Paul Nash: cottage type
The Samson Press
The Samson Press was operated by Flora Lucy Margaret Grierson and Joan Mary Shelmerdine. They were both born in 1899 and met at Somerville College, Oxford, where they matriculated in 1918. They formed a profound friendship which was to last the rest of their lives. Both ladies were naturally bookish, and in 1930 they decided to establish a small craft printing business, as a means of making a modest living. They had set up house together at Stuart’s Hill Cottage in Warlingham, Surrey, which they described as ‘a small shack built mostly of wood’. It had no electricity and was accessible only by climbing ‘more than a hundred steps cut in a hillside’. Here they installed a horizontal quarto Adana press and a small quantity of type, which they used to produce a series of Christmas cards which they sold to friends. The receipts were used to buy a crown Columbian press and a further range of typefaces.
In the early months of 1931 the ladies began work in earnest. Of the two, Shelmerdine had the more practical nature and became the main compositor and presswoman; Grierson later described her friend as the ‘creator’ of the press, and herself as ‘publicity agent, public relations officer, commercial traveller and head saleswoman’. Shelmerdine felt she needed some professional guidance and, in 1931, attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts where she attended some of J. H. Mason’s layout classes. His use of type, especially his disposition of upper case for title-pages and the opening lines of texts, is echoed in many Samson Press books, and his use of Caslon Old Face for teaching may also have influenced Shelmerdine in her choice of Caslon as one of two main types used at Samson in the early days (the other type selected was Goudy Old Style).
The ladies decided to name their Press ‘Samson’ after Flora’s first dog. An early Christmas greeting very probably depicts Samson, drawn by one of the ladies after a photograph and turned into a line block for use as an early, and quickly abandoned, press-device.
Their first few books were very modest affairs. Two pamphlets were printed in the opening months of 1931 and, containing no illustrations and brief literary texts extracted from existing sources, they were little more than exercises in typesetting and imposition on the Columbian press. Their first public book came shortly afterwards. Dated April 1931, it was The wee Apollo: twelve pre-Burnsian Scottish songs ... edited by A.A.W. Ramsay. It was printed on a Barcham Green hand-made paper and bound in quarter cloth with a homespun repeat-pattern paper on the boards. One hundred copies were printed and sold at four shillings, and the book was evidently successful enough to encourage the ladies to press on. The next two books had a similarly Scottish flavour, albeit with international literary spice: they were 5 songs from the Auvergnat, done into modern Scots by Willa Muir, wife of the poet Edwin Muir, and The flute, with other translations and a poem, being versions of Dutch and French poetry by Flora’s father Sir Herbert Grierson. These books did not represent the entire output of the Press for 1931, however, as the printing of Christmas cards and other ephemera continued. The earliest general prospectus I have seen is dated ‘Early 1932’ and makes it clear that, at this time, the ladies saw themselves primarily as printers and publishers of books, with secondary work being the production of ‘pamphlets, cards, invitations, greetings cards, book-plates & the like’.
In 1932 the publishing programme was expanded. In March came Six poems by Edwin Muir, which could be described as the first truly original text to be published by Samson. Next came the ladies’ first illustrated book, Nicht at Eenie or The bairns’ Parnassus, a collection of Scottish children’s verses and lullabies with 29 wood-engravings by Iain Macnab. This was to mark the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship with Macnab, another Scot who was, by this date, well-established as a painter, print-maker, wood-engraver and teacher. Several of his pupils later joined the group of artists commissioned by Samson.
The first of Macnab’s students to become involved was Gwenda Morgan. Her earliest commission, and her first book illustration, came with the frontispiece to Duke Hamilton’s wager, dated May 1934. Morgan was to become one of the Press’s most loyal artists. The same year saw the second Macnab title, an edition of Burns’s Tam O’Shanter. This was the major Samson book for this year, and the volume was carefully planned by printer and artist in a way that Nicht at Eenie had not been.
Over the next couple of years the production of greetings, broadsheets and other ephemera increased and only three further books were printed. Among the broadsheets was Jonah in the whale, dated June 1935, with a remarkable wood-engraving by Gertrude Hermes which is said to have inspired the accompanying text by Kenneth Muir. Somewhat less adventurous, but more commercial and equally interesting from an artistic viewpoint, were the Christmas cards, which had developed into a major part of the Press’s business by 1936. In this year the ladies established the popular ‘Christmas through the ages series’, which included images by Morgan, Macnab, Stanislaus Brien, Claude Flight (who taught with Macnab at his Grosvenor School of Modern Art), Tom Chadwick (another pupil of Macnab, of whom I shall say more shortly), Peter Barker-Mill (also a Macnab protégé), Dorothy Turner and Edith Lawrence (a friend and pupil of Flight at the Grosvenor School). This sequence of images, printed with great care, often in two or more colours, represents very well the Samson Press’s support of young artists, especially those connected with Macnab and his School.
The most important book of this period was ultimately completed as Pictures by Gwenda Morgan and Rhymes by D.G. Bunting. It was Morgan’s first major undertaking as a book-illustrator, although the original commission came in a roundabout way, from the children’s author Christine Chaundler, who wanted a series of illustrations for some verses she had written, verses which were subsequently replaced by those of Bunting. Shelmerdine was ‘then confronted with the problem of fitting the whole collection of oddments into something like presentable pages’. Despite these difficulties, this was one of the most delightful books to come from Samson, with strong similarities to Macnab’s Nicht at Eenie. Both were books of children’s verse with self-consciously naive wood-engraved illustrations; both were put together in a rather haphazard manner, with charming results; and, of course, neither was really intended for children at all.
Pictures by Gwenda Morgan and Rhymes by D.G. Bunting is, like several others from the press, a good deal scarcer than its formal limitation to 200 copies would suggest. This is because, on 11 December 1936, the day of the abdication, just when ‘all the Christmas stock and a lot of special orders were ready. An incandescent paraffin lamp exploded, throwing blazing paraffin everywhere.’ The cottage and its contents, including this book and several others, and all the printing equipment, were destroyed.
The ladies decided to make an entirely new start. They moved back to Oxfordshire in early 1937, where Joan bought the freehold of number 13 Park Street in Woodstock. They bought another Columbian press, a large demy model this time, and a range of Gill’s Perpetua and Felicity types, along with some small founts of Old English, Gill Sans and Monoline (a script type).
One of their first acts was to replace some of the material lost to the fire. All ten of the images in the ‘Christmas through the ages’ series were recut, usually by the original artists. By November 1937 the Press was exhibiting new specimens of printing at the Red House in Oxford, and at Macnab’s Grosvenor School, and in early 1938 the ladies set about reprinting P.C. Boutens’ poem The Christ-child (in Sir Herbert Grierson’s translation), the original edition of which had been destroyed in the fire. They commissioned new wood-engravings from Tom Chadwick, and printed 150 copies, including two on vellum. Macnab considered Chadwick his most promising pupil at the time, and the similarity between his style and that of Gwenda Morgan, also one of Macnab’s ‘star pupils’, is evident. The very symmetrical title-page of The Christ-child reveals, in its layout and use of capitals, the clear influence of J. H. Mason.
This was to be the last hand-printed Samson Press book, however. The ladies’ struggles to re-establish their Press were further set-back in 1939 by the outbreak of war. In this year they planned a new series of greetings to complement ‘Christmas through the ages’ entitled ‘Christmas now’, but managed to print only six of the planned ten cards (with illustrations by Macnab, Suzanne Cooper, Dorothy Turner, Chadwick, Brien and Morgan). After the declaration of war Shelmerdine and Grierson continued to print for a short while, but were obliged to close the Press before the end of 1940. Shelmerdine wrote to John Johnson, Printer to the University of Oxford, to ask for work and was given a job in the design department.
In May 1944 the ladies had the opportunity to move into a larger house, that next-door at number 11 Park Street, a property then known as ‘Old Church House’. The type-cases, and a table-top Albion press which the ladies had acquired by this date, were installed on the first floor, with the Columbian in a room on the ground floor. In 1946 they began printing again, starting, as Grierson said, with ‘what can readily be sold, i.e. Christmas Cards, picture postcards, etc.’ This was to be beginning of a long, hard, but ultimately successful period of production for the Press, successful in the sense that for some years the ladies were able to support themselves largely on the income from printing greetings cards and ephemera. The first few years after the war were a great struggle, but by 1950 sales were healthy again and the ladies even considered printing another book, an edition of some of Wordsworth’s sonnets. Nothing came of this plan, however, partly because Shelmerdine was taken ill; from around this period, when the ladies had reached their fifties, they both began seriously to be troubled by ill-health.
In the 1950s work at the Samson Press settled into a regular rhythm, printing postcards, calendars, bookplates and other ephemera throughout the year, working on a series of Christmas cards, and preparing an announcement to send out to standing customers in the autumn. They continued to commission new work from their tame artists, and to make efforts to discover younger talents, although this tailed off as the decade progressed. Gwenda Morgan and Iain Macnab continued to be the pillars of the Press’s artistic output, but the fifties also saw the commissioning of new illustrations from William Kermode, Alison McKenzie and Erna Pinner, who specialised in animal drawings and linocuts. A prospectus of around 1954 recorded that ‘We have been told that there is no other hand-press in this country still working on a commercial basis without the support of a more modern machine’, and this was very probably true. The early 1950s was not a rich period for small and private presses, and such important ventures as the Vine Press at Hemingford Grey, and Stanbrook Abbey under Dame Hildelith Cumming, did not begin production until later in the decade.
