ARION'S LYRE: A CONSTELLATION OF PRESS BOOKS
by Andrew Hoyem
Address to the Club of Odd Volumes, Boston, 15 February 1995
A poet of legend in Greece named Arion was sailing back to his native isle from successful performances in neighboring kingdoms, his purse filled with the gold of prizes he'd won with his lyre. Aboard ship the sailors had grown covetous of his fortune and determined to rob him of it. They informed Arion that he was to be stripped of his wealth and thrown overboard. The poet pleaded with the sailors to allow him one last song whereafter he promised he would fling himself into the sea. The music from his lyre charmed a dolphin in the vicinity of the vessel, and it carried Arion, mounted on its back, his lyre aloft, safely to shore. There he reported the crime to his patron the king, and when the guilty sailors put into port the king had them arrested and put to death. It was a case of poetic justice. Arion is immortalized in the night sky by his lyre, which was thrown up into the heavens by the gods to form a constellation. I took Arion's name for my press in the hope that its books might shine like stars in the bibliographic firmament. Whether they will is up to others, and for the gods, to decide. But the lights of other printer-publishers from the past have always been there to guide me. I would like to reflect on those who have influenced me, then tell you about Arion Press and its operation, and show you slides of some of its editions.
Of course I take inspiration from the first hundred years of printing from moveable types and from those scholar-printers who cared equally about the quality of text and presswork and who tried out almost every typographic arrangement under the sun by the middle of the sixteenth century, leaving the rest of us to play variations on their themes but seldom to invent new solutions to the manner in which manuscripts are multiplied and information is transmitted visually by the book. The last hundred years have been the period since the "Revival of Fine Printing" by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press. Morris revolted against the industrial revolution, reverting to handset types, handmade papers, handpresses, and bindings made by hand to reassert the virtues of craftsmanship and the values of aesthetics that seemed to have been lost to an undue reliance on machinery and a preoccupation with productivity. Since man is blessed with hands and manipulative fingers, the manual arts, rather than the martial arts, should be employed against the devil's idleness so goes the preachment.
Today those few of us who continue to use lead alloy types and letterpresses might seem to be rebelling against, or at least resisting, the electronic evolution. My own attitude is that one ought to use the most appropriate techniques and materials for each job. Most Arion Press limited edition books will utilize Monotype and handset types, mouldmade and handmade papers, the cylinder press, and a good deal of hand work in the binding, for the visual and tactile effects that can be gotten from these processes. However, we do use computers, photo-lithography, intaglio, and non-traditional methods as called for, when justified by the economics of the project, or when the medium bears a message that we shall hope goes on whispering to generations after us.
Who within the past hundred years have been my antecedents? Morris is less important to me than some others in the fine printing tradition. First I should acknowledge my direct predecessors, the Grabhorn brothers, Edwin, the elder, who founded the press in San Francisco in 1919, and Robert, the younger, who was my mentor and partner from 1966 to 1973, when he died at the age of 73. Bob claimed that the Eragny Press of Lucien Pissaro, son of Camille, the Impressionist painter, was far more interesting than Kelmscott for its lighter, frenchified adaptation of the heavy roman alphabets that had been created for presses influenced by Morris and for the beautiful color woodcuts that grace its pages. The Grabhorn Press was for over 45 years the most admired fine printing facility in the country. Edwin and Robert were a couple of unschooled but highly educated Indiana boys whose complementary intelligence, industriousness, and curiosity enabled them to set up shop in a sophisticated city, to rapidly earn national fame, and to sustain throughout their long careers a spontanaity in book design that was grounded in a thorough knowledge of printing history. Bennett Cerf commissioned them to print a sumptuous folio edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass for Random House in 1930. This is generally considered their most important work and is definitely a monument among printed books. It was handset in 18 point Goudy Newstyle type, printed on dampened handmade paper, with simple woodcut decorations by Valenti Angelo, bound by hand with a goatskin spine and wooden boards. The choice of that little-known, ruggedly handsome, American type seems the eternal setting for Whitman's poetry, and the proportions of the pages have the durability of a classic.
