Fine Printing In Lexington

Paul Evans Holbrook

A talk delivered in the Peal Gallery of the Margaret I. King Library at the University of Kentucky, 16 November 2001.

As Burton Milward wrote over a decade ago, in an essay for The Kentucky Review devoted to the Book Arts:

The history of printing extends far into Lexington’s past, beginning on 11 August 1787 when John Bradford, a versatile man with no previous printing experience, produced the first issue of The Kentucke Gazette. Kentucky then was a part of Virginia and would not become a state for five years. The town of Lexington was but eight years old, and it had fewer than 500 residents. (KR, 5)

Bradford also printed The Kentucky Almanac, the first pamphlet published west of the Alleghenies, in 1788 and by the following year had printed a book of poems by a Kentucky poet. He became the official printer of the Commonwealth when we achieved statehood. By 1795 Lexington had two printing offices, meeting all the needs of the inhabitants from blank books, ledgers and account books, invitations, visiting cards, bank checks, funeral notices, circulars, &c.

As Burton records, the date of the opening of the first private press is unrecorded, yet it surely dates back to the early days of the city, and, as he says:

...played an important part in the political life, and death, of the people in an era of personal journalism, vituperative broadside, and the Code Duello. (KR, 6)

During the Civil War one of Morgan’s Men was a printer, and occasionally they would commandeer a printing office and print an issue of The Vidette, a broadsheet published “Semi-occasionally by Morgan’s Brigade.” Our contemporary Lexington History Museum is again using The Vidette name for one of its publications. By 1903 there was a tiny newspaper in circulation, The Gratz Park News, the work of nine-year-old Brownell Berryman and his friends.

John Bradford had set the precedent for future Lexington printers when he began his work here with “no previous experience”, or as Carolyn Hammer has later said, “An uneducated and naïve practice of private press printing had existed in Lexington for quite a number of years...” (B, 20) I include among these practitioners the printers of the Bur Press and the Gravesend Press, as well as the Associates of The Anvil Press, and all the many apprentices of the King Library Press. I would like to tell you very briefly about each of these presses.

The Bur Press

Truly fine printing began in Lexington in the early 1940s, when Amelia King Buckley and Carolyn Reading (later Hammer) had the idea to print a series of essays by Kentucky authors, and began printing together under the imprint of the Bur Press. Carolyn had gotten interested in printing as a child with rubber stamps, but that early experience was enlarged when she was studying at Columbia. Professor Shaver taught a course on the history of books, and Carolyn had the opportunity to see a number of great libraries and collections, including the Morgan Library, presided over by the mysterious Belle da Costa Greene, whom Carolyn met in 1932. In Professor Shaver’s course she was introduced to the terms “private press” and “hand-press printing” and came to the realization that there were people still working at the hand press. A New York Public Library exhibit of modern fine press printing raised the question: “Where are the women printers?” and Carolyn knew she wanted to be one. For her term paper for the History of the Book Carolyn was loyal to our first Kentucky printer, writing about John Bradford, who, when hauling his press and type over land from the Ohio River landing at Maysville (then Limestone), lost some type over the very rough roads, which he replaced with letters carved from wood — or so it is said — to enable him to begin to print the Kentucke Gazette.

