The Stanbrook Abbey
To those who already know of the
Stanbrook Abbey Press I hope you will find new material of
interest. To those who know nothing of the Press, I hope
you enjoy the story.
The community at Stanbrook began during the religious strife of
17th century England when a group of women left for France to
establish a community of nuns. During the French Revolution the
nuns were ejected from their home at a few minutes' notice.
Four of them died during the eighteen months of harsh
imprisonment in Compiegne. The remainder returned penniless to
England and eventually settled in 1838 at Stanbrook in the
Benedictines are expected to provide for their own needs; while
in France they worked with cloth, back in England, on the
suggestion of their chaplain, they took up printing on a hand
press, and so the Stanbrook Abbey Press was born.
Initially the press issued books on
religious topics–notably translations by the nuns themselves;
but soon fine presswork emerged in the form of limited edition
short works or broadsides impeccably printed and frequently
embellished with calligraphy.
Dame Laurentia, later Lady Abbess,
counted among her correspondents such figures as George Bernard
Shaw and Sir Sydney Cockerell. The latter in particular was
tireless in his endeavours to improve printing standards at
Stanbrook. He provided Golden Cockerel and Kelmscott works from
his own library, and managed to inspire a tradition of fine
calligraphy and appreciation for well made printing
After the Second World War, the new head
of the Stanbrook Abbey Press, Dame Hildelith Cumming, asked for
advice on replacing the worn type. And advice was freely given
by Kerrison Preston, local printer, who introduced his friend,
Robert Gibbings to Stanbrook. Gibbings suggested Perpetua, a
lovely face designed by Eric Gill.
The Abbess was not fond of this type, she thought it derived
from a chisel rather than a pen, but it must have been obtained
as some works are known printed in it, such as an edition of
Christmas Lyrics in 1956: a collection of twelve fifteenth
century poems printed with colour initials; a special edition
on handmade paper contained hand-drawn initials.
But the quest for a more suitable
typeface continued and, one day, they chanced upon type
designed by the famed Haarlem typographer Jan van Krimpen.
It was called Cancelleresca Bastarda and was based on the
clear fonts used by early printers. A friend of the Abbey,
J. G. Dreyfus, arranged an introduction, and thus began a
long correspondence between the Abbey and the
Soon fonts of Cancellersca Bastarda found their way to
Stanbrook. The picture on the left shows an initial by Margaret
Adams, plus the font Cancelleresca Bastarda.
In hindsight, this was the Golden Age of the Press. Books
and ephemera and broadsides of the highest quality were issued,
frequently with exquisite calligraphed initials by Katherine
Adams, Madelyn Walker or Margaret Adams, local artist friends
of the Abbey who freely lent their talents.
The Stanbrook Abbey Press was at one time the oldest private
press in England, and acquired an international reputation for
fine printing under Dames Hildelith Cumming and Felicitas
It was around 1991 that I first came into contact with
Stanbrook Abbey & the late Margaret Adams.
We had by that time been running a
bindery at Downside Abbey (another Benedictine community) for
some years. We had heard that some of the nuns of Stanbrook
were involved in bookbinding, so we were very pleased when we
were invited to stay.
We were made welcome by Dame Agnes
Wilkins. I came to love and respect this lady very much in the
years I knew her. I could tell you a story about her amazing
personal courage, but I think she would be embarrassed so I
shall remain silent.
Now knowing much about convent etiquette
I did not realise at the time that an exception had been made,
and I was allowed access to the nun’s bindery in the convent
itself. Not many males are given access to the convent, they
must have thought I was totally harmless.
Margaret Adams was by this time
living in a house close to the convent, we visited her on
several occasions, having tea and talking about
calligraphy. Both her and her late husband were very
talented artists, trained in old methods and techniques
from a different era.
We got to talking about a book she had
worked on; “The History of the Stanbrook Abbey
She had designed the logo for this book
and showed me the original artwork which was written on a piece
Agnes had the original block; engraved in brass I made her
a wooden box to keep it in. Though only two inches square
it cost over £200.00 to have engraved.
I had seen copies of the book in the
foyer of the convent for sale; these were unbound books, in
sheets ready for binding.
I asked if I might borrow the block as I
wanted to buy a copy of the book in sheets and bind it
Clutching the block we left Stanbrook
and made our way to our home to Downside Abbey. I had decided
that I was going to bind the book as a gift for the Stanbrook
library. Nuns, or monks for that matter are not allowed to
accept personal gifts.
I wanted the binding to be simple and
unaffected; in the event I opted for an undyed goatskin and
used the block I had borrowed to title it.
The Stanbrook Abbey Press is mostly
In May 2009 the community left Stanbrook
and moved into new purpose built buildings at Wass in
Yorkshire, to face new hurdles and challenges.
I look back fondly to the times we spent
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