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Photo credit: Brian Howell
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Cast-metal charactersBrian Howell
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Composing sticksBrian Howell
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Crispin ElstedBrian Howell
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Cutting paperBrian Howell
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Jan and Crispin ElstedBrian Howell
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Jan ElstedBrian Howell
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The Play of PericlesBrian Howell
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Press room of Barbarian PressBrian Howell
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Printing pressBrian Howell
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Crispin and Jan Elsted produce books of extraordinary beauty using techniques and traditions that date from the days of Johannes Gutenberg.
Some years ago I learned how to make a book the way Johannes Gutenberg did in the fifteenth century, at a letterpress printing workshop taught by Jan and Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press, at their home and press room in Mission, BC, about thirty-five miles east of Vancouver along the Fraser River. Before then, my knowledge of typography had come entirely from desktop publishing, through computer programs such as PageMaker, which offered a meagre selection of digital fonts. My relationship with publishers and books was that of a consumer: books were objects produced by others. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might publish one myself.
The workshop began on a Sunday morning. In the kitchen, Crispin led us through a history of typography—examples of Egyptian hieroglyphics; Roman inscriptions carved in stone; calligraphic scripts on vellum. We passed around a framed page from Polychronicon, a history of the world written in the early fourteenth century by Ranulf Higden, an English Benedictine monk, and printed in 1484 by William Caxton, the first English printer of books. The Elsteds had purchased the page from an auction in London some years before, and Crispin explained to us that it was an example of incunabula, a Latin word for “cradle” and “incubation,” which refers to books printed in Europe before 1501. We leafed through stacks of modern fine press books, volumes that Crispin had chosen from the extensive collection in their library. Turning the heavy rag-paper pages, I ran my fingertips lightly over the paper’s surface and felt the slight indentation left by the type.
A little later we crowded into the press room—a barn-like outbuilding a short distance from the Elsteds’ house—to observe a demonstration of typesetting by hand. From a tray of metal type, Crispin selected cast-metal characters, or “sorts,” and built up lines of text—upside down and reversed—in a hand-held metal composing stick. The tray, or case, of type is divided into compartments, one for each letter. Capital letters are in the top half of the case, small letters in the bottom (hence “upper” and “lower case”); frequently used characters such as e and a are assigned larger compartments than those less frequently used. Miscellaneous symbols are assigned spaces on the perimeter of the tray: ligatures, punctuation marks and metal spacers of varying widths—from “thins” to “ems”—which are used to adjust the spaces between words. On the composing stick, each line of type is separated from the one below by a thin strip of metal (traditionally made of lead, hence “leading”). Once Crispin finished setting lines of type in one stick, he did the same with several more. Then he laid the composed lines of type into a wooden frame and clamped them down to form a page—called a forme—to be proofed and printed.
Throughout the next day, Jan and Crispin helped participants design their projects, select papers and choose fonts. My project was to print a pair of my own poems in chapbook format. I’d designed a tall, narrow page; I’d picked a typeface, Goudy Old Style, and paper, Cortlea Ivory. I planned to stamp an ornament into black cover stock, stitch the booklet with linen thread and wrap it in a jacket of moss green Canson Ivy paper.
Jan, who does all of the press work for the company, demonstrated the printing process on the 1850 Albion hand press, one of the oldest presses in the Elsteds’ collection. The Albion is about seven feet tall and made of cast iron. It has two vertical columns connected by a crosspiece that supports a heavy press head above the press bed, essentially a waist-high metal shelf on rails. You turn a crank to roll the press bed out from under the press head, and then hinge aside a two-layer “sandwich”—the tympan (a padded piece of cloth that will hold a sheet of paper), and frisket (a metal frame that will secure the paper and mask off sections of the page)—so that the forme can be locked into place on the press bed.
Jan scooped a dab of thick, oily black ink onto a metal spatula and plopped it onto a glass slab on a work table. She rolled a rubber brayer over the ink until it reached the proper “tackiness” (as gauged by feel and by ear) and then carefully ran the inked brayer over the forme prepared by Crispin, coating the letters with ink.
Then Jan positioned a sheet of paper on the tympan, hinged the frisket back into place, and then lowered the frisket and tympan onto the forme she had just covered with ink. She cranked the press bed back under the press head, and then pulled a metal lever to apply pressure—press head against tympan against paper against inked type. And then the same steps in reverse: release, roll out, unhinge, remove the printed sheet of paper and inspect it for imperfections. Finally, she set the page aside to dry.
