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The Essex House Press: Poetry and Music

Event: Saturday 9 March 2 – 4pm

A celebration of the Essex House Press

Join us for an afternoon of celebration of the Essex House Press. Events include poetry reading, music, and an insight into the world of the designers who worked with Ashbbe. There will also be a chance to look at our collection of books in more detail.


Exhibition: The Essex House Press:  Poetry and music

Saturday 9 February - Sunday 24 March 2019

The Essex House Press formed part of the Guild of Handicraft from 1898, when following the death of William Morris Charles Robert Ashbee acquired the Kelmscott Presses together with three of the Kelmscott staff, Thomas Binning and J Tippet, compositors and S. Mowlem, pressman.   It was one of the important private presses of the Arts and Crafts movement and the last of the Guild’s distinctive artistic activities to come into operation, following its mastery of silversmithing, jewellery and furniture making.

One can imagine Ashbee’s pride as he watched the sheets of a book coming off the press.  And when the finished copies came back from the binders, he would take one and write in it ‘C.R. Ashbee, private copy’.  The Essex House Press Collection at Court Barn consists almost entirely of the copies which Ashbee set aside for himself.


The ‘Great Poems of the Language’ series

Fourteen volumes were printed on vellum using Caslon type.  They were published in England by Edward Arnold, 37 Bedford Street, Strand, and in America by Samuel Buckley & Co., 100 William Street, New York.

They were printed in a more or less uniform treatment: a short poem would be chosen, with initial letters drawn in and coloured by hand, a frontispiece engraved on wood and also coloured by hand and, a vellum binding, blind-stamped with a design by Ashbee of a rose flanked by the words Soul is Form from Spenser’s An Hymn in Honour of Beauty.  Between fifty and a hundred and twenty-five were printed.  They were not cheap to buy at two or three guineas - a value today of £250.00 or £375.00.

The Essex House Song Book: 

The song book was meant as a discouragement to Guildsmen, who got carried away in the excitement of the moment and started singing songs which Ashbee and Janet disapproved of.  Janet complained that “Lodder’s rendering of High-tiddleti-i-ti represented the depths of public house vulgarity.”  She edited the Song Book and wrote many of the airs and lyrics. 

The song book is a collection of the lyrics and catches, hymns and psalms, marching songs and choruses and comic verses which the Guild used.  It was a characteristic Guild of Handicraft production, both in its style and its sense of moral purpose.  The songs had been collected since the very early days of the Guild in Whitechapel.  It revived old memories of workshop days in London, and weekends at The Court House, Long Crendon, which was the first property acquired by the National Trust.  Great emphasis was put on the community of Guildsmen, the life of jovial fellowship and high ideals of craftsmanship.  Ashbee’s song Joan’s Ale at the Guild of Handicraft ends with the toast ‘Good luck to the Guild’.