasn’t another to be found. Peter did, however, have a second copy in a variant hardcover binding so, in a kindness altogether typical of him, he decided that I could have the version I had been looking at. He inscribed it to me and handed it over, refusing any payment whatsoever.

Later, on the train journey home, I couldn’t stop looking at it – I’d become so unexpectedly enchanted by it. Almost instantly, it had become one of my most treasured possessions.

I should mention that if anybody had told me the item was letterpress, or fine press printing, I’d have had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. The world of such things was one I knew nothing of. I certainly never knew that there was a multitude of other pieces like Natura waiting to be discovered. All I did know was that this item in my possession was special – considerably more special than any other book I’d encountered so far.

 

Natura eventually got me reading more of Peter’s poetry, and by the time I’d turned 30 I’d become rather a fan, amassing quite a collection of his work. Deciding to see what I might be missing, I had a look on the internet and soon discovered that there were many pieces I didn’t own, including several limited editions. Most of these were quickly purchased, and although they weren’t necessarily the finest examples of letterpress they were very nice items nonetheless. Still searching, I happened upon a very limited collection of Peter’s poetry entitled Under The Barrage. This was one of an edition of just 89 copies printed in the Netherlands by the Bonnefant Press. It was rather more expensive than the other items I’d been buying but I had to have it as it was a major piece missing from my Scupham collection. When it turned up I found it to be worth every penny. Here, at last, was another item with the same production values and beauty as Natura.

It was around this time that I also chose to broaden the selection of poets I read. I did this through buying several Mandeville Press booklets. As I loved Peter Scupham’s work so much, it seemed logical that I would enjoy poetry that he (and his partner in the Press, poet John Mole) deemed worthy to print and publish. Here in these modest, but well-designed and decently produced limited editions, I discovered first-rate poetry from a good number of modern writers.

 

I was satisfied for a while, but as I now knew a little about the existence of fine printing it wasn’t long before I wanted to see if I could get my hands on more ‘special’ items like the couple I’d managed to obtain so far. As I loved Natura so much my first decision was simple: look for more items from its publisher, the Somerset-based Gruffyground Press.

Back on the internet, I searched for ‘Gruffyground’ and quickly discovered a Gruffyground Press web page listing available items from the Press and contact details. I rang the number and ended up having a long and entertaining conversation with the proprietor, Anthony Baker. The call ended with me ordering the two titles from his list that sounded the most appealing. When they turned up I was not disappointed. They were gorgeous. These collections of finest poetry were beautifully designed and immaculately printed using the finest typefaces and materials. It was obvious that I would have to get more Gruffyground Press publications, and this point marked the beginning of my true passion for fine press.

The next couple of months were a blur of saving money and ordering as many Gruffyground items as I could get my hands on. The majority came from Anthony, but others were sourced from the internet, specialist booksellers, and even some of the printers of Anthony’s publications. I simply couldn’t get enough of these beautiful booklets, and my collection very quickly flourished to being near complete.

Now that I had most of the Gruffyground items available, fulfilling my continued appetite for fine press required looking into other avenues. I decided to seek out other work from printers who’d produced work for Gruffyground, particularly the Rampant Lions Press and Libanus Press, whose immaculate printing and typographic excellence were just what I was after. My first contact was with Sebastian Carter of the Rampant Lions Press, initially to purchase a copy of his most amusing tribute, Song of the Gruffyground Press. However, as he wasn’t too far away from where I lived, I asked whether I might be allowed to visit. I’d not yet met a fine press printer, or seen anything to do with the actual process of letterpress printing, and was keen to remedy this. Sebastian agreed, and on a beautifully crisp sunny autumn morning, I made the journey to the picturesque village of Over in Cambridgeshire. Sebastian was most welcoming and invited me into his printing workshop, showing me round and answering all manner of questions. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and left with some rather fine additions to my growing collection.

 

Shortly after came the next milestone to further cement me in my obsession: my visit to the Oxford Fine Press Book Fair in November 2005. At this bi-annual event I got to meet a large number of printers and book dealers, and was introduced to a great deal of work from presses I knew nothing of. As a result the scope for my collection was dramatically broadened, and before long my shelves started to contain a much wider selection of fine printing from the last century.

In addition to collecting, I’d also started to think about following the example of Gruffyground by publishing my own fine press editions of poetry. I already had in mind the poets whose work I wished to publish, and the printers I wanted the work to be printed by. One of these printers was the Rampant Lions Press. When in early 2007, Sebastian Carter told me that he was planning to cease printing, I decided to ask if he would print something for me before the opportunity was lost. Sebastian said yes, which now just left me needing a worthwhile text to publish.