Most of our time at the Elsteds’ workshop was spent assembling lines of type, composing pages, rolling ink and operating the press. I spent several late nights bent over the presses, and at the end of five days I held a completed chapbook in my hands.
The Elsteds have been operating Barbarian Press for more than thirty-five years. In that time they have done commercial work, such as stationery and cards, and fine press work, including broadsheets, pamphlets and forty books. They’ve published classic authors—William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Keats—and contemporary ones, such as Theresa Kishkan and Tim Bowling. They have created, and live, what might be called a handmade life, carrying on traditions and practices that have remained unchanged in their essentials since the fifteenth century, when Gutenberg modified a grape press in Mainz, Germany, and used it to print a bible. They are now among the most senior and respected members of a very small group of people worldwide (the Fine Press Book Association’s website lists just 118 member presses), people who have their own professional organizations, use their own arcane jargon and attend their own annual gatherings and book fairs. The Elsteds have also raised two children.
A couple of years ago, about ten years after I took my workshop with the Elsteds, I arranged to spend an afternoon with Crispin, and set out late one morning to drive to the Elsteds’ home. Close to my destination I pulled over, and while I scanned the notices on the Steelhead Community Board, a small car pulled up at the adjacent Canada Post “Super Mailbox” and Jan Elsted emerged.
Jan—who bears a slight resemblance to the mid-1960s edition of Betty Crocker, with threads of grey now visible in dark curly hair—was returning home after a morning teaching English Literature and Shakespeare in Performance at Meadowridge School, an independent private school in nearby Maple Ridge. I followed her up the street to the Elsteds’ small, weathered home, tucked among the trees. We found Crispin in the kitchen, with a loaf of bread baking in the breadmaker, and he showed me around the house.
A small wallpapered study serves as a de facto working library for the press. It contains, among other reference materials, archival copies of every Barbarian Press publication—forty books, plus an assortment of broadsides and ephemera; a full run of Parenthesis, a trade magazine published by the Fine Press Book Association for its members; an extensive collection of publications from other fine press printers from around the world; and examples of work—chapbooks, broadsides, pamphlets—produced by participants in the Elsteds’ annual five-day workshop.
A larger home might have contained such a collection within a single dedicated room, but here it feels as if the library has invaded and laid claim to the entire house. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled to capacity line the entry hallway, and additional cases are distributed without apparent order throughout the house. There are hundreds of albums on vinyl and CD, from bebop jazz to classical to grand opera with stops at most genres in between; DVDs and video tapes—any feature film of merit you’d care to name, and what looks like box sets of every serial drama produced by the BBC. Well-thumbed Grove Press paperback copies of books by Henry Miller share shelf space with hardcover volumes of Anthony Trollope in the handsome Folio Society editions; first editions of Charles Dickens’s novels next to Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu—there appears to be a copy of every book that Jan or Crispin has ever read and might wish to read again.
This is Borges’s vision of a book-lover’s Paradise made manifest, one’s entire home “a kind of library,” a residence that complements and sustains a way of life based on creativity and collaboration, and a working relationship where each partner’s work complements the other’s to produce beautiful objects by hand—objects that will outlive their makers.
After we toured the house, Crispin put on a kettle and we sat down at the kitchen table to talk. Physically Crispin is a cross between Robertson Davies and a trimmed-down version of Orson Welles as Falstaff; during the Christmas season small children mistake him for Santa Claus. In conversation his sentences unspool in perfect classical formation. The thousands of volumes that line Crispin’s study above the press room include the twenty-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Crispin says that when he is not pressed for time he will occasionally pull one of the volumes onto his desk and browse through it for pleasure.
Crispin was born on May 31, 1947, to Dennis and Isabel Elsted, and spent the early years of his life in Fernie, BC, where his father was beginning a career in the Anglican church. Before training for the ministry, Crispin’s father had worked as a singing teacher and, during the Depression, as the night desk clerk at the Patricia Hotel in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Crispin’s mother, Isabel, was born on Salt Spring Island, BC, and raised in Hood River, Oregon. “She had a private school education,” he says, “but never attended university.”
At first he demurs when I ask for additional details of his early life—“It’s another life, or several other lives”—but eventually he offers glimpses of a colourful adolescence that included a first job tending the bears in the Vancouver zoo, and a later job at the CBC, where he worked “in various minor capacities” such as script editing and preparing interviews.