While Ed acquired paintings, pewter, rugs, antiques, and one of the largest collections of Japanese prints, Bob concentrated on collecting in the field of printing history, including examples of books produced by the most noted printers of the past five hundred years and with particularly impressive holdings in type specimens and printers' manuals. His hobby was also self-education for his profession. Robert Grabhorn became a scholar of the history of type and the development of the book, yet his erudition was kept private. He wrote extremely well but was the author of just a few brief introductions. Yet he was in person very generous with his knowlege, particularly after a social evening when warmed by brandy he would share his perceptions and the treasures of his library in the home on Russian Hill he shared with his wickedly witty wife Jane, herself the proprietress of the Jumbo Press which satirized fine printing. I was a beneficiary of many such occasions. Robert's learnedness remains evident in the historical allusions contained in the many styles of Grabhorn books and in those that the two of us collaborated on under the imprint of Grabhorn-Hoyem. And his bibliographical discernment is also recorded in his collection that was transferred to the San Francisco Public Library, a precious resource for scholars and fine printers. Another legacy, although it had to be bought, is that I have been able to preserve the equipment of the Grabhorn Press, including its vast type collection, which is in use at the Arion Press.
Among the sub-collections in Robert's library is a nearly complete gathering of the work of Bruce Rogers. Edwin and Robert claimed to be the "best students" of Bruce Rogers, who they agreed was the greatest artificer of the book. Rogers, also of Indiana, was born in 1870, almost twenty years before Edwin and fully thirty years before Robert. I was born sixty-five years later and in turn became yet another student of the amazing BR, trying to inform my own typographic approaches to books with what the text seemed to demand by reason of its origins, historically, culturally, architecturally, geographically, artistically, et cetera. Rogers called this "allusive" printing designs that alluded to earlier periods, though sometimes to the present, and even to the future. He pointed to Pickering as a predecessor, who "had the Whittinghams reprint early works in a style that simulated their original editions without being attempts at facsimile." But, he went on, "the practice of period printing by no means precludes sympathy with modern, even ultra-modern styles", and he regretted not having been able to accept the invitation of Ezra Pound to arrange a new printing of the Cantos. Would we not be correct to claim Rogers as the first pre-postmodernist of printing?
During our late-night conversations, Robert Grabhorn would urge me to collect books for my own edification. He said, "You are making books, therefore you must collect them." I demurred, saying that I was too poor as a young printer to afford to buy rare books. Bob argued that I could afford to collect if I found a subject that was not actively traded, perhaps the work of someone lesser-known, under-estimated, or overlooked. He suggested Rudolf Koch, the German calligrapher, type designer, and leader of an arts and crafts group in Offenbach who had lived from 1876 to 1934. Out of the many catalogues he regularly received in the mail he pulled one from the English dealer Percy Muir and pointed out that he was offering a selection of Koch items which were modestly priced. He urged me to order them all. I added up the prices, gulped, sent off the order, and forthwith became a collector. Over the past twenty or so years I have assembled the most extensive private collection of the work of Rudolf Koch in this country, and it has been both instuctive and inspiring. Koch was the supreme lettering artist of our era. His calligraphy, practiced as religious meditations in the writing out of whole books of the Bible, is fluid, not florid, irregular, imprecise, and highly artistic. His type designs are more innovative than any others in this century and more beautiful, with the possible exception of Rogers' Centaur. One must grant that his fellow countryman Hermann Zapf is today more influential and that the more prolific work of Frederic Goudy has had a much broader and more utilitarian impact. Yet in the construction of letterforms, where invention is all but impossible and only minor modifications are barely possible, Koch managed to make alphabets that were indeed new and had exquisite refinements and subtleties to their variously bold and slender outlines. He was also a graphic artist during the expressionist movement, cutting woodblocks that held both illustration and lettering for printing as entire pages in blockbooks. Just as Robert Grabhorn predicted, I learned much from the collection and very much enjoyed the activity of collecting as well.
When Robert Grabhorn was in his twenties his older brother sent him off to Europe on an extended trip. The young man settled into Paris, ostensibly to study bookbinding. Both the woman teaching the course and one of the girl students took a fancy to him, so he didn't do much bookbinding. However he did learn from the excursion more than what he was taught in the ways of love. This was the time of the expatriate writers and the expatriate presses. Bob fell in with the scene, visiting the Three Mountains Press, for example. He also became aware of livres d'artistes, the books being made then in France that contained original prints by major artists. I believe that his serious interest in the history of printing began during these months abroad. It was an investment by Edwin that paid off for both of them.
