The celebrated Albion hand press used for printing the Kelmscott Chaucer will be auctioned at Christie’s (New York) on 6 December.
Morris bought the press–which is exceptionally large and reinforced with steel bands—because his printers were experiencing particular difficulty with the large borders in the Chaucer: i.e., the extra pressure required was causing repeated breakdowns on the other presses he then owned. “New press arrived from Hopkinson & Cope,” Sydney Cockerell recorded in his diary on 21 December 1894. But there were immediate mechanical problems with the new press as well. “Please let me know by return when the press will be repaired & ready for work,” Cockerell wrote to Hopkinson & Cope on 1 January 1895. “We expected that it would have been done before this, & have engaged new pressmen accordingly.” Finally, on 8 January, Cockerell was able to write in his diary, “2 presses at work on the Chaucer.”
After the closing of the Kelmscott Press in the spring of 1898, Morris’s presses (not including, of course, the types and ornaments) were sold to C. R. Ashbee, who then rather annoyed Cockerell and F. S. Ellis by proclaiming that he was Morris’s official successor in the world of fine printing. When Ashbee shut down his Essex House Press in 1910, the big Albion was put on the market again, though the history of its ownership during the following decade is a little murky. It emerges into daylight once more in 1924, now purchased by the American printer and type-designer Frederic W. Goudy, who began using it at his Village Press.
In the late 1960s the press came into the hands of Elizabeth and J. Ben Lieberman, who installed a Liberty Bell on top of the press (he was rather preoccupied with the notion of freedom of the press) and kept it in their living room for four decades. It was, in fact, impossible to walk into the Liebermans’ home (first in White Plains, N.Y., subsequently in New Rochelle) without pulling the bar and printing a memento with one’s name on it. Their son Jethro Lieberman inherited the press in 2001 and is now selling it.
The press will be available for viewing between 30 November and 5 December at Christie’s, 20 Rockefeller Plaza, on 49th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Christie’s estimate is $100,000–$150,000.
[Thanks to the the Briar Press for its useful account of the press’s history (which we have summarized and embellished here) and to Mark Samuels Lasner for calling this to our attention.]
[Photo by Paul Romaine]
[Update, 7 December 2013]
The press was sold to an undisclosed bidder for $233,000, considerably above the estimate.
The William Morris Society of North America and the Grolier Club sponsored a private view of the press the evening before the auction, at which Jethro Lieberman gave a talk about his family’s connection with Morris’s press.
There was an account of the history and significance of the press in the New York Times.
[Update, 10 December 2013]
The Cary Graphic Arts Collection at Rochester Institute of Technology has announced on its website that it was the successful bidder for the Morris press, with support from the Brooks Bower family. The press is expected to arrive on the RIT campus within a few weeks, and Stephen Galbraith, curator of the Collection, promises that it “it will have an active life at RIT, not simply as a museum artifact, but as a working press accessible to students, scholars and printers.”
[Thanks to Paul Romaine for letting us know about this announcement.]