For two summers in the late 1960s he was part of an itinerant repertory company and toured with the troupe through the western and midwestern United States, performing Shakespeare in high school gyms, college auditoriums and even hotel lobbies. Crispin has played drums in a rock band and vibes in his own jazz quintet, and in the 1960s he jumped boxcars on two prolonged jaunts through the States. “I saw a lot of country and worked on ranches and farms when I needed to earn some travelling money,” he says. “In those days there were still small spur lines which covered much more of the country than trains do now. Mostly I was finding my feet before going back to university, where I met Jan.”
Jan was born Jan Allison on October 16, 1950, and grew up in West Vancouver with two brothers, one older and one younger. Both of Jan’s parents grew up in Vancouver’s West End during the 1930s. Jan’s mother, Vivien, was the youngest of five children, with “an absent father” and a mother—Jan’s grandmother—who took in boarders to make money. Jan’s father came from a relatively affluent family who owned and operated Allison Logging, an independent logging company with a sawmill in North Vancouver and a logging camp up north in Bella Coola. After Jan’s mother graduated from high school, she worked as a secretary, “and then she met my father,” says Jan, “and they became married. And it’s not that it wasn’t a match of love, but I think for her it was also a matter of achieving a sense of security.”
Jan earned top marks through high school and engaged in a wide range of sports, including golf (“We used to have a family foursome”), expressions of what Jan describes as the “conservative side” of her personality. “But inside was a whole part of me that wasn’t being expressed,” she says, and as Jan was drawn more and more toward the arts—“I listened to classical music, I was the only one who read seriously”—it was her mother who supported her decision to study English at university, as well as Jan’s later decision to give up her career in academia for an uncertain future in fine press printing. “It isn’t that my father disapproved necessarily of my going into the arts, he just didn’t understand. If I’d been male, it would have been a real concern, that I wouldn’t have been able to support myself.”
In Hoi Barbaroi, a bibliography published in 2004 to mark a quarter century at Barbarian Press, Jan describes herself as standing “somewhere between my practical, driven father and my lyrical, unconditionally loving mother.” She credits her mother—who used to write an “Edwardian, perfumed kind of poetry”—as the source of her own inclination toward the arts. When Jan completed a memoir of two years that she and Crispin spent in England, she dedicated it to her mother and to her maternal grandmother. “I think that sometimes my voice is their voice as well, that I’m speaking for them.”
Jan and Crispin first met at the University of British Columbia during the fall of 1971 while both were enrolled in third-year honours English. They ended up in the same seminar on Romantic Literature, just a half dozen students crowded together in the professor’s office. Neither can recall who first took a shine to whom, but something clicked between them and they began to meet after classes. For Jan their conversations were an affirmation of her interest in the arts. “With Crispin I just felt that a world was opening out in front of me,” and this recognition of a kindred spirit finally led her to make a move. “I was sort of hippie-ish in those days, so I decided to go a little more up-market with a skirt that had a slit all the way up the side.” She gestures. “And boots. I simply crossed my legs, and somehow or other I got a phone call after that.” Crispin embellishes this retelling with a Goon Show reference: “She flashed her insteps at me shamelessly.”
Their first proper date was January 31st of 1972, and on February 10th Crispin proposed. “I’m slow,” he says. “It took me ten days to make up my mind.” They were married that September.
In 1976, after completing their MAs at UBC, the Elsteds moved to England to work on their PhD theses and eventually settled into a small flat above a doctor’s surgery in the High Street of Boughton Monchelsea, a village in South Kent.
Living in England gave Jan and Crispin an opportunity to explore their particular passions—for the graphic arts, for poetry, for beautifully made books—and to make connections with others who shared those interests. There was really no need for them to be in England to do their thesis work (Jan’s thesis was on the American poet Marianne Moore, and Crispin’s was on Gertrude Stein); but the decision to move to England was the first in what Jan describes as “a whole chain of fateful decisions,” a course of action that would eventually lead them to abandon their quest for PhDs and to consider wholly different lives as fine press printers and publishers.
You might say that the real shift in their thinking began with a poem.
Crispin wrote the poem for the fiftieth wedding anniversary of Harry and Frances Adaskin, who had been Jan and Crispin’s music teachers at UBC, and who became their close friends. “Jan and I didn’t think that we would be able to go back to Vancouver for the event,” Crispin explains, “so we’d decided to send the poem.” They decided that letterpress was the only way to go.
