The Blue R Hand Press (Ottawa)

I’ve written about Robert Rosewarne and Fran Jones on this blog before. Artists, printers, and publishers, the two were a part of Ottawa’s vibrant literary and visual arts community in the early 1960s. Ottawa being Ottawa, though, there is little information available and little research has been performed on their work. This blog is actually one of the few hits when you search Rosewarne or their press, the “Blue R Hand Press”, on Google.

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Consequently, I was delighted to come across a reference to their work recently. In Fine Printing: The Private Press in Canada, a catalogue related to a traveling exhibition organized by the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild and the Friends of Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in 1995, the Blue R Hand Press gets a mention. The two books Rosewarne designed and printed for Jay Macpherson’s Emblem Books were included in the exhibition. More interestingly, the book quoted from a publication another private press exhibit, leading to another book that offered further context.

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Reader, Lover of Books, Lover of Heaven is “a catalogue based on a exhibition of the book arts in Ontario compiled by David B. Kotin with a checklist of Ontario private presses by Marilyn Reuter.” It was published by the North York Public Library in 1978 to mark the opening of the Canadiana Collection in its new quarters at the library. An exhibition ran from March 21 to April 30, 1977, to celebrate. Frances Rosewarne [Fran Jones], is quoted under “BLUE R PRESS, Ottawa, 1961-1965”:

Bob and I, both printmakers, needed a press of our own. In Westport Bob and an artist friend from the Queen Street Studios finally found the “Blue R” at the Westport [Ont.] Mirror. It was a beauty, with Greek column support for the bed with vestiges of blue and gold paint on the name plate. It was Taylor-Washington, very similar to the one shown as William Lyon Mackenzie’s in one of the Toronto Museum’s publications. One of the uprights had even been smashed which unfortunately made it erratic for printing (smahsed by the Family Compact and reborn as the Blue R, I fancy). Bob bought Carter’s reprint of Moxon and we set to work. Jay Macpherson gave us two Emblem Books to do; Bob did the illustration for both books. Then in May 1965 the studio burnt and the beautiful Blue R Press was damaged too much for our pocket book to repair. The last I hear of the Blue R was that it was in Nesbitt’s Engineering Barns waiting for reconstruction.

One wonders what became of the press…

Blue R also receives a mention in Reader under one other publication–Wrongfount 2: a portfolio of printed pieces issued by the Guild of Hand Printers, Toronto. The listing: “Don Mills, 1963. 12 items. 22.8cmx38cm. 150 copies. Enclosed in a cardboard envelope. Contributions from: Ampersand Press, Blue R Press, Carl Morrison, Donald Duncan, E.J. Mulrooney, Heinrich Heine Press, Leslie and Philip Smart,  Village Press, Vincent Rueter, Willow Green Press.” I can only imagine what such an item would go for. If you ever see one, keep me in mind!

Reading about Blue R again, I was motivated to put some Canadian books from the 60s (and one from more recently), side by side to look (informally) at influence in book design and printing. I cannot make an explicit case for direct influence here, but there are striking similarities in book design aesthetics among certain Canadian publishers of poetry in these years. In any event, these are beautiful productions that speak to one another. My apologies for the poor quality photos–I only own the paperbacks in most cases, and thus can’t lay them flat.

As is often the case with modern Canadian book design, we begin with Frank Newfeld. These are photos from two of the “Design for Poetry” titles: Ralph Gustafson’s Rivers Among Rocks (1960) and Phyllis Gotlieb’s Within the Zodiac (1964), both published by McClelland & Stewart. Read what Randall Speller has to say about the series in his wonderful article from Devil’s Artisan.

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Moving chronologically, here are images from the two books that came off of the Blue R Hand Press for Emblem: Wind a Rocky Country by Alden Nowlan (1961) and The Blur in Between by Al Purdy (1962).

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The Blur in Between

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Stan Bevington has been explicit regarding his admiration for Frank Newfeld’s design work and it’s influence on what Coach House went on to do. Below are images from one Coach House title (I’ll do another post at some point with images of a number of Coach House books from the late 1960s and early 1970s), Joe Rosenblatt’s The LSD Leacock (1966). Note that this is the second printing from 1968.

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Finally, the last book is brand new. Phil Hall’s X was recently published by Thee Hellbox Press run by Hugh Walter Barclay out of Kingston, Ontario. This book in particular reminds me of Rosewarne’s work on behalf of Emblem. Amazingly, Thee Hellbox is included in the 1995 catalogue Fine Printing. Operating since 1981, Barclay has clearly learned how to get the most out of his printing. I aspire to this work.