When Carolyn came back to Lexington in 1940, after working at the Library of Congress, and teaching in the Kentucky mountains, she came to work under the University of Kentucky’s first librarian, Margaret I. King, also a Columbia graduate. When talking about Columbia and Professor Shaver, Miss King encouraged her to “print a book” providing she attended to her library responsibilities first. And so Carolyn suggested to her friend Amelia Buckley that they have a private press. As Carolyn said, “We started out printing for fun — but we took our pleasure very seriously.” (KR, 31) They bought a small table-top press in New York and a small amount of Goudy Oldstyle type. The first piece printed at the press was a quotation from Carlyle on good intentions on 24 August, 1941. The two produced a “Kentucky Calendar for the year 1942, featuring photographs of the environs of Lexington — now only as they used to be, taken by Ben Hart and Brooks Hamilton and other members of the Lexington Camera Club.” Finally, being ready to “print a book”, the first of the monographs appeared in 1943. It was The Education of a Gentleman: Jefferson Davis at Transylvania, by Margaret Newnan Wagers, then dean of women there. Soon they acquired a larger press, a Chandler and Price (today used by Gray Zeitz of Larkspur Press) as well as a pressroom in a garage addition at Carolyn’s residence. Mary Spears (later Van Meter) of Paris had joined their efforts as paste-paper and marbled paper maker and book binder, as did Harriett McDonald (later Holladay) who produced art work for illustrations. The Bur Press published several books of interest thereafter, including: Rafinesque in Lexington, by Prof. Huntley Dupre, and Clavia Goodman’s Bitter Harvest: Miss Laura Clay’s Suffrage Work. In 1947 the children’s story, Mr. Poof’s Discovery, the story of a mouse who accidentally discovers how butter is made, by Rena and John Jacob Niles, was issued, accompanied by Harriett Holladay’s illustrations. The last monograph, Clay Lancaster’s Back Streets and Pine Trees: The Work of John McMurtry, was printed by Jacob Hammer, Victor Hammer’s son, who had recently arrived in Lexington with his father and mother. And to repeat my quotation of Carolyn’s earlier remark in full: “An uneducated and naïve practice of private press printing had existed in Lexington for quite a number of years — before Victor Hammer’s arrival.” (B, 20)

The impact of Victor Hammer’s arrival in Lexington on fine printing continues to be felt today. As Carolyn has related, “Victor had brought his own knowledge from Florence and Vienna, from the traditions of printing in Europe, since its origins in the fifteenth century...And when we did learn from Victor, we dismissed all the earlier self-taught techniques we had used.” (KR, 31) Victor Hammer — portrait artist, sculptor, architect, type designer, printer, and craftsman — had left Vienna after the Nazi annexation of Austria because he felt he couldn’t work without artistic freedom, and that he would be forced to become a propaganda artist for the Third Reich.

The Gravesend Press

Through friends he acquired a teaching position in the Art Department at Wells College in Aurora, New York. Upon retirement in 1948, friends arranged an exhibition of his art works in Chicago. It was there he met Raymond McLain, president of Transylvania and Joseph Graves, a member of the board. Enthusiastic over Hammer’s range of skill and talents, they invited him to Transylvania as artist-in-residence. Hammer’s achievements as printer and typographer changed the course of handprinting in Kentucky. As Carolyn records: “When I first met Victor Hammer — before we established The Anvil Press — he gave classes at Transylvania. Quite a few of us went up, because we knew we could learn a great deal from him. Amelia Buckley became interested in calligraphy, and I wanted a Washington handpress. I was able to buy one from Joe Graves, who had obtained for himself a larger press from the Lexington Gravure Company. He called his press the Gravesend Press.” (KR, 31)

Soon after Victor Hammer had reëstablished his own handpress in Lexington, the Stamperia del Santuccio, Joseph C. Graves established his press at his home in the country, north of Lexington. The Gravesend Press issued its first title, The Mint Julep, in 1949, with illustrations by Graves. This book is now in its third edition, lately printed by Gray Zeitz at Larkspur Press in Monterey, Kentucky. Graves used his press to also print Christmas cards, advertisements for his gentleman’s clothing firm Graves, Cox and Co. and other ephemera, often illustrated by Graves and handcolored by him as well. The second book issued by Gravesend included some of Thomas Bewick’s woodcuts as illustrations, printed from the original blocks. The third was Rudolf Koch’s Wer ist Victor Hammer, printed in Hammer’s American Uncial, with the translation interlinear in Civilité, and printed by Jacob Hammer. Dr. Faust followed, printed by the Hammers, with illustrations engraved in wood by Fritz Kredel, friend of the Graves and the Hammers. Kredel also illustrated the next issue, Andrea de Piero, as well as Aucassin and Nicolette, which followed that. The last Gravesend book was Dolls and Puppets, charmingly illustrated again by Kredel, and printed and bound in Germany. When Joe Graves died unexpectedly, in 1960, he had finished setting the type for a little book about the old Episcopal burying ground on Third Street. It was later printed by R. Hunter Middleton in Chicago, who had been instrumental in arranging the Hammer show of 1948 in Chicago, and a good friend of Graves. Most recently a second edition was completed by The King Library Press.