With no printing skills of their own, they turned to one of their English friends, the graphic artist Graham Clark, who put them in touch with a printer named Graham Williams.
According to the Elsteds, Barbarian Press was founded on the morning of January 1, 1977, when they walked into a pub named The Shant in the village of East Sutton, about fifteen miles from their flat, looking for Williams. Jan describes the scene in her memoir: “We found Graham in a corner sipping the hair of the dog & trying to light his pipe. We had a proposal for him: in exchange for £6o, could he print a few copies of a five-page poem in ten days? in handset type? on a handpress? & perhaps on handmade paper? Knowing nothing of hand printing in those days, we could not know that our offer was absurd. Graham eyed us & puffed reflectively. ‘On one condition. You’ll have to help me.’”
With Graham’s guidance they struggled to meet their deadline—through late nights seasoned with “the smell of ink and wood smoke, the sound of the roller sucking up the ink, the sight of the printing, rich and black, sitting on the page.”
Jan wrote: “For the first time in my life I felt the exaltation which comes from continuous work bringing both crushing exhaustion and intense satisfaction. There was never any question of what we had accomplished: it was there before our eyes, page by page. Though we constantly realized the pressures of our deadline, time as portioned out into separate units of twenty-four hours ceased to exist for us: there was only the continuum of working, broken by occasional meals & sleep.” The result of their great effort was the first publication from Barbarian Press: Five Decades for Harry and Frances Adaskin.
Jan and Crispin began acquiring the tools of their new trade. The printing industry was then in the process of a long, slow overhaul of its technologies, replacing mechanical hand presses (some of which had been in continuous operation since the Victorian era) with more modern machinery. London had long been the centre of English printing and publishing, and hand-operated presses were available at minimal cost. Knowing that it would be impossible to find as broad (or as reasonably priced) a selection of vintage presses back in Vancouver, Crispin purchased three big nineteenth-century hand presses, plus a couple of smaller table-top presses, and about a thousand pounds of type in forty or fifty cases—which they packed tight with foam mats and carpet—and arranged to have everything crated and sent to Canada by boat and train. The whole shipment weighed over a ton.
In the summer of 1978 the Elsteds returned to Vancouver, where Crispin had secured a job as a sessional lecturer in the English department at UBC. Stymied in their attempts to find suitable accommodation in their price range in Vancouver, they began to look farther and farther out of town. At the end of one long day filled with disappointments, they ended up in the community of Steelhead on the outer edge of Mission, BC, where they were shown a simple house built in the 1940s, with a pole barn—basically a roof held up by studs, with no enclosing walls—tucked into one corner of a five-acre lot. “It was like an English country garden,” Crispin recalls. “There was a pond, as well as lattices, and trellises with roses. There were dahlias… It was gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. So we just fell in love with it, and agreed to buy it right then.”
The barn was not closed in at all, says Crispin, “and the top area was full of lumber and other stuff which had been stored up there. The only way up was by ladder.” After some renovations, that space served as their press room for the next ten years. Heat was provided by a small wood stove; all the press work had to be carried into the house to dry.
From the very beginning, Jan and Crispin had talked about starting a family. “Such is the insouciance of youth,” says Jan, “that we never dreamed that we would go through the heartache of miscarriage and infertility, and that adoption would become our only means of having children.”
They were told that a local adoption would take seven years, so they began the process of international adoption. In 1984, Crispin flew to Seoul to meet Kim Eun Sub (renamed Jude Nicolas Sijo), an eight-month-old baby boy, and bring him home. “It was love at first sight for us both,” says Jan. Four years later Crispin flew back to Korea and returned with their adopted daughter Park Jong Mee, a five-month-old girl who they named Apollonia Felicity, or “Polly.”
As Jan points out, “We were fortunate in that we essentially work at home, with the press room a short walk across the garden.” During those years Crispin was still teaching part-time; a dear friend, Hetty Versavel, took on the role of “Oma” to Jude and Polly, and together the three of them somehow managed to stay on top of the press work and the childcare.
“As far as the children were concerned,” says Jan, “the press room was part of their daily experience of home. They watched, and sometimes helped out in small ways, and were integrated into the rhythm of our lives. For Crispin and me, there were many late nights in the press room, after the children were in bed, in order for the work to get done. When she was in grade four, Polly decided that she wanted to be home-schooled, so teaching her became another daily dimension of our lives.”
