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The British fine presses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, including Kelmscott Press, Vale Press, Eragny Press, Ashendene Press, Doves Press, Essex House Press and Caradoc Press, embraced the return to craftsmanship that typified the Arts and Crafts movement. Their books were characterized by a combination of carefully chosen texts, high quality materials, beautifully decorated pages, and equally exquisite bindings.Eragny's Printer's Device
Ergany Press Printer's Device

The Arts and Crafts movement – inspired by the writings of scholar and artist John Ruskin (1819–1900) and championed by William Morris (1834–1896), founder of the Kelmscott Press – was a reaction to the industrialization of Great Britain during the nineteenth century. Proponents of this movement sought to return to an ideal of individual artistry and craftsmanlike production. Initially the goals were to produce quality products designed to enhance daily life for a new consumer class and provide a sustainable income for craftsmen. Rapidly, however, the movement strayed from the ideal of artful objects created for ordinary people. As the movement evolved into the Aesthetic movement, the emphasis shifted to limited production of exquisitely crafted and highly refined pieces, prohibitively expensive for all but the economic elite. Quality rather than quantity was the goal, whether in the creation of furniture, or in the creation of books.

Fine printing from this era was deliberately retrospective. Artists found inspiration in medieval manuscripts, early printed books, early modern engravings, and pre-industrial printing methods. Elements from the height of early modern printing such as elaborate printer's devices, architectural or floral borders, and colophons are all hallmarks of fine press.

In only a short time the great fine presses attracted imitators, and private presses appeared all over. Private press is a broader term which includes all private printing produced more for pleasure than profit in the tradition of the fine press.

Fine and private press editions are prominent in most rare books collections. The challenge to a collection like that held at Tarlton is finding titles that are related to law. Operating within those confines, the Library has nonetheless amassed a collection of over 300 fine and private press editions.

Chauncey D. Leake, Jr. (LL.B, University of Texas School of Law, 1955), a long-time benefactor of Rare Books and Special Collections, inspired Tarlton Law Library's Fine and Private Press Collection.