Volume 33 - Spring 2012


William Blades

Champion of Caxton and Posthumous Benefactor - by Ursula Jeffries

William Blades became a benefactor to St Bride Foundation through an accident of history because his untimely death released for sale the private collection which forms the core of the St Bride Library. When he died there was a shocked reaction throughout 'printerdom'. Businessman, collector, lecturer and generous communicator - Blades was an active man and a popular and well-known figure. His personal interest in the history of printing took him out of the commercial world of his family business and led him to meet and sometimes cross swords with academia. His search for examples of early typography coupled with his desire to describe and define early printed works brought him into contact with the bibliophiles, booksellers, historians and modernisers of his time.

When the executors announced that this famous collection was to be sold, there were many who wished to prevent it being broken up. A new printers' institute near Fleet Street was not the obvious first choice for its home but the committee secured the necessary funding and a fire-proof room was purpose built. A proportion of the heavy wooden bookcases came from William Blades' own home. There they still stand, filled with some 3000 pieces in the order he created so that his books, pamphlets, card dividers and notes (some made by him, some by the librarians) give the accurate impression of a work in progress; a useful and well-used resource created by a lively mind with an all-consuming passion.

So who was William Blades and how did he come to develop his fascination with early printing? The Blades family originally lived in Clapham which in 1824 was a desirable and, as yet undeveloped, suburb. After a good grammar school education William started work aged 15 in his father's successful printing business in Abchurch Lane in the City of London. This full apprenticeship ensured the thorough understanding and love of the craft and industry of printing which was to inform his career. Although he would never know the Foundation Institute he would have known the Fleet Street area in detail as the streets surrounding St Paul's had long been a focal point for the printing industry.

His interest in the history of the craft grew as he trained and he began to concentrate on the identification of the genuine works of William Caxton. His own book How to tell a Caxton with some hints where and how the same might be found (1870) is a delightful example of the way in which Blades worked and the clarity and spirit with which he expressed himself. His interest is simply in establishing a precise method of identification which he is happy to share and explain with useful illustrations and technical information and precise measurements. The style is so entirely free of academic flourishes or any mystification that he simply convinces the reader that nothing could be more straightforward than to know a Caxton when they saw it. For example : "Has the book a Title-page? If it has it is not a Caxton... If catchwords are used it has no claim to be a Caxton." He encourages the continuing search for authentic volumes with a personal anecdote. "..with dusty face and grimed hands I was departing when a filthy bit of parchment in a pigeon hole close to the fire place attracted my attention by the appearance it presented of an illuminated initial. I turned it aside with my foot, and beneath was an old folio the first sight of which made my heart beat: it seemed impossible, and yet it was a genuine Caxton. The second edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with numerous woodcuts."

Blades, East and Blades prospered as William and his brother Rowland developed a company which specialised in the printing of bank notes, cheques and commercial forms including anti-fraud devices. When they outgrew Abchurch Lane it was said that William ensured the best possible facilities for the workers in the new building. He supported the activities of the union and all the staff enjoyed the annual dinners which certainly had beautifully printed and designed menus. The staff joined in the celebration of his 25th wedding anniversary and presented Mr and Mrs Blades with a silver plated fruit stand. They had established a home in Surrey in Sutton which was still quite a rural spot and not the urban sprawl of today.

Blades was best known in his lifetime for his life's work on William Caxton. He had come to public notice in 1861 when he published The Life and Typography of William Caxton. Using his technical knowledge of the craft he was able to examine and judge every specimen of Caxton's work that he could trace through travel and correspondence and he built his own theories and conclusions which challenged much that had previously been accepted. When it came to celebrating Caxton with an exhibition he was able to convince his colleagues that 1877 rather that 1874 was the date to indicate four centuries since the first book printed in this country: The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers. With characteristic enthusiasm he entered in to organising the Caxton part of the exhibition in South Kensington. He catalogued the Caxtons, wrote an introduction and acted as general manager for the upper rooms of the exhibition which was visited by the Queen. He is described, as cheerfully unpacking crates in his shirt sleeves, keeping his head and working hard 'while others differed and argued' he was serene and genial.

William Blades is not a name which you will now find in most general works about Victorian England but he was well-known to his contemporaries, especially those of like mind. As the Sutton Herald wrote in the obituary of April 28th 1890 "his house was the resort of prominent literary people including many from abroad and he always made his visitors welcome to inspect the treasures of his library." Only days before an event to celebrate Blades' jubilee as a printer he died at home in Cheam Road, Sutton; he left a widow and seven children. He was buried on April 30th 1890 at the New Cemetery, Sutton where 500 mourners gathered including 100 employees of Blades, East and Blades. Many would have remembered his lecture to the Sutton Working Men's Constitutional Association given on December 11th 1889.

In 1899 a catalogue of the Blades collection was published by J Southward, a contemporary writer on printing. Writing his preface at a time so soon after Blades' death, Mr Southward encapsulates the feeling of the time:

"The William Blades collection, is, in the first place, one of the largest of its kind that exists in a separate and independent condition.... remarkable from the fact that it was collected by one man, and one who was animated by a steady purpose... his death removed from the ranks of present day bibliographers one of the foremost authorities and for those of the craft of printing one of its most respected and influential members. All his work was done primarily from his love of the art of printing."

St Bride Foundation is a Fleet Street survivor. When the Institute was built in the 1890s the area was at the hub of the printing and publishing world and this was the ideal location for training printers. The building was designed, however, to do more than service a local industry. Well-equipped libraries, lecture rooms and even a swimming pool offered educational and social facilities to both members and local residents. The original book collection has now grown into the world's foremost printing and graphic arts library and despite the huge changes of the twentieth century the architecture is almost unchanged. The pool is now a theatre; visitors come for conferences and events; readers study in the library; students are learning to print in the workshop so it is still a lively resource for London and the arts - Reg. Charity No. 207607. Further information can be found on the library's web site at www.stbridefoundation.org

Ursula Jeffries is a freelance writer. She discovered St Bride Foundation while tracing family history linked with the newspaper industry. The story of the building and the individuals connected with it have provided her with so many opportunities for study that her original intention to write its history looks to be a long-term ambition. Recently she has helped in the production of a new book on compositors and she is currently researching John Southward, another Victorian writer on the art of printing who prepared a catalogue of the William Blades collection.


Skin Deep - Volume 33 - Spring 2012

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