The completion of the Letterpress Shakespeare

The completion of the Letterpress Shakespeare

A landmark in publishing: all of William Shakespeare's works, printed letterpress in large-format, leather-bound volumes

An ideal reading edition

Since the First Folio in 1623 there have been countless editions of Shakespeare's works. The Folio Society wanted to do something unprecedented: to design an edition so pure, so simple, that the beauty of the text could be fully appreciated – an edition that would be as timeless as the text itself.

What would the ideal version of Shakespeare's work look like? What would result if simplicity and elegance were the goal rather than the dictates of fashion and cost efficiency? These were the questions we asked ourselves when we embarked on our Letterpress Shakespeare series in 2006. The project was to occupy some of the Europe's finest book designers, typesetters, paper-makers, printers and binders for eight years.

The starting point was the text. Rather than keep text and commentary together, we decided to put them in separate volumes. Out went the elements that clutter the page: footnotes and textual variants. All that remained was Shakespeare's words. The text has been printed in 16-point Baskerville, with type set in hot metal and impressed on thick, mould-made paper. The margins are generous – over 6 centimetres – to allow the words the room to breathe. Alongside the leather-bound primary volume is an annotated Oxford University Press edition, edited by eminent Shakespeare scholar, Stanley Wells.

The result is a simple, understated design that is a delight to read and a pleasure to hold.

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Championing traditional craftsmanship

Championing traditional craftsmanship

Letterpress printing declined after the Second World War as cheaper offset-lithography took over. Printers sold off or discarded the presses and trays of metal type. Yet letterpress endured. Print professional, book collectors and artists never lost their appreciation of its unique qualities.

We found four printing firms who had the necessary enthusiasm and expertise to produce the Letterpress Shakespeare: Hand & Eye Letterpress in London, Logan Press in Northamptonshire, Stan Lane's Stonehouse Fine Press in Gloucestershire and Offizin

Haag-Drugulin in Germany – a firm that gained its reputation printing the first editions of Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann.

The quality of the print and the thickness of the paper meant the presses had to run slowly, with frequent adjustments to ensure evenness of inking and impression. Printing just one of the plays involved eight hours of work a day for six weeks. When the printing was complete the type was melted down, the setting never to be used again.

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Stan Lane: the art of letterpress

To achieve the desired clarity and intensity of line for this project, only one printing process would do: letterpress. Although labour-intensive, letterpress has a depth and elegance that modern printing cannot replicate.

The intricate and skilled task of casting and setting the hot metal type by hand fell to Stan Lane, a master compositor and type caster who has worked with letterpress for over 50 years.

Jemma Lewis: hand-marbled paper

The case sides for the first volumes were hand marbled by Ann Muir. She was succeeded by Jemma Lewis, who has completed the series. To create the effect, droplets of oil are floated on a solution of caragheen moss and combed into patterns. Since each pattern is different, each book is unique.

The volumes are colour-coded according to genre: red for the tragedies, blue for the histories, green for the comedies and turquoise for the sonnets and poems.

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The finest materials

Every detail of the Letterpress Shakespeare series has been selected to provide the most rich and tactile experience. The paper used is produced on a mould and the difference is immediately apparent. It has a rich texture which invites a deep impression of type. Made at the Papierfabrik Zerkall mill in Hurtgenwald, the paper dries slowly, leaving a distinctive deckle edge on two sides. The page measures an opulent 13.75 x 10 inches, an unconventional size chosen to display the text to its best advantage.

Each book is half-bound in goatskin from the Sahel region of Nigeria. The leather is tanned in Northamptonshire and then sent to Lachenmaier bindery in Germany. Like many other stages in the production, the binding is executed by hand.

Each volume is individually numbered, titled in 22-carat gold leaf and presented in a buckram-bound solander box. Recessed into the case is a companion volume of the Oxford University Press edition. Under the general editorship of the eminent Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, these authoritative editions contain introductions, commentaries and appendