Exhibition for Oxford Open Doors 10 September 2022
The Taylor Library opened its doors to the public on 10th September 2022, including an exhibition on the history of printing designed to fit in with the general theme of Oxford Open Doors: ‘Amazing inventions’.
Johannes Gutenberg started printing with moveable type in the early 1450s. The oldest printed books kept in the Taylor Library date back to 1470 and 1472.
Books printed before 1501 were called incunabula, literally meaning prints in swaddling clothes, i.e. in their infancy. They still imitated manuscripts in their layout and in the variety of letter forms used. Also, initials and other forms of rubrication were added later by hand, just like in manuscripts.
The Taylor Institution Library is fortunate enough to have enough early printings to be able to show some features of the manufacturing process from books in its collections.
The two oldest incunabuls in the Taylor collection are two copies of the Liber de vita ac moribus philosophorum poetarumque veterum . These were printed by different printers, close to each other in time, not in location (Nuremberg and Cologne). The printing was done with black ink only, so anything in a different colour needed to be added later manually, e.g. initials and highlighting of letters.
In this Spanish incunable (1491) (below) the printing and colouring process is clearly visible: the black text was printed first, the red heading separately in a second pull of the press; space for a large initial was left blank except for the so-called “guard letter”, a letter indicating which initial to fill in by hand. It would have been left to the person buying the printed book to decide how costly and ornate a decoration they would want. Sadly, he (or she! women owned books and illustrated them) did not bother to have the guard letter expanded to a fully fledged initial and never found the time (or the materials?) to do so.The Taylorian also holds two copies (shown below) of a commentary on Dante’s Commedia.
Both editions of the same text were printed in Venice, though by different printers. Bernardino Benali & Matthio di Parma printed the book in 1491 and Piero de zuanne di quarengii in 1497. Marginal woodcuts were added around the text in the 1497 edition.
The same woodblock was used for the main image in both copies. Woodblocks were harder wearing than type, so they would often be passed on or sold to other workshops. When printer Piero di Quarengii reused it in 1497, he had God the Father cut out from the semi-circle near the top, possibly to allow for the insertion of hand-painted coat of arms – there is already a blank shield ready for personalisation at the bottom but book owners liked to splash their identity all over the page. The second printer obviously had to typeset the text, so he could add woodcut borders. He had to use a smaller initial N to make the text fit.
Early 16th Century
Below are two editions of Le Rommant de la Rose printed in Paris in 1505 and 1538 by different Parisian printers, N. Desprez (1505) and Arnoul et Charles L’Angelier (1538), the first printed in folio format and the second in octavo.
Written between 1225 and 1280, the Roman de la Rose enjoyed an immense success first in manuscript form and then in print, so it is not surprising that two printers have produced an edition. The 1538 edition in octavo is much smaller than the 1505 in folio edition.
In the 16th century, Luther used printing to spread Reformation ideas, cooperating closely with the Wittenberg workshops. Thin pamphlets and the hefty Bible translations which Luther wrote, could easily be printed in multiple copies and spread over the country and beyond. The pamphlets often only consisted of one or two broadsheets folded into quires. The volume below, which contains 19 Luther pamphlets printed between 1519-1521, was bound together in one 16th century leather binding by a collector and thus survived. Each of the ‘tabs’ indicates another pamphlet.
The two anti-papist pamphlets below use woodcut illustrations for greater impact; the Taylorian owns two copies of the 1527 pamphlet, one of them coloured in with stencils.
A polemic in the form of thirteen pairs of woodcuts (with captions) depicting scenes from the life of Christ contrasted with scenes from the life of the Pope.
The Passional Christi vnnd Antichristi, a translation of the Antithesis figurata vitae Christi et Antichristi was published in 1521 shortly after the Diet of Worms in Wittenberg. The work features 26 woodcuts designed by Lucas Cranach in which scenes from the life of Christ are contrasted with those of the Antichrist, identified as the Pope. The Taylorian copy was published later that year in Erfurt.
A Pamphlet with allegorical woodcuts illustrating the history and ultimate defeat of the papacy, each accompanied by an explanation by Andreas Osiander and two rhyming couplets by Hans Sachs. The wood cuts by Erhard Schön have been printed first and then coloured in by hand. Staying within the lines with a brush was difficult, see the Pope’s cross (3v) and the Pope’s banner (4r).
For more information about early printing and incunabula, explore these two blogs: https://historyofthebook.mml.ox.ac.uk/ and https://teachingthecodex.com/blog/
The art of printing had developed further again and it was now possible to print in two colours. There are still many differences between the title pages of these two English-Dutch dictionaries whereas the 1721 publication looks much more regular.
Three books printed by father, wife and (heirs of) son Leers in 1658/60, 1675 and 1721 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. It seems that the printer’s workshop was continued by the widow and later the son of Arnold Leers. The author of the dictionaries was Henry Hexham who was bilingual, having spent many years in the Dutch army. Hexham’s dictionary was the first bilingual English-Dutch dictionary. It comprises an English-Dutch and a Dutch-English part, as well as a grammar ‘for the instruction of the learner’.
Printing in different alphabets required whole new sets of type. It is remarkable that Cyrillic matrices were available in Oxford. The University Press had bought them from an Amsterdam printer to publish the first ever printed Russian grammar. In the basement of the Sheldonian Theatre, the first home of Oxford University Press, Ludolf‘s grammar rolled off the press.
20th Century: printing as art
The art of printing was perfected over time, until there was a return to manual printing in the 20th century for small sections of the printing spectrum: art or samizdat literature or a combination of the two. In South America art was used in cordel literature, cheaply produced folk tales. Manual or small-scale printing allowed for artistic expression and for the use of cheap materials. Small print runs also allowed for distribution away from the public eye, e.g. by post.
East-German samizdat publications have used various creative ways of printing in small print runs. The Taylor Institution Library is fortunate to have some of these items in their collections.
The avantgarde publication Liane started in 1989 before the end of communism and continued afterwards. Jacket illustration: “Gewalt” by Moritz Götze, signed, 1989. The Taylorian is proud to own one of the of the 30 copies of this limited edition, a kind donation from the editors Susanne Schleyer and Heinz Havemeister who presented the book with original drawings and graphics in various techniques in person. It started as samizdat literature, using printing as art.
Uni/vers(;) was an East German illegally published journal, so called ‘samizdat’ literature.
Guillermo Deisler was a visual poet who had been imprisoned under the Pinochet regime in Chile in 1973 and went into exile, settling in Halle, East-Germany in 1986. He produced mail art (sent by mail to subscribers) and visual poetry between 1987 and 1995 in 35 issues.
Printing was used as art and as poetry.
From Brazil, cordel (string) literature is a popular and affordable means of publishing, in which small pamphlets are sold from strings, often in local markets. These include ballads, folktales, and educational works. Most have brightly coloured covers and include an eye-catching woodcut design. Woodcuts (same technique as in the 15th/16th Century!) were used to illustrate the cordel books, as the materials required were relatively inexpensive. Although the cordel form is usually associated with cheap, throwaway works, we find books on socially important themes made available to a wider audience. Cordel literature is an important tool for literacy and literary culture in the Brazilian northeast, an area with a rich folkloric tradition but high levels of poverty. Originally, the ballads of cordel literature came to Brazil from Portugal in the late 18th century and were passed down in the oral tradition, sung to audiences who could often neither read nor write. Now, cordel literature has spread in popularity across Brazil and a new generation of cordelistas even disseminate their work online.
Several items of rare cordel books, published by the Academia Brasileira de literatura de Cordel. featured in the exhibition.
Printing has been an amazing invention, many technical hurdles had to be overcome which took some time. As an early form of mass communication, it has changed society. It has become the precursor of modern electronic forms of communication, whilst the art of printing has become art itself on the one hand and child’s play on the other.
Taylor Institution Library