Although no books were printed by hand after 1938, 1951 saw a new Samson Press publication called Introduction to Woodstock. This was written and designed by Shelmerdine, printed by her old employer the Oxford University Press, and illustrated with drawings by Macnab. It was a commercial production, but is nevertheless a charming little book, with something of the flavour of its age, as well as the smack of Shelmerdine’s taste in design.
By the mid-1950s the ladies had decided to diversify, not so much, one suspects, for economic reasons but because an element of tedium must have set in after a decade of printing and selling thousands of greetings cards each year. This diversification took the form of trade in crafts and fancy goods, especially gloves (for which Woodstock was historically famous), which were sold in the Park Street shop along with the productions of the Press. The annual prospectuses include notices of this trade from 1956, and it seems that Grierson was in charge of this aspect of their livelihood, as Shelmerdine had been in charge of the printing.
In 1959 there was the usual rush to produce Christmas cards, a general prospectus was printed and there was feverish activity to prepare material for an important exhibition of private press printing in San Diego. The ladies were also approached by John Mason, son of Shelmerdine’s erstwhile teacher J. H. Mason, who asked her to print something for his new collection of hand-made paper specimens. She set two pages of text, describing the work and history of the Press, and printed 200 copies on one of Mason’s papers, as well as a number on Barcham Green hand-made stock for her own use. Mason’s book was published by his Twelve by Eight press as More papers by John Mason; it was dated 1960 but copies only began to be issued in 1965, and each is different.
Despite the improved economic climate, and the interest in the Press perceptible at the close of the fifties, 1960 was to be the last year in which any substantial hand-printing was undertaken. The precise reasons are unclear, but both women were in failing health and, perhaps, having reached sixty they felt it was time to withdraw from the typographical rat race. Printing, publishing and the commissioning of new artwork continued for a few years, but on a reduced scale. The shop also remained open, and indeed the sales of gloves, jewellery, painted tiles, dolls, headscarves and ties probably accounted for the bulk of the ladies’ income at this period. In 1962 Shelmerdine designed two small publications which were printed for Samson by the John Roberts Press in London. One was a pamphlet by Grierson giving The story of Woodstock gloves, and the other was a concertina-folded Souvenir of Woodstock. This last must have been printed in a relatively-large edition since, remarkably, it is still in print. Visitors to Woodstock Church, just a few doors down from the old home of Press, can pick up a copy for 30 pence.
By 1963 the presses were standing idle for much of the time. A leaflet dated October of this year was printed commercially and advertises ‘FLORA GRIERSON - Fine Crafts’; the work of the ‘SAMSON PRESS - Hand-printers’ was confined to the back page. the exact date of the closure of the Samson Press is not known. Indeed, the business probably petered out rather than closing in a formal sense. Around 1965 Shelmerdine suffered a stroke which left her unable to operate the presses and, by the end of the decade, it was clear that she would not recover sufficiently to continue printing. Indeed, she was probably quite ready to give up printing and began to look for a suitable home for the presses, type and equipment, and the archive of material she had printed over the course of thirty-five years. She contacted the Bodleian, and Michael Turner was able to facilitate the transfer of this material to the Library, where it is now preserved. Flora Grierson died shortly afterwards and Shelmerdine was obliged to retire to a nursing home; she died there in 1994 at the age of ninety-five.
The significance of the Samson Press is, I think, twofold. In the first place it is important as a private press, an expression of the typographical and artistic ambitions of two largely-untrained ladies, who attempted to make a living with a hand-press at a time when most private presses were run either as hobbies by those employed in other spheres, or used considerably more mechanisation in the production of their books. Shelmerdine produced work of considerable charm and beauty. The dozen small volumes she and Grierson printed, mostly at Warlingham, have a warmth and simplicity, a lack of pretention and a striving towards excellence, which makes them worthy of our attention. That all were produced in small editions, and several were partly or largely destroyed in an accidental fire, makes the typography of the Samson Press less-well-known than it deserves to be – hidden, or half-hidden at any rate, from general view.
The second important reason to remember Samson is for the artists with whom the Press developed symbiotic relationships. Iain Macnab and his pupil Gwenda Morgan were the most loyal and prolific, but the other Samson artists all produced good work, and many deserve serious recognition (which a few have received). Samson was valuable as a showcase for these artists, often giving them their first (sometimes only) opportunity to be seen and appreciated by the public.
Paul Nash has worked in Special Collections at the Bodleian Library and at the Royal Institute of British Architects, where he compiled the RIBA Library’s bibliography of ‘early Printed Books’. He is a book designer and amateur printer, has written on printing history and private presses and is joint editor of The Private Library.