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Barbarian Press
Books Forthcoming

Wood engraving by Edwina Ellis
(from A Christmas Carol, 1984)

Pastoral Elegies
Thomas Gray’s
Elegy written in
a country churchyard

& Oliver Goldsmith’s
The Deserted Village
Spring 2024

Bordering on the Sublime
Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press
Late 2024

Cover scan

Click on thumbnail image above
for additional images

Bordering on the Sublime:
Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press

by David Jury & Crispin Elsted

late 2024

Let us begin with a re-cap of the history of this book. Through great good fortune and the generosity of many of our subscribers, in the spring of 2009 we were enabled to acquire the Curwen Press archives of Monotype ornaments & borders, comprising hundreds of pounds of new flowers in case and in packets from the foundry, with scores of composed borders which, once printed, had been tied up, wrapped, & stored for future use.

The Curwen Press, under the direction of Harold Curwen, and later Oliver Simon, was generally recognized as the best trade letterpress printing office in Great Britain for the better part of the 20th century. Their book design and presswork were unexcelled. They employed some of the finest British artists & illustrators of the time – John Piper, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Enid Marx, Barnett Freedman, and Claud Lovat Fraser, to name a few – and their jobbing work set standards which still hold today. Their clients included the Arts Council of Great Britain, the British Transport Commission, and the Double Crown Club.

A significant element in their work was the use of ornaments & borders, often printed in two or three colours. These are exemplars of ornamental typography, and they were nearly all created by one man, Bert E Smith, who worked at Curwen from 1924 until his retirement in 1964. Mr Smith showed an endless facility and astonishing invention in creating these borders, apparently setting them in a stick and composing them across their width, as one might weave a tapestry.

Until recently little of substance was know about Bert Smith beyond the evidence of his work at the Curwen Press and, as might be imagined, trying to trace someone with such a common name as Bert Smith is daunting. However, with the generous help of Bob Richardson of the St Bride Library in London we have gradually assembled a portrait of Bert E Smith, to which the Curwen Collection at Cambridge University Library has added some photographs. The full story, as we have learned it, will form a chapter in Bordering on the Sublime, but those interested can also read an article by Crispin discussing the preliminary findings published in Parenthesis 42 (Spring 2022), available online here: In Search of Bert Smith - Fine Press Book Association ( (It should be mentioned that more recent discoveries already contradict some points made in the article, thus reminding us of the occasional perils of ongoing research.)

Bordering on the Sublime will examine this part of the Curwen Press legacy, reprinting the many original borders which remain standing, recomposing from proofs (when possible) some of those which were distributed, and showing examples of other decorative elements such as composed spots and swelled rules which were intended to accompany the borders. To provide a broad context for the Curwen borders and the use of Monotype ornaments at the Curwen Press, the texts by David Jury and Crispin Elsted will explore the story of the Curwen Press itself and something of the little-explored history of typographic ornament.

British typographer and printing historian David Jury – author of Letterpress: The Allure of the Handmade and Graphic Design before Graphic Designers, among other books, and proprietor of Fox Ash Press – discusses the state of graphic design and printing in England and on the continent between the wars, reviews the history of the Curwen Press, its place in British design, its influence, and its importance, and makes special reference to its use of ornament, providing an illuminating context both for the chapters on the history of typographical ornament which follow and the ornamental work of Bert Smith which is at the heart of the book.

Crispin Elsted provides a discussion of the origins and early development of printers’ flowers (as they are often called) and the uses these historical ornaments were put to, before tracing the survival of the some of the most popular and representative designs through the many distinct periods of European printing history. He also reviews the Monotype Corporation’s revival of ornaments in tandem with its program of reviving and re-cutting classic typefaces, beginning after Stanley Morison’s appointment as typographical advisor to the Corporation in 1922. He will also display and discuss new ornaments from such designers as David Bethel, Elizabeth Friedlander, and John Peters, commissioned by Monotype and used at Curwen. There will also be significant examples of the use of ornaments by various presses and designers, and some reflections on the techniques & typographical decisions required to use them.

The book will include three appendices. First will be an annotated bibliography of books which discuss and display printers’ flowers. Second will be a facsimile of Sarah Clutton’s invaluable article, ‘A Grammar of Type Ornament’, published in The Monotype Recorder in 1960. And third, we will provide an index of the make-up of every border and ‘floating fleuron’ in the book – printing, in black, a single example of each of the ornaments used in each with its Monotype number, keyed to the page on which that border appears. This will allow those unused to looking at typographical ornament to see more clearly how these small decorative elements combine to create their effects.

The book will of course be lavishly illustrated with multi-colour borders, as well as photographs, facsimiles of early printed work, and other work from the press. There will also be a full index.

We anticipate being able to complete the presswork by the first half of 2024, but please note that the binding will certainly take many months. Therefore, the first bound copies are unlikely to be shipped before the late autumn of 2024 at the very earliest.

Bordering on the Sublime: Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press will be issued in three states. Our present estimations of them, subject to change, are as follows:

A. About 60 copies. Full leather, stamped or with an inserted panel. Many borders accompanying the text, with a photographic essay showing marked-up proofs, some of the formes made up for printing, details of the printing process, historical photographs, and other Curwen work. Accompanied by a portfolio containing several oversized borders, possibly recreations of some Curwen borders not present in type, some new borders created for this book, plus one original Curwen proof. Approximately 250 pages. Boxed.
PRICE: Approximately C$5,000.00 SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

B. About 40 copies. As above, but quarter leather with decorated paper, with a portfolio containing a selection of the oversized proofs, but without the original borders & Curwen proof. Slipcased.
PRICE: Approximately C$3,600.00. SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

C. Up to 50 copies. Book as in B, but quarter cloth binding. Slipcased.
PRICE: Approximately C$2,600, SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

PLEASE NOTE that the prices given here are only estimates, and may very well rise: costs of type, paper, binding materials and labour (the bindings are not yet designed, and will be elaborate) continue to rise, and the pricing of books this far in advance, especially books of this complexity (for example, with considerable photographic work having to be sent out of house) is problematic. We have modified the number of copies of the A and B states, because of very heavy demand for the A copies, of which most are subscribed. However, if increasing demand for them is made apparent during the first few months of production we may be able to raise the number slightly, perhaps lowering the number of B state copies in turn.

RESERVATIONS are RECOMMENDED. Please contact the press.