The Grabhorn Press was not primarily a publisher, although it did issue books irregularly under its own imprint. In the 1930s its Rare Americana Series of relatively inexpensive books brought in needed income during the Depression. In the fifties and early sixties it produced plays of Shakespeare for direct sale. However, most of the work that passed through the shop was paid for by private and institutional customers and by other publishers, such as Random House and the Book Club of California. It should be noted that whatever constraints might have been felt by the business, both brothers had married well and were without immediate needs, Edwin especially, whose wife was quite wealthy. Homes and the shop were owned outright. The overhead was minimal.
I wanted to, and, frankly, had to, do something different from the Grabhorns. I started out in 1961 as a publisher of avante garde poetry in partnership at the Auerhahn Press, located in a former cobbler shop just around the corner from the magnificent premises of the Grabhorn Press. These were the days of the Beat Generation, and we were publishing those unwashed writers then disdained by major New York houses that were only too happy to take up our authors after they had appeared in Life magazine. We were also printers, but incidentally so, because with inexpensive, obsolete letterpress equipment and with our own sweat equity we could afford to publish three dollar paperbacks in editions of five hundred copies. In 1964 Ed Grabhorn asked me to do presswork for them part-time. I had become more and more interested in fine printing and jumped at this opportunity. During the following year I learned from the brothers daily and carried tricks of the trade back to the Auerhahn Press for another full shift. In 1965 we closed the Auerhahn Press and I moved the printing equipment downtown to Commercial Street, then on the fringe of the financial district, into the third floor of a pre-earthquake building on what had been the waterline of San Francisco Bay, before the gold seekers arrived and used their ships for landfill. I vowed to become a fine printer and to eschew the risks of publishing. With two employees I had a payroll to meet. Within a month I was back in publishing. A literary publisher, who had contracted with me to print an edition of the essays of the poet Charles Olson, defaulted, leaving me with the type and the typesetting bill. I had no other choice but to publish the book. I never again was able to get out of publishing, and I'm happy to report that I've remained voluntarily. A year later the Grabhorn Press closed; Ed retired, and Bob and I formed a partnership that lasted seven years.
After his death I changed the name of the press, no longer feeling entitled to trade on the good Grabhorn name, and adopted the Arion imprint. The staff grew to about six people. We continued to do work on commission, but I began to publish books that were different from those produced by the Grabhorns and by the presses in the fine printing tradition. In 1976 I made my first livre d'artiste, with the artist Fred Martin, an elaborately illustrated journal, called A Travel Book. It had over seventy pages of complex typesetting intermingled with photo-engravings of drawings colored by linoleum blocks. The project almost bankrupted the press, but it was indicative of a new direction that I wanted to take: a revival of the artist book that was to have a distinctly American flavor, a strong typographic slant, a rationale for the joining of text and image that would make a convincing combination, not mere illustration or vehicle for a suite of prints but books undeniably books.
Still, I had an avid interest in the printing of books in the lineage that stretches from the best incunables, through Kelmscott, Doves, Ashendene, Cranach, Golden Cockerel, down to the present. Robert and I had talked about how wonderful it would be if we could print Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. We even set a page of the novel in type, but, given the modest financial resources of our little company (we were barely making the "nut" from month to month), this was only a dream. In 1977 a friend approached me, Fritz Maytag, of the washing machine family and owner of the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco. Fritz asked if there was a particular book I most wanted to print. I immediately answered Moby-Dick. The conversation shifted, but Maytag came back to the subject a month later, having quietly enlisted another businessman named Barry Traub for an investment in the project. I was overwhelmed. They asked me to prepare a budget and to seek out other investors who would form a limited partnership. We called ourselves White Whale Associates. A year and a half later six hundred pages had been handset in 18 point Goudy Modern type; printed, along with a hundred wood engravings by Barry Moser, on dampened handmade paper that had been manufactured at the Barcham Green Mill in England to my specifications: a slightly blue tone and with the watermark of a whale; and had been bound in full blue goatskin, specially dyed to match the blue ink of the initial letters, an alphabet of capitals that had been designed for the book and named Leviathan. The edition of 265 copies was published in 1979 at the unheard-of price of $1,000.00 and soon sold out. I felt that I had finally made a book that could stand alongside the best work of the fine printers I most admired from the past.
