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The Stanbrook Abbey Press.

stanbrook abbey pressTo those who already know of the Stanbrook Abbey Press I hope you will find new material of interest. To those who know nothing of the Press, I hope you enjoy the story.

 
The community at Stanbrook began during the religious strife of 17th century England when a group of women left for France to establish a community of nuns. During the French Revolution the nuns were ejected from their home at a few minutes' notice. Four of them died during the eighteen months of harsh imprisonment in Compiegne. The remainder returned penniless to England and eventually settled in 1838 at Stanbrook in the Severn Valley.


Benedictines are expected to provide for their own needs; while in France they worked with cloth, back in England, on the suggestion of their chaplain, they took up printing on a hand press, and so the Stanbrook Abbey Press was born.

Initially the press issued books on religious topics–notably translations by the nuns themselves; but soon fine presswork emerged in the form of limited edition short works or broadsides impeccably printed and frequently embellished with calligraphy.

Dame Laurentia, later Lady Abbess, counted among her correspondents such figures as George Bernard Shaw and Sir Sydney Cockerell. The latter in particular was tireless in his endeavours to improve printing standards at Stanbrook. He provided Golden Cockerel and Kelmscott works from his own library, and managed to inspire a tradition of fine calligraphy and appreciation for well made printing types.

After the Second World War, the new head of the Stanbrook Abbey Press, Dame Hildelith Cumming, asked for advice on replacing the worn type. And advice was freely given by Kerrison Preston, local printer, who introduced his friend, Robert Gibbings to Stanbrook. Gibbings suggested Perpetua, a lovely face designed by Eric Gill.


The Abbess was not fond of this type, she thought it derived from a chisel rather than a pen, but it must have been obtained as some works are known printed in it, such as an edition of Christmas Lyrics in 1956: a collection of twelve fifteenth century poems printed with colour initials; a special edition on handmade paper contained hand-drawn initials.

stanbrook abbey pressBut the quest for a more suitable typeface continued and, one day, they chanced upon type designed by the famed Haarlem typographer Jan van Krimpen. It was called Cancelleresca Bastarda and was based on the clear fonts used by early printers. A friend of the Abbey, J. G. Dreyfus, arranged an introduction, and thus began a long correspondence between the Abbey and the typographer.

Soon fonts of Cancellersca Bastarda found their way to Stanbrook. The picture on the left shows an initial by Margaret Adams, plus the font Cancelleresca Bastarda.

In hindsight, this was the Golden Age of the Press. Books and ephemera and broadsides of the highest quality were issued, frequently with exquisite calligraphed initials by Katherine Adams, Madelyn Walker or Margaret Adams, local artist friends of the Abbey who freely lent their talents.

The Stanbrook Abbey Press was at one time the oldest private press in England, and acquired an international reputation for fine printing under Dames Hildelith Cumming and Felicitas Corrigan.

It was around 1991 that I first came into contact with Stanbrook Abbey & the late Margaret Adams.

We had by that time been running a bindery at Downside Abbey (another Benedictine community) for some years. We had heard that some of the nuns of Stanbrook were involved in bookbinding, so we were very pleased when we were invited to stay.

We were made welcome by Dame Agnes Wilkins. I came to love and respect this lady very much in the years I knew her. I could tell you a story about her amazing personal courage, but I think she would be embarrassed so I shall remain silent.

Now knowing much about convent etiquette I did not realise at the time that an exception had been made, and I was allowed access to the nun’s bindery in the convent itself. Not many males are given access to the convent, they must have thought I was totally harmless.

stanbrook abbeyMargaret Adams was by this time living in a house close to the convent, we visited her on several occasions, having tea and talking about calligraphy. Both her and her late husband were very talented artists, trained in old methods and techniques from a different era.

We got to talking about a book she had worked on; “The History of the Stanbrook Abbey Press”.

She had designed the logo for this book and showed me the original artwork which was written on a piece of vellum.


 

 

stanbrook abbey blockSister Agnes had the original block; engraved in brass I made her a wooden box to keep it in. Though only two inches square it cost over £200.00 to have engraved.

I had seen copies of the book in the foyer of the convent for sale; these were unbound books, in sheets ready for binding.

I asked if I might borrow the block as I wanted to buy a copy of the book in sheets and bind it myself.

Clutching the block we left Stanbrook and made our way to our home to Downside Abbey. I had decided that I was going to bind the book as a gift for the Stanbrook library. Nuns, or monks for that matter are not allowed to accept personal gifts.

 

 

stanbrook abbey

 

I wanted the binding to be simple and unaffected; in the event I opted for an undyed goatskin and used the block I had borrowed to title it.

The Stanbrook Abbey Press is mostly silent now.

 

In May 2009 the community left Stanbrook and moved into new purpose built buildings at Wass in Yorkshire, to face new hurdles and challenges.

I look back fondly to the times we spent at Stanbrook.

 

 

 

 

 

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