By Laurence Worms
We’re planning a really festive and utterly splendid day out for the book trade on Thursday 13th December – an afternoon of activity, followed by the legendary ABA Christmas Party (none of this restricted to ABA members). The venue is to be the St. Bride Foundation in Blackfriars – and what a fine choice it is. The First Lady and I were there the other day for a preview of what’s in store, at the invitation of the Chief Executive of the Foundation, the very amiable Glyn Farrow. Most booksellers are in thrall with their work, of course, but how nice to meet someone else so enthusiastic, so energetic and so palpably in love with his.
Tucked away in Blackfriars, an enticing and richly historic corner of London that, by and large, only Londoners know, hard by the Wren church of the same name – the printers’ church, St. Bride is a genuine survival of all that makes London so wonderful and so quirky. Built in the 1890s in what must then have seemed a remarkably modern building, it looks Edwardian rather than Victorian – and hardly changed at all. Built for charity, improvement, education and training, as well as a social centre for the local population, it still provides printing workshops and houses the Bridewell Theatre. Above all it is home to the St. Bride Library, founded in 1895 on the collection of the great William Blades, Victorian printer and authority on early printing. Added to mightily over the years, the Library is now the world’s foremost collection of material devoted entirely to printing and the graphic arts.
Our tour begins with a look at the public rooms. The delightful Salisbury Room, with its wonderful oval table, where the Council will be having its December meeting while the rest of you are having fun (although members can sit in and monitor what we are up to if they wish). The elegant Bridewell Hall, where the party will be. Lots of other rooms – this place is a complete warren – even the entrances are on different levels. Then on to the various bits of the Library. How much fun is this? In and out of room after room.
Well over 50,000 books and periodicals on things that interest us all – on advertising, on the alphabet, on art history, the art of the book, bibliography, book-collecting, book design and illustration, the book trade, bookbinding , calligraphy, colour printing, colour science, conservation, copyright, electrotyping, engraving, ephemera, graphic design and designers, graphic reproduction, illustration, ink and rollers, journalism, letter-forms, letterpress, libraries, lithography, manuscript illumination, music printing, news agencies, newspaper history, non-Latin scripts, ornament , packaging design, paper, papermaking, patterned paper, photography, posters, printing manuals, printing history, printing machinery, printmaking, private presses, shorthand manuals, signs and symbols, stereotyping, textile printing, trade directories, type and composition, type specimens, typefaces, type-founding, wood engraving, and a whole bunch of other things.
And not just the books and periodicals, there are unrivalled collections of catalogues, prospectuses and specimens. Over 200 special collections. An adventure-playground for booksellers. There are archives, drawings, London almanacs, portraits and manuscripts. Thousands of pieces of ephemera – valentines, greetings cards, trade-labels, menus, handbills, and posters. Eyes popping as we come across mouthwatering examples of broadsides and chapbooks. Over 1,000 boxes of punches from the celebrated Caslon typefoundry. More of the same from the Figgins foundry. Packets and whole cases of printing type from the Oxford University Press. Woodblocks, punches, matrices and type from the Chiswick Press. Twenty-eight albums of advance specimen pages for publications from Macmillan & Co. Serious collections of W. A. Dwiggins and Eric Gill – “Oh, here’s a another Gill sketch” says Glyn casually as we pass through mountains of this stuff.
On we go to a room full of old printing presses – the Print Workshop. Wholly absorbed by an old lithographic stone – how can anyone have produced such light and delicate printing from something so weighty and improbable? On our day out, everyone who books in advance will have an opportunity to hand-set type and print on one of the presses, or print a wood engraving on one of the nineteenth-century presses. Such fun!
Next on to the thriving and very successful theatre. Discover a few days later that one of my long-time customers is appearing there at the moment in Beckett’s Endgame. He speaks very well of it. Lunchtime performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince on our day out (needs to be booked separately). And – quite extraordinary this – Glyn and the First Lady suddenly disappear down a trapdoor leading to the floor of the old swimming-pool over which the theatre has been constructed. I follow gingerly – hope Health and Safety aren’t watching. Doubt you will get this on your guided tour, but I can assure you it’s there.
On to the basement bar – a jolly space somewhat improbably decorated with large-scale appliances from the old laundry. Some of the equipment designed – have I got this right? – sounds so improbable – do the dates fit? – by an unlikely combo of Charles Dickens and Angela Burdett-Coutts. Think that’s what the man said. We’ve had the most wonderful time. The First Lady, as regular readers may have gathered, isn’t always completely thrilled by all the booksellery stuff – but here she is saying she can’t remember when she last had such an enjoyable outing. Thank you so much, Glyn (and for the lunch in the noodle-bar).
Do come and join us in December – make a day of it. Visit to Dr Johnson’s House just the other side of Fleet Street in the morning perhaps. Three of my favourite hostelries close by – Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese – can’t find a pub more steeped in literary history than that. The Blackfriars down by the station, with the most stunning interior of any pub in London. And you can’t beat El Vino’s on New Bridge Street for a glass of something traditional – and some excellent cake too last time we were in there. All the details of the day out, how to get tickets, etc., are on the ABA website. See you there!
(Posted on The President on Safari. Presented here by permission of the author.)