The investors were pleased. They got their money back and a little more, some complimentary copies, and the satisfaction of having been involved in a business deal that was entirely business-like, yet furthered the arts and crafts. Three of the White Whale partners then offered a modest investment in Arion Press that enabled me to plan out an entire year in advance (instead of going from month-to-month), and we established Lyra Corporation as the umbrella.
Without abandoning the typographic book and the edition deluxe, I wanted to add a line of livres d'artistes that I hoped would be extraordinary. Through mutual friends, the artist Jim Dine and I were brought together in 1980, and since then we have made several books together, from The Apocalypse, with 29 woodblock prints, of 1982, through The Case of the Wolf-Man by Sigmund Freud, with 5 etchings and 6 woodblock prints, of 1993. I have gone on to make books with original prints by such artists as Ida Applebroog, Arakawa, John Baldessari, Mel Bochner, Richard Bosman, Richard Diebenkorn, the architect Michael Graves, Jasper Johns, Wayne Thiebaud, and with the late Robert Motherwell producing 40 etchings, I printed and published James Joyce's Ulysses, at 800 pages and priced at $7,500.00, our largest venture.
Another line of our books that departs from the fine printing tradition is the publication that is completely original with Arion Press. The most significant work of this kind is Birds of the Pacific Slope, the first publication of the ornithological art and writings of Andrew Jackson Grayson, a California pioneer who, inspired by Audubon, recorded birds of California and Mexico, and left 156 bird portraits of immense scientific and artistic value. These had been donated to the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, along with his field notes and species accounts. Arion Press published in 1986 a large portfolio with full-scale, full-color facsimiles and a quarto companion volume with the first biography of Grayson and his writings. Grayson was an early field correspondant for the Smithsonian Institution, and our publication was the cause for an exhibition of his paintings and specimens at its National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D. C. We are similarly proud of our publication on Le Désert de Retz, the first book on an important French picturesque folly garden created in the late eighteenth century. Even our reprintings of important works of literature bear the stamp of Arion Press. We want our editions to be more than physical tributes to literary masterpieces through attention to textual matters, the inclusion of new introductory essays, and other details that make the Arion version unique.
With the acquisition six years ago of M & H Type, a second division of the company that is the oldest and largest surviving type foundry and Monotype facility in the country, we now have a ten employees. Back in the mid-eighties we moved from Commercial Street (where the press had been located for 20 years) to the South-of-Market area, a large brick warehouse on Bryant Street, between Second and Third streets. We have 10,000 square feet of space, which allows us to have a gallery and library for the display of the books.
Among us the functions of editing, printing, binding, marketing, bookkeeping, and floor sweeping are shared. Who decides which books the Arion Press will publish and how they will appear? The answer is that I do with the caveat that many others influence these decisions, most of all those with whom I work on a daily basis, though some excellent suggestions have come from friends, artists, customers, and advisors to the Press.
How do we survive as publishers of fine books without grants or subsidies? First, we make books that we care about and into which we are willing to put endless amounts of time, energy, and attention to detail, as well as costly materials. Second, we work almost as hard at selling the books. During the Grabhorn era the selling of fine editions was done by antiquarian booksellers primarily. Through the 1950s and into the 1960s presses would ship sizable orders to various dealers around the country who would in turn sell the books to their customers, while relatively few individual orders were taken directly. The rare book business changed dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s. Few ground-level, general-interest shops remain. The dealers now specialize, operating out of offices and homes, through catalogues, and at antiquarian book fairs. Arion Press books do appear on the shelves and lists of these dealers, but mainly as items on the secondary market when they increase (or sometimes decrease) in value.
Some booksellers and art dealers purchase Arion books for resale to their customers, but the larger percentage of our editions are sold directly from the Press to visitors, by mail order, and through contacts at art fairs here and abroad where we represent ourselves. We have the support of faithful collectors, individuals and institutions that join our group of subscribers and commit to purchase the regular series annually.
The books are seen in exhibitions, such as "A Century of Artist Books" that was recently mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where two Arion books were displayed. Shows like this are happening more frequently, attesting to an increase in publishing activity and resulting in a heightened awareness for the public, which, in turn, enables us to continue to make books that aspire to art.