A year or so previous, I’d actually got as far as asking Peter Scupham whether he’d allow me to publish a fine press edition of his poetry at some point in the future. Peter had agreed, so now that I was finally going to take the plunge, I contacted him again. He kindly invited me to stay for a weekend, during which time I had the opportunity to go through a good amount of recent, unpublished work. Of the poems I’d been handed, one entitled Out of Season immediately grabbed me. Written about my favourite place – St Ives in Cornwall – this was clearly the poem to publish. I couldn’t have wished for a more perfect piece to start my imprint.

As a graphic designer by trade – and also by now a reasonably capable typographer with strong ideas of what I wanted – I drafted up a rough design and layout and sent it to Sebastian Carter for his thoughts. After a while, we finalised the design between us and all was ready to print. Sebastian did a typically superb job of the presswork and sent me a parcel of immaculately printed sheets to collate, fold and sew. I’d wanted to do this last stage myself, so after an evening of folding and sewing, my first foray into fine press publishing was completed. April 2008 saw copies of Out of Season given to family, friends, printers and poets.

I was very proud of my inaugural Chestnut Press offering. Having got a great deal of enjoyment throughout the whole process of putting it together, it wasn’t long before I wanted to start work on something new. The choice of what to print was an easy one as there was another unpublished gem by Peter Scupham, Indian Summer, that I’d already considered. Text under the belt, it was now time to choose a printer. This time round my choice was another of the country’s finest: John Grice of Evergreen Press in Gloucestershire. A printer of first-rate ability, John also just happened to have my most-loved typeface – the scarce Romanée Italic – which I very much wanted to use.

 

By now, I was getting quite confident in my typographic abilities. The process of trying to make something attractive by the considered application of typography is something I thoroughly enjoy and I spent some time completely designing the publication (size, typefaces, layout, papers and colours) before handing production over to John. Fortunately, he didn’t mind letting me have complete control over the design. He didn’t even have any qualms when asked to print some special copies on proper vellum, despite never having printed on this notoriously difficult material before.

John did a fantastic job, following my specifications exactly. The crisp deep impression he’d achieved on the dampened paper was particularly satisfying, as I’m a huge fan of deep bite printing. Most impressive though were the vellum copies, which turned out beautifully. Working with John had been most enjoyable and I have since worked with him on all but one of my other projects to date. Thankfully, he’s never seemed to mind me continuing to fully create the design for each new item. This is good, as I don’t think I’d embark on a publication now if I wasn’t the designer.

After Indian Summer came my wish to fulfil another publishing aim. When I’d started thinking about being a fine press publisher, I’d always had three authors in mind who I wanted to publish. The first, Peter Scupham, had now appeared twice, so this just left the remaining two authors; Jeffrey Turner and Lawrence Sail.

First to be approached was Jeffrey Turner. I was only aware of his poetry from a couple of small collections published by the Mandeville Press, but from the very first read I absolutely loved his work. As it turned out, the Mandeville pieces made up nearly all of his entire published output. I’ve always thought this a great shame as I believe his poetry merits a much wider audience. He is, by his own confession, one of those poets who have no particular desire or drive to get their work ‘out there’; he writes poetry simply because he loves to do so. Despite his humble view of his work, Jeffrey agreed to let me publish some of his unpublished poems. He sent me a good selection, from which I chose five. I could easily have picked more but was limited by needing to keep the publication small for reasons of cost. However, I picked as many as I could and eventually released what has been my most sizable publication to date.

 

(As a gratifying side note, I’d like to mention that, after reading my publication of Jeffrey Turner’s poetry, Anthony Baker also decided to publish a trio of Jeffrey’s poems under his Gruffyground Press imprint.)

 

Last on my wish list of poets to publish was Lawrence Sail, whose work I had also originally encountered in Mandeville Press booklets. Just a few days after I’d approached Lawrence, a pair of poems written especially for me turned up in the post. I had no idea that Lawrence intended to write new work solely for me and I was totally bowled over. Before long, this pair of poems saw the light of day as my fourth Chestnut Press outing.

It was so pleasing to have finally published the work of all three poets I’d wanted to represent under my imprint. As far as doing what I’d hoped to when I first set out was concerned, I’d succeeded. I had never intended to be a long term publisher putting out a considerable body of work. My original aim was fulfilled and I didn’t need to do any more. And I very nearly didn’t. There’s a downside to my publishing activities, and that’s that it is a rather expensive hobby and harsh on one’s pocket. With this in mind I decided to call it a day. Inevitably, this was a decision that wouldn’t last particularly long and after a couple of years I found myself wanting to publish ‘just a little something’ more. This I did in the form of a couple of short single poems by Robert Bridges earlier this year. I’ve not stopped there either, as another poem by Jeffrey Turner has just seen publication.

 

Mark Askam, December 2012.

 

 

 

 

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