In 1988, Jan and Crispin converted the barn into a proper workshop with a press room for their growing collection of presses and a composing room along one wall. In 1996 they added a small hand-bindery, and today the press room is a 1,000-square-foot wunderkammer for typophiles.
Windows at head height provide a view to the yard beyond, and in summer, dappled sunlight filters through the leaves of a large walnut tree that overhangs the roof. The printing presses are distributed about the floor of the press room; the newest are a pair of Vandercook Universal motorized proofing presses from the 1950s, the oldest is a cast-iron hand press built in London, England, in 1833. A set of large shelves in one corner holds a selection of handmade papers that can be cut to size with the Elsteds’ industrial-strength paper cutter.
Along one side of the composing room is a phalanx of deep wooden drawers—a couple of hundred of them in total—holding the cast-metal fonts that Crispin and Jan have collected over the years, each drawer with a neat label identifying the typeface inside: 30' Bembo Roman; Festival Titling 48' / 60' / 72'; Two-Line Pica Caslon Antique. A full case of metal type can weigh as much as eighty pounds; the aggregate weight of these drawers, then, is considerable. A portable CD player sits on a workbench beside a bookcase filled with reference books on typography, and nearby, several shelves jammed with CDs offer an eclectic selection of “music to set type by”: Ella Fitzgerald singing selections from The Rogers and Hart Songbook Vol. 1; Jerry Mulligan trading saxophone riffs with Stan Getz on “Scrapple From the Apple.”
Jan and Crispin publish only works that they themselves would like to read, with a particular focus (to quote Jan) on “books which celebrate wood engravings as an art form.” Although they have published and will continue to publish contemporary poetry and prose, a significant number of their forty titles spring from the classical tradition: Keats’s poem The Eve of St. Agnes, Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion & Epithalamion, as well as their most recent publication, a two-volume edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles, one of their biggest projects to date. What distinguishes the Barbarian Press edition of these classics from dozens of previous editions is the care spent on details of design, and the high quality of the materials and workmanship.
Crispin has strong views on the proper use of type, taking great care to select a typeface appropriate to the material being set. A few of them—Eric Gill’s Joanna, Bembo and Poliphilus (which Crispin describes as “probably my favourite of the classical faces”)—have become de facto “house faces”; other typefaces—Univers, for one—are rigorously avoided.
Jan does most of the press work. “Crispin doesn’t usually cross over and do the printing because he just really doesn’t like it much,” says Jan, “and I don’t cross over into the typesetting very much. But each of us can do the other. After all these years we work in a very collaborative way. In fact, often we don’t even need to talk about what needs to be done.”
Jan is considered by their peers to be a master of the highly specialized craft of printing engravings from wooden blocks. Irregularities in the engraved blocks can cause unevenly inked impressions, so the process is fraught with complications that do not arise in printing type alone. When Jan prints from an engraving, she might spend hours trying to ensure a perfect print, making microscopic adjustments to her “make-ready” shims—slips of paper torn to size and positioned behind the page—to compensate for points where the surface of the engraved block is just a hair’s breadth too low.
The Elsteds also split the paperwork for their business. Crispin takes on most of the press’s editorial work, correspondence and invoicing, and Jan looks after all the other paperwork and the financial side. “Jan does all the financial stuff,” Crispin says. “I don’t know how it works. I’m like Stephen Leacock: banks rattle me.”
Jan considers the two of them to be “very, very lucky” to have found a balance between their married life and their roles as working partners, equal participants in the publishing side of the endeavour. “In the printing world there are other couples who work together, but there isn’t usually the same marriage of creative and technical input as there is with the two of us.”
When the Elsteds are in full production mode there is no such thing as a typical workday. “We have five cats and a dog for a start,” says Crispin, “plus two children, one of whom visits quite often, and at the beginning of Pericles they were both still around half the time.” When school is in session, Jan’s workdays are taken up by her teaching duties at Meadowridge School, so Crispin typesets pages ahead, allowing Jan to fit in a run of printing whenever she can.
In Crispin’s opinion, hand-setting type is the most ignored of the skills practised by fine press printers; not many take the time to get it right. “Type can be hand-set beautifully or badly, and people are no longer inclined to spend the time to look at type and realize which is good and why, and which is bad and why. Computer typesetting, and the fact that everyone now considers himself a typographer because he knows the word font and can name three or four typefaces, has really militated against good typesetting.”
