Private presses are dedicated to the art of fine printing and, as the name implies, are usually operated by individuals who normally perform or oversee all aspects of production: selecting the text, designing, typesetting, illustrating, printing (on fine handmade papers) and binding the book. More often than not, the book becomes an art object in itself. This production in limited editions (it can go from one copy to a few hundred copies, often numbered and signed by the author and the artist) is intended for the book lover.
The concept of private presses originated in Europe at the end of the 19th century. In England, William Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891. He dreamed of recreating the art of the incunabula - a tradition of fine-book printing prevailing before 1500 - and conceived new types, commissioned hand-made papers with his own imprints, and used parchment for his most precious productions. The emphasis, however, was on the use of types and page design. He gave birth to a tradition which was to influence English Canadian and American hand printers for years. In France, bibliophiles were more interested in lavishly illustrated books. In 1875 Manet produced 8 lithographs to illustrate Mallarmé's translation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," the text occupying another 8 pages.
A new tradition was thus born, that of the "livre d'artiste," a concept that has permeated French Canada's private presses, the emphasis there being on printmaking rather than fine printing. Few exceptions are to be found, although the situation is slowly changing in English Canada where Charles Pachter (who studied in Paris) has produced some magnificent albums, the twelfth of which, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1980), comprises 30 poems by Margaret Atwood and 30 serigraphs by Pachter. A few Ontario artists have taken that route, including Brender à Brandis of Brandstead Press (Carlisle, Ontario), Elizabeth Forrest of Greyn Forest Press (Toronto) and Soren Madsen of Mad-Ren Press (Toronto), whose books are fine examples of well-balanced, imaginative book design. For most of their books both Pachter and Madsen have created their own handmade papers.
Research on the history of private presses in Canada has only begun, and knowledge is still fairly fragmented. Claudette Hould, in Répertoire des livres d'artistes au Québec, 1900-1980, has catalogued 249 titles from private presses in Québec, 195 of them published between 1970 and 1980. Marilyn Rueter (in David B. Kotin and Marilyn Rueter, Reader, Lover of Books, Lover of Heaven) and Maureen Bradbury (in News From the Rare Book Room 17 and 18, University of Alberta) have indexed hundred of titles from some 50 publishers, most of which appeared after 1960.
The 1950s, however, had marked a turning point, with the founding in Montréal of Éditions Erta (1949) by Roland Giguère, poet and printmaker, and in Thornhill, Ontario, Gus Rueter's Village Press (1957). They were the first hand printers who themselves executed all aspects of book production. Others, like J. Kemp Waldie of Golden Dog Press (Toronto) and Louis Carrier (Montréal), had, in the early 1930s, published under their imprints good examples of fine printed books, but these were usually printed commercially.
Private printing in Canada is flourishing. The foundation of the Guild of Hand Printers (Toronto, 1959) and publications in their Wrongfount series have been instrumental in stimulating private printers' production of well-wrought books. Similarly, the Alcuin Society (Richmond, BC, flounded 1965) brings finely printed books to its membership and provides them with the periodical Amphora, devoted to the art of fine printing. Many private-press proprietors have contributed to the publications of both these societies, eg, Wil Hudson (Vancouver), Gus Rueter, W. Craig Ferguson of Basement Cage Press (Kingston), John Robert Colombo of Hawkshead Press (Kitchener and Toronto) and Purple Partridge Press (Kitchener and Toronto), William Rueter of Aliquando Press (Toronto), Roger Asham (Toronto and Tillsonburg) and Peter Dorn of Heinrich Heine (Don Mills and Kingston), to name but a few.
In Québec the driving force came from the artistic milieu, and many contributors were printmakers who commissioned master hand printers, such as Pierre Guillaume, for their typography. Among some 75 private presses, a handful have produced half the books indexed to date: Éditions Erta, Éditions de la guilde graphique, Éditions Graffofones, Michel Nantel, Éditions du songe, Arts global and, more recently, Éditions du Noroît.
In addition to their excellence in design, private presses, like little magazines, often publish first editions of poems and prose by major Canadian writers.
See also Small Presses.