Through a bequest of Lucy Graves, Graves’ fine printing library is now a part of Special Collections in the King Library, and the press of Gravesend is in use at The King Library Press.

The Anvil Press

In the autumn of 1952, Joseph Graves and Carolyn Reading invited several of their friends to join them in establishing a press, for which Victor Hammer would design books, and Jacob Hammer would serve as pressman. The Associates were Dr. W. O. Bullock, Virginia Clark, Clavia Goodman, Lucy and Joseph Graves, Harriett McDonald, R. Hunter Middleton, Maria Bizzoni, Gordon Bechanan, Caroline Porter, and three librarians, Nancy Chambers, Martha Livesay, and Carolyn Reading. At the first meeting, these Associates, in full agreement, gave a monetary sum to their new press to enable it to begin operation. Pico delia Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man was the first title issued. On an Ostrander-Seymour press, furnished by Gordon Bechanan, five titles were printed during the years 1953-1957. Without profit, but with great pleasure, the Associates maintained the press financially, and the volumes are distinguished in their appearance: Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Rooke of the Duchesse, Johann Peter Hebel’s Francisca and Other Stories, The Newe Testament MD.XXXVI in Tyndale’s translation, and William Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

After the death of Joe Graves, and the marriage and departure of Jacob Hammer from Lexington, the press Associates agreed to disband, and Harriett Holladay, Nancy Chambers (later Lair), and Carolyn Hammer, joined by W. Gay Reading as one of the pressmen, continued on. Included among the later titles were two wildflower books, with the lovely illustrations by Harriett Holladay, which she also hand-colored. Bertold Brecht’s On “Tao Te Ching”, with an illustration by Victor Hammer, and Aratus of Soli’s The Phenomena, lavishly illustrated in two-color plates taken from woodcuts of the constellations by Erhardt Ratdolt from 1482. This book was designed by the Hammers and Nancy Lair, and begun in 1961. In the colophon there is a chronology of its slow birth, but since printing stopped entirely several times we have thought of it rather as a necrology! Nancy Lair started the printing, with Carolina Hernandez and Gay Reading serving as apprentices. Eventually in 1971 Gay Reading printed a few formes, and in 1974-75 finally the work was completed at the King Library Press.

In its last period Carolyn bought out the remaining Associates and assumed full control of The Anvil Press, using its imprint for her own printing exclusively after 1978, when the last book of the Stamperia del Santuccio (which imprint she had shared with Victor Hammer), the second edition of Merton’s Hagia Sophia was printed. The last book from The Anvil Press is another Merton piece, The Four French Poems of Thomas Merton, that I printed in 1995.

The King Library Press

The idea for a handpress at the King Library goes back to a visit by the Hammers to Oxford. A friend of Victor’s held the chair in bibliography there, and Carolyn was taken on a tour of its teaching and bibliographic press. As Carolyn recollects:

He had set up a press, and had about five students coming in. His purpose was to instruct them in how a book was put together. They were, in fact, producing the old work — using vellum or parchment for the tympan, the Fell types, and so forth. Their work was fair, and they were learning everything about authentic methods and materials.

After my trip abroad, I conceived the idea of a bibliographic press at the library. Since Jacob Hammer had left Lexington, Joseph C. Graves and I, together with the other Associates, felt it would be fitting for the King Library if we would donate the Anvil Press and its equipment to it. ...[it did not happen at this time but] the press belonging to The Anvil Press Associates was later moved to the King Library...and put into use at the University. (KR, 30)

Of course, Carolyn in her enthusiasm had forgotten that Oxford’s press, with its acceptance and financing of many years, could hardly be offered as a prototype for a Kentucky university. However, facing reality, the first small gesture was made, and the old Chandler and Price was moved from The Bur Press to the King Library. Nancy Chambers and Carolyn were joined by Mary Voorhes, and later by Stokeley Gribble. Book-plates, notices and unofficial, but “official looking” stationary was printed, and finally, when those involved thought something more substantial should be printed, The Marriage of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren saw the light of day. The printers called the press the High Noon Press in the colophon, since printing was done on everyone’s lunch hour, but none-the-less it was the first book printed in the King Library. As Carolyn records:

