Marginal Notes 9: Private press books

Marginal Notes 9: Private press books

Tuesday, Nov 21, 2023

My love affair with private press books began in the late 1960s, when we had our first Melbourne CBD bookshop at 569 Bourke Street, near King Street. I would periodically visit the secondhand bookshop of N. H. Seward at the top end of Bourke Street, near Exhibition Street and spend time looking at the private press books shelved in a locked glass door  cabinet— I was too intimidated by the formidable Miss Eddey to ask to handle the books.

My mother, Muriel, and I began ordering private press items from international booksellers in the late 1960s, and we have since been credited with being the first Australian bookseller to emphasise private press and finely printed books in our stock and catalogues, starting with Catalogue No. 2 in 1969. On my first trip to London in the 1970s I spent much of the time on the flight reading a number of Bertram Rota catalogues devoted to fine printing— marking items I would like to purchase and ‘virtually’ spending twice my allocated buying budget in the process.

Our introduction to John Gartner in 1968 was a major development in our pursuit of ‘the book beautiful’. To quote Stuart Kells in Rare. A life among antiquarian books (Folio, Sydney, 2011):

John Gartner is remembered as a great bookman and Australia’s foremost enthusiast of fine printing, private press and bookplate material. Born in 1914, he started printing early. His father, a linotype operator, worked for the Advocate Press, where John joined his father first as an informal assistant, then, at 14, as an apprentice. He launched his own press, the Hawthorn Press, at 23, printing Ben Fryer’s Internationalism in Typography on an Albion press . . . In the Depression, John Gartner came across the work of American fine printers in the State Library of Victoria. He began to collect and study their work. For many decades he was the only Australian to do this on any significant scale. Gartner acquired many friends and contacts in America. In 1934, Gartner and Fryer founded the Victorian Division of the Printing Industry Craftsmen of Australia.

John’s life as a book collector has justly grown to legendary proportions in Australia. His name is a byword for persistence and discernment in collecting.

In 1970, due to a bout of ill health, John sold us his collection of private press books, which resulted in our first catalogue devoted entirely to fine printing being issued in December that year. Advance copies of Catalogue 12 were sent to institutional libraries and to one private collector, who had been buying private press items from us.

The day the catalogue was to be posted to the general mailing list, [the customer] came to the shop and viewed a selection of the books. After enquiring if the others were all in similarly fine condition, he asked the total value of the catalogue, and paid for all but one of the books – Richard Griffin had already claimed the Ashendene Ecclesiasticus – within the hour. As a consequence, the catalogue had no general release. [Kells, Rare].

Since that catalogue in 1970 we have had many significant purchases of private press books, including several more from later collections amassed by John Gartner. Our appreciation of the genre has not diminished, and we are looking forward to having the late Justice David Levine’s copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer in stock in the new year.