Crispin will often stay up late to set type or to write in his study above the press room. His writing is as important to him as the press work, and a collection of his poetry—Climate of the Affections: Poems 1970–1995—was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1996. “Sixteen years later I am nearly ready with another book of poems,” he says; two more collections—one of essays and another of translations—are approaching completion.
Over the years the Elsteds have had occasional disagreements, but “working so closely together has been a cohesive factor rather than a potential source of friction,” says Jan. “I mean the only thing we ever fight over is that Crispin figures out how to cut paper differently than me. I’ve stopped doing it now, but I used to sometimes say ‘OK, I think we need to order this much paper,’ and he calculates it completely differently, and I don’t understand what he’s doing, and he doesn’t understand what I’m doing. In the moment it seems pretty heated, but you just kind of shake it off. We just do it differently. But that’s about as serious as it ever gets.”
The first discussions about publishing The Play of Pericles took place about a decade ago, when Jan and Crispin were in New Castle, Delaware, for a book fair. The illustrator and engraver Simon Brett was also present, and one evening the three of them went for a stroll beside the Delaware River and began to talk about projects that they might work on together. The relative obscurity of Pericles made the prospect of publishing it appealing, and Crispin’s extensive experience with the play (he has acted in three separate productions, directed one production and written music for another) would help them to unravel the text for publication.
From conception to completion the project has taken almost a decade, and with the possible exception of Endgrain, their 1995 survey of wood engraving in North America, Pericles has been the most complex project that Jan and Crispin have ever undertaken. The book’s design, which incorporates more than one hundred engravings by Simon Brett, required extensive discussions between Crispin and Simon: choosing which scenes to illustrate, where to place the illustrations within the text and how best to flow the text around the image blocks was a process they describe as “staging” the play upon the page.
All copies of Pericles (125 copies of the standard edition at $2,200 each; 12 copies of the deluxe edition at $3,600) were spoken for before the printing and binding had even been completed, and the book received a Judges’ Award at the 2011 Oxford Fine Press Book Fair. While Jan considers Pericles to be their magnum opus to date, she still seeks to improve her work. She told me that Pericles came as close as anything to satisfying what she and Crispin were trying to achieve in conception, design, integration of illustrations and the printing itself. She said it felt like they had moved to a new level of accomplishment: “In a way, it won’t ever be like that again.”
In addition to winning numerous prizes for book design, Jan and Crispin’s work has earned them recognition on a larger stage. In 2011 they gave a talk at the Museum Meermanno in the Hague, a museum dedicated to the history of the printed word—an experience that Jan found humbling: “Here we are, surrounded by all this history—the museum has got Gutenbergs, illuminated manuscripts—and here’s this little Canadian girl standing here talking about her life… and then I just decided that all I can do is talk about our history.”
Jan and Crispin are now elder statesmen within the local fine press community, with brilliant reputations as craftsmen and as teachers. Their annual letterpress workshop is always full. Jan describes these workshops as both a responsibility and a great pleasure, their contribution to the traditional apprentice-based transmission of the printing craft. Typically some of the workshop participants are already active fine press printers, wanting to improve their skills through one-on-one instruction; others are neophytes, exploring a personal passion for typography. Many participants in the Barbarian workshops have gone on to found independent presses of their own.
Every two years or so, members of the local fine press community gather at the Wayzgoose Printers’ Fair (the term is an ancient one for an entertainment given by a master printer to his workmen). The event is organized by the Alcuin Society, an organization of Vancouver bibliophiles “who care about the past, present and future of fine books.”
When I visited the 2009 Wayzgoose I found the Barbarian Press table to be a focal point, where many participants spent time speaking to Jan and Crispin, or examining a mockup copy of Pericles. Standing at a nearby table, Andrea Taylor of Cotton Socks Press gestured to the room full of exhibitors. “Half the people you see here would not be here if it were not for Jan and Crispin.” Jason Dewinetz of Greenboathouse Press suggested that every exhibitor present had been influenced and assisted—and some had been personally taught the basics of letterpress printing—by the Elsteds or by Jim Rimmer (1934–2010) of Pie Tree Press, another influential and respected figure in the local fine press community.