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There is an awful lot to aspire to. When I someday get the new, more literal press of Apt. 9 Press operating, I hope to begin fumbling my way in their direction. Thanks for all the beautiful books!

[I do not own the rights to any of these books or images. They are reproduced here with respect and admiration. If you want one pulled down, do not hesitate to contact me and I will do so immediately.]

Jay Macpherson, Emblem Books

Jay Macpherson died earlier this year (21 March 2012) at the age of 80. Her death was met with a surprising silence in its immediate wake (with a handful of exceptions). Macpherson is known primarily as a poet. Her reputation is built on a small number of collections in the 1950s, culminating in a Governor General’s Award in 1958 for The Boatman.

My own research interests have turned up her name in the margins of a variety of fantastic projects in the history of modern Canadian poetry. She was an early reader at the Contact Poetry Reading Series, appearing on 13 November 1957, generating some of the earliest national press that the series received in the Globe and Mail; Macpherson is described as being “considered by many Canadians our finest young poet” (“Arts in Toronto Spurting Ahead at a Great Pace.” 12 November 1957. p.13).

In an Ottawa connection, she completed part of her high school education at Glebe Collegiate.

More interesting, and more relevant for this blog, she started a small chapbook press in 1954 called Emblem Books. According to the One Zero Zero virtual library of English Canadian Small Presses, Emblem ran from 1954-1962, producing eight books. Authors include Macpherson herself, Dorothy Livesay, Daryl Hine, Violet Anderson, Heather Spears, Dorothy Roberts, Alden Nowlan and Al Purdy. The Nowlan and Purdy books, Wind in a Rocky Country (1960) and The Blur in Between (1962) respectively, were designed and published by Robert Rosewarne, who we have already discussed here.

These two books are surely among the most beautiful produced in Canada in the 20th century. To my mind, they stand alongside the two books of poems produced by Avrom Isaacs’ Gallery Editions. A footnote from my M.A. research describes Gallery Editions as follows:

Avrom Isaacs’ Gallery Editions Press is one of the tangible products of the reading series. Although it only existed for a few years (1960-1962), Gallery Editions produced three books: Eyes Without a Face (1960), poems by Kenneth McRobbie with art by Graham Coughtry, Place of Meeting (1962), poems by Raymond Souster with art by Michael Snow, and Sketch Book: Canadian and European Sketches by Tony Urquhart (1962). Michael Torosian, writing in Toronto Suite, states “they are among the most elegant Canadian books of their day” (66). George Bowering, in an insightful review in The Canadian Forum, takes care to connect the books with their Gallery source: “I have never seen the Isaacs Gallery on Yonge Street except in photographs, but judging from the finesse with which that establishment has moved into the publishing business, I would be prepared to argue in their favour at the drop of a beret” (44). The books remain valuable documents of the interaction that occurred between poets and artists in the Greenwich and Isaacs Galleries.

Raymond Souster, Place of Meeting
Kenneth McRobbie, Eyes Without a Face

I cannot scan the insides of either of these two without damaging the spines. If you have an opportunity, flip through both to truly understand their remarkable beauty.

Rosewarne’s work on these two Emblem books is astonishing. He pairs Purdy and Nowlan’s poems with the sort of abstracted, colourful images that we have already seen in his work with Bill Hawkins. Below is a poster he designed for a reading by Hawkins in 1962.

I’ll reproduce, without comment, a handful of images from inside each book below. My scanner is not always large enough to accommodate the entire spread, apologies where pages are cut off. I have tried to keep at least the images intact.

Nowlan, Alden A. Wind in a Rocky Country. Toronto: An Emblem Book, 1960.

Purdy, Alfred. The Blur in Between: Poems 1960-1961. Toronto: Emblem Books, 1962. [The edition I am using for this, borrowed from the University of Ottawa Library, has 1962 struck out, replaced with 1963].

The Purdy is especially notable for Rosewarne’s work. The Nowlan book does not acknowledge Rosewarne’s contribution. The Purdy book lists him on the title page, as well as includes further information on the colophon:

This book was published in one edition of 300 copies. It was designed by R.V. Rosewarne. The text was hand-set by Axel Harvey in 10 point Light Gothic leaded with a strip of light cardboard. The book was then hand printed on a press of the Washington variety by The Blue R Hand Press (Ottawa Canada).

The Washington press in question is surely (without any proof) the same one used by Rosewarne’s Nil Press to produce the Hawkins poster poems. Rosewarne is operating the press in the detail from an Ottawa Citizen article below. These two books are contemporary with the poster poems, and it is difficult to imagine Rosewarne having access to two different Washington presses in Ottawa in these years. Seeing these, it is a shame that Rosewarne did not produce a series of chapbooks under his own imprint.

