Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Newnham Printers' Marks: Part 1

Hello! I’m Meriel, the current Graduate Trainee at Newnham Library, and I wanted to blog about one of our library’s remarkable features: its ceilings. This post will be an introduction to 5 of the 13 printers’ marks that make up the beautiful roof space in the old library… I'm going to save numbers 6 – 13 for a future post!

 Newnham’s Yates Thompson library was built in 1897 with a generous gift from Mr and Mrs Henry Yates Thompson. The couple socialised within a circle of well-known writers and intellectuals, and Henry Yates Thompson was a close friend of Henry Sidgwick, a founding member of the college, and the library’s architect, Basil Champneys. Both Henry and Elizabeth were keen collectors of manuscripts and were equally fascinated with book-making, binding, and fine printing and illuminations. [1]

Although you'd struggle to tell now, the Yates Thompson library actually began life as just one room with only eight shelving bays per floor (see the photo below), and was  expanded ten years later in 1907, with further funding from the Yates Thompsons. The extension was designed by Champneys in identical style, so that it blended seamlessly into the original building. This almost doubled the library’s capacity as a result and the current Yates Thompson library now has twelve shelving bays per floor.

The Yates Thompson library ceiling.
The section you can see here was the first part of the library to be built, in 1897.

What makes the Yates Thompson library so distinctive, if you take the time to look up, is the blue, barrel-vaulted ceiling. The roof space above each of the twelve shelving bays, and the half-dome at the end of the library, is decorated with white relief plasterwork in the shape of a printer’s emblem. The Library of Congress in Washington and the Powell Library at the University of California, Los Angeles both have ceilings which feature printers’ marks, but they have been incorporated into painted murals, rather than cast in 3D from plaster.

Printers’ marks – also called printers’ emblems or devices – were small drawings printed either on a book’s title page or colophon that were used as trademarks to easily identify the printing house that manufactured it – like a sort of early modern logo. This guaranteed the quality of the book being purchased, prevented them from being unlawfully reproduced, and effectively acted as one of the first forms of copyright. [2]

Henry Yates Thompson was a leading manuscript collector of his day, maintaining a collection of 100 central pieces. He also collected early printed books, and one of the criteria he considered when buying them was the print house that produced the text, and the craftsmanship and reputation associated with the printing house. It seems likely that the thirteen printers’ marks on the Yates Thompson ceiling reflect the print houses he held in particular esteem, and which he considered to represent the ‘crème de la crème’ of early printers.  

He produced a pamphlet in 1908 – likely to coincide with the opening of the library’s extension – detailing the printers, their history, and what they were famous for. It also includes a map of the Yates Thompson library and where each printers’ mark is located, which I've reproduced below.

A map of Yates Thompson library, taken from a pamphlet written by Henry Yates Thompson in 1908.

The Newnham Printers' Marks:

These are the first five printers' marks to be found on the ceiling, as you walk in what was the entrance, but now backs onto the Sidgwick corridor.
A French printer and wood engraver based in Paris who was prominent around the turn of the fifteenth century. He was known for printing incunabula Book of Hours in the style of medieval manuscripts, and was regarded by Henry Yates Thompson as “perhaps the most skilful printer of books of hours in imitation of illuminated manuscripts … [whose] brilliancy has never been surpassed” (1)

A Norman by birth, Pynson travelled to London during the early 1500’s, where he set up a printing house on Fleet Street. He printed over 500 books in the English language and was appointed the King’s Printer to Henry VII in 1506, an office that he continued to hold under Henry VIII.
 Sometimes called the Schoolmaster Printer, little is known about him, other than the fact he worked from within the Benedictine Monastery at St Albans (perhaps working in the school there) around the 1470-80’s, and only printed eight known books. [3] His print mark takes the form of a cross, with the coat of arms of St Albans beneath.

Based in Mainz, Germany, Schoeffer worked as an apprentice under Johannes Gutenberg, of Gutenberg Press fame, and went into partnership with Gutenberg’s patron, Johann Fust, in 1466. Together they developed the art of type-founding (the production of metallic typefaces for printing pages) and printing using coloured ink.

The first English printer, and held in high renown, Caxton was born in 1422 and studied the “new art” of printing in Bruges before bringing it back to Westminster in 1476. He printed over 100 books, notably Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and his books were well known for their exquisite craftsmanship. He was also a keen translator and translated and printed the first book ever to be printed in English, The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, in 1471. Both books have been digitised by the British Library, and the manuscripts for the first and second editions of The Canterbury Tales can be viewed here. Around 70% of surviving books printed in the late 1400’s are in Latin – however, 68% of Caxton’s surviving output is printed in English. This is probably not because he was a champion of the vernacular, but because there was a thriving international market for books in Latin, “so if Caxton had printed Latin books, he would have been competing with some of the biggest publishers of his time” [4]

 If you are interested in finding out more about early printers and their emblems, the University of Manchester Library has a fantastic early print history resource on their website titled ‘First Impressions’… it even has a “Design your Own Printer’s Mark” feature. And if you'd like to learn more about the Yates Thompson ceiling, keep an eye out for Part Two of this blogpost!

Meriel Royal, Graduate Trainee 2013-2014

[1] Gooder, Jean. Biography of Henry and Elizabeth Yates Thompson. Newnham College website, 2004.
[2] University of Manchester Library, "Print Devices and Trademarks." 'First Impressions' website, 2011.

[3]  Ashdown, Charles Henry. The Schoolmaster Printer of St Albans. Reproduced on the St. Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society website, 2011 [originally printed 1908]

[4] The British Library. "Caxton's English." 'Treasures in Full: Caxton's Chaucer' website, 2014.

Works consulted:

- BBC History. "William Caxton (c.1422 -1492)". BBC Biographies of Historical Figures website, 2014.

- Bell, Alan, ‘Thompson, Henry Yates (1838–1928)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006.
- Hetzel, Phyllis. Biography of Basil Champneys. Newnham College website, 2004.
- Roberts, William. Printers' Marks: a chapter in the history of typography. Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2008.

- University of Manchester Library. "The Pioneers of Print." 'First Impressions' website, 2011.
- Yates Thompson, Henry. The Newnham Printers' Marks. Privately printed. 1908.

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