We printed for the pleasure of it, and because nobody stopped us. We had a number of visitors each noon hour — we were down in the basement, and our activities seemed very bohemian to the professors and to friends. Some days we were so interrupted that the hour passed without having a page printed. (KR, 30)

In 1958 the press was enabled by gifts from friends to acquire one of Victor Hammer’s wooden common presses originally used at the Stamperia del Santuccio in Florence. The King Library Press was then able to fulfill a more serious role. The first work printed on the wooden press was Lincoln’s Oration at the Dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, printed in 1959. The first book that was printed on the Gravesend press, after it was given by Lucy Graves, was Wendell Berry’s The Rise. Jonathan Greene, proprietor of the Gnomon Press in Frankfort and former book designer for the University of Kentucky Press, was one of the printers. Several other books by Kentuckians followed, including James Lane Allen’s Mountain Passes of the Cumberlands, with Wendell Berry’s commentary, printed in the summers between 1969 and 1972, and Burton Milward’s essay William “King” Solomon in 1974. In 1976 there followed The Day Book Account of John C. Cozine, a manuscript in Special Collections. Dr. Jacqueline Bull edited the text and provided the introduction.

The Seafarer of 1975 was illustrated with a calligraphic drawing of medieval sea birds by apprentice Calvert Guthrie. I’m happy to say that Calvert, now long a calligrapher with Hallmark, has just completed a sign for the press, on the occasion of its 45th anniversary, with letters incised in wood and gilded, soon to be installed in the press. Sallie Ruff, now proprietor of the Rosemary Press, printed the unusual Hittite horse training manual called The Kikkuli Text in 1976. It was set by Sallie in all capital letters in imitation of the one-sized cuneiform letters of the original. Carolyn Whitesel, a talented book artist, provided the illustrations based on Hittite reliefs from Carchemish. That year saw completion as well of a Guatemalan sacred drama, The Rabinal. Christopher Meatyard illustrated and printed this remarkable book on the wooden common press. Carolyn Hammer served as founding director of The King Library Press until her retirement in 1976. Printing continued under the direction of W. Gay Reading, during which period Swinburn’s long poem On the Cliffs was created, with illustrations and a pressed-paper sculpture by John Tuska. Gay was succeeded by Joan Davis and since 1988 I have tried to carry on the traditions and techniques already well in place when I became an apprentice to Carolyn in 1974.


A number of other Lexingtonians must be mentioned for their contributions to fine printing. In addition to his role in the work of The Anvil Press and the King Library Press, Gay Reading’s interest in printing has been lifelong. He maintains two press names for his own use: The Reading Lion Press and the Windell Press. In 1988 he published J .R. Jones translation of de Guevara’s Inez Reigned in Death, illustrated by artist and printer Robert James Foose.

Arthur Graham, professor of Music here, prints immaculately under the imprint of the Polyglot Press. He has printed in various languages, demonstrating a sensitive appreciation for linguistic nuance. His use of a wide array of types give his work a unique appeal.

J. Hill Hamon, professor emeritus of biological sciences at Transylvania, has printed in a number of formats on a remarkable collection of presses, including several table-top clamshell presses. His speciality has become the printing of miniature books. Interested in all aspects of the book arts, Professor Hamon has made paper for a number of his publications.

Robert James Foose of the Art Department is a talented printer and designer. A watercolorist, woodcut artist, calligrapher, illustrator, and book designer, he works at his Buttonwood Press, experimenting in the interweaving of text and illustration, type styles, design, and bindings in innovative ways.

Notable too is the work of Gray Zeitz at Larkspur Press. Gray was an apprentice at The King Library Press to Carolyn Hammer, and has actually succeeded in making a living by hand printing, in an expert way, many fine volumes.

After the creation of the Lucille Caudill Little Fine Arts Library, The King Library Press is again in the basement of the King Library, forty-five years later, trying to carry on in the spirit of the High Noon Press. Carolyn Hammer had conceived of The King Library Press as a teaching and bibliographic press, and indeed we have been blessed with a number of noteworthy apprentices over the years, and fortified by our relationship with other fine Bluegrass printers. Our hope is to continue to provide “the uneducated and naive”, those with “no previous experience”, the possibility of becoming a part of the remarkable tradition of fine printing in Lexington.