I have a soft spot for poets who print and distribute work by others. It is important work and is largely unheralded, certainly rarely acknowledged in a way commensurate with the time and labour invested. When you read and remember Macpherson, think of Emblem Books as well.

[I do not own the rights to Emblem Books. I have reproduced the images above with respect and admiration for the work of Macpherson and Rosewarne. They represent only a small portion of larger books. I will gladly remove the images if the estate of either requests it. I encourage everyone with the time and means to seek out these books to further understand the work of both.]

Something Else

Something Else was a short-lived Ottawa-based literary magazine. It survived for a single issue published in March 1963. I turned up a listing for it in the process of searching for previously uncollected William Hawkins poems.

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Hawkins edited the mag along with Denis Faulkner. Harry Howith and F.A. Harvey are listed as “Associates” on the masthead. Howith collaborated with Hawkins on their 1965 book Two Longer Poems: The Seasons of Miss Nicky by Harry Howith and Louis Riel by William Hawkins (Toronto: Patrician Press). Something Else also lists R.V. Rosewarne as responsible for “Design.” Rosewarne was another regular Hawkins collaborator, designing and printing some of the iconic 60s poster-poems as well as running Nil Press (who published Hawkins in 1966).

The mag earned a mention in Canadian Author and Bookman 38:4 (Summer 1963):

As yet far from luxurious in presentation, but also commendable in content, is SOMETHING ELSE, a spirited newcomer to the periodical scene. The first issue, dated March 1963, is notable for “Looking for Dylan”, a rhapsodic-reminiscent piece by Charles Fisher which catches, obliquely but exactly, the beery yet somehow magnificent aura of the poet’s genius and the spirit of his time . . .

            SOMETHING ELSE is published in Ottawa, and is edited by William Hawkins and Denis Faulkner. It deserves a more attractive format (ie. a bigger budget), Like many another magazine in  Canada, it appears to be functioning not according to the laws of economics, but on faith, hope, and precious little charity. We can only with it luck and send in our three dollars (for six issues, interval not specified). Address: 248 Bank Street, Ottawa 4, Ontario.

248 Bank Street was home to one iteration of the legendary Le Hibou coffee house, host to an astonishing range of poetry readings and musicians during it tenure.

The publishing of the magazine overlaps with other publishing ventures in Ottawa of the early 1960s. Aesthetically, it bears striking resemblance to the Hawkins/Roy MacSkimming book Shoot Low Sheriff, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies!, self-published by Hawkins and MacSkimming in 1964:

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It can also be matched to Harry Howith’s Burglar Tools, published by Howith’s own short-lived small press Bytown Books in 1963. Bytown was announced in the same issue of Canadian Author and Bookman:

Bytown Books, a new Ottawa venture, is looking for short (150 pages maximum, for the present), modern manuscripts. This is not a “vanity press”, not is it, yet, a commercial publishing house. “I suppose we’re something like a co-operative”, says editor Harry Howith. “For the time being, at least, we expect to ask most authors to contribute something towards production costs. If the book sells well enough, this will be refunded. If it keeps right on selling, we’ll pay royalties. But we will not publish anything unless we believe in it.”

            Bytown Books will be published cheaply, but attractively, Mr. Howith Says. “We are most interested in contemporary poetry, but we would be glad to see prose fiction and even non-fiction. We are particularly interested in humour, satire, and polemics. No juvenile material.”

            Address: Harry Howith, Editor, Bytown Books, 191 Fourth Avenue, Ottawa 1, Ontario.

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Title Page

Bytown Books announced a second book, That Monocycle, The Moon by Seymour Mayne, in an issue of Louis Dudek’s Delta in 1963, but the book was never published.

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Hawkins recalls that Something Else was discontinued because it was “probably too much work.”

Between Nil Press, Bytown Books, and Something Else, 1962-1965 were amazingly fertile years for poetry (and art generally) in Ottawa. Howith would go on to be published by DC Books as well as have the distinction of writing the final book published by Contact Press (Total War, 1967). Denis Faulkner was increasingly busy with Le Hibou. Rosewarne continued his own work as an artist, as well as designed titles by Al Purdy and Alden Nowlan for Emblem Books out of Toronto [look for a future post about these two unbelievably beautiful books]. Hawkins would achieve the height of his publishing success in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The four overlapped in various forms during these years. Something Else is a remarkable document of their interactions.

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