It can take many months—sometimes years, as was the case with Pericles—for a book to be completed, and at times Jan and Crispin have struggled to deal with an erratic cash flow. Income from sales comes at the end of the process, but all of the production expenses must be paid for in advance: the ink, the paper, the type, the binding (the regular edition of Pericles—125 copies—cost roughly $40,000 to bind, and binding the deluxe edition cost $700 a pop).
“We had to up the price for Pericles when we realized how many engravings there were going to be,” Jan says, and toward the end of 2011, “we only just finished paying off the leather.” Many Barbarian Press subscribers (who agree to purchase a copy of every book from the press) pre-pay, but without the income from Jan’s teaching position, the Elsteds would have difficulty riding out the lean periods.
Crispin remains optimistic about the prospects for fine press books, despite demographic shifts and the rising popularity of ereaders and tablet devices. “It worries me philosophically and culturally,” he says, “but it doesn’t worry me particularly in terms of the press, because we don’t publish enough copies for that to be an issue. We can find and have always been able to find a hundred, a hundred and twenty people to buy whatever it is we produce.”
The Elsteds have been living this somewhat improvised “letterpress life” for thirty-five years now, and Jan says that they have no desire to stop. “Just the other day I was talking to Polly about the craft of printing, and that I’ve never tired of it or stopped learning, trying to get a little bit better. There’s always perfection that you’re aiming for and you never achieve it—even with your very best thing, which would be Pericles so far. It’s always just a little bit out of reach. It’s that shiny thing that you’re striving for.”
But: “We’re getting on,” says Crispin. “Jan has bursitis in her shoulder, and asking her to print another fifty copies of a book is a fair whack of work.” When I ask Jan about retirement, she responds with mock horror: “Retire? We can’t retire! We’re going to die before our mortgage is paid off.”
Toward the end of my visit, I sat with Crispin in his study above the press room, with its leafy prospect into the walnut tree through leaded windows. From one of the crowded shelves above his desk he extracted a battered vest-pocket-sized notebook from 1977 and began to leaf through it, pausing to puzzle out some of the entries. There were notes to Jan, prefaced with “Small” (“I’m Big; she’s Small,” Crispin explained), ideas for poems, and the names of those who were to receive a copy of that first Barbarian Press publication, Crispin’s poem for the Adaskins’ fiftieth anniversary; and there were dozens of ideas for books that he and Jan hoped to publish in the future that was beginning to unfold. Some of those early goals have fallen by the wayside; many have been achieved, and Crispin’s enthusiasm is evident as he talks about the work ahead.
Jan and Crispin are now at work on several new projects: a volume devoted to the ornamental typography of the Curwen Press, two more volumes in their series on the work of individual engravers, and smaller projects such as four chapbooks collecting classic poems on seasonal themes. These will help to keep cash coming in while the Elsteds plan and prepare for their next major project: an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, “two, possibly three big volumes,” says Crispin, to be bound in vellum and illustrated with wood engravings by Peter Lazarov, the Bulgarian engraver whose work was featured in volume three of the Endgrain Editions series.
Polly has shown an interest in fine press printing, and with her parents’ help has published a pair of chapbooks under her own Horse Whisper Press imprint as a way to help cover the costs of stabling a horse. She has many of her parents’ enthusiasms—for Shakespeare, and for printing (she has a third book in process). “I know she would like to see Barbarian Press continue in some way,” says Jan, although “the difficulty with this line of work is that it’s almost impossible to do on your own. The fact that there are two of us means that we’ve been able to do really well with it. A person working on his or her own, it’s such a struggle.”
Crispin expects the number of fine press printers to diminish over the next fifty years. “Part of the reason for that is simply the availability of the equipment; people are not going to start building letterpress presses again.” As for their own printing equipment, “the ideal thing would be to find a couple or a person who was about the age we were or younger when we started,” says Crispin, “and who was as keen as we were, and just give them the whole lot.” But, he adds, “It would have to be more than just someone coming to the door and saying ‘I really want to print.’”
“For us,” says Jan, “there is no separation between work and home: one informs the other, and the whole fabric of our lives is woven of our love for one another and our children, and for all of the work we do, whether typesetting, printing, teaching or writing. We do not have a ‘career’ in the usual sense; we have a life, and this is what we have made of it.”
And as long as there is ink, and time, and metal type, they hope to continue living their handmade life on the outskirts of a digital world.