The National Library of Scotland’s Treasures Display area now features a choice selection of private press books. They are part of a free exhibition entitled the “The Book Beautiful” which will run until 13 March 2016.
Restrictions on display space meant that one amazing British private press could not be featured. The Eragny Press was founded by Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), the son of the Impressionist, pointillist painter Camille Pissarro. The press was named after the Pissarro family’s home village in Normandy.
The Eragny Press specialised in small hand-made books in limited print runs featuring superior coloured wood engravings. The press was active between 1896 and 1914 and produced 32 titles of which the National Library of Scotland is privileged to hold 29.
Its style was inspired by the work of William Morris at the Kelmscott Press and also by French Impressionist painters.
The aesthetics of William Morris’s can be seen in the incorporation of decorative woodcut borders, woodcut initials and the conceiving of each opening as a unified design, rather than as two separate pages.
To illustrate these influences, the title page from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press edition of The works of Chaucer (Kelmscott, 1896) appears below on the upper left, the title page opening from Histoire de peau d’ane by Charles Perrault (Eragny, 1902) is to its right, A selection from the plays, masques, and poems by Ben Jonson (Eragny, 1906) is lower left, and Pierre de Ronsard’s Choix de sonnets (Eragny, 1902) is on the lower right.
Like William Morris at Kelmscott, Lucien Pissarro designed a special typeface for his use at the Eragny Press. He called it “Brook” and it was inspired by typefaces designed by the French Renaissance engraver, printer and type designer Nicolas Jenson (1420-1480).
In addition to typefaces, the influence of 15th century printing houses extended to page layout and design. On the left below is an opening from the Hypnerotomachia di Poliphilo by Francesco Colonna (Venice, 1496) and accompanying it on the right is an opening from Abregé de l’art poetique françois by Pierre de Ronsard (Eragny Press, 1903). Both works feature generous white space around their textblocks and text layouts which elegantly taper to a center point or adopt shapes like bells.
Above all, Eragny press books are noted for their exquisite woodcut engravings often printed in several colours using different woodblocks. On the left below is a five-block colour illustration on Japanese vellum from Album de poèmes tirés du livre de jade by Judith Gautier (Eragny, 1911). On the right is an opening featuring green woodcut borders with a red initial from Autres poesies by François Villon (Eragny, 1901).
Pissarro’s refusal to compromise his artistic ideals, his high standards, and production costs meant that unfortunately he rarely made a profit. The First World War ended production at the Eragny Press due to the inability of obtaining the right paper and the loss of continental subscribers.
For further information see Marcella D. Genz’s A history of the Eragny Press, 1894-1914. (London: British Library, 2004) National Library of Scotland shelfmark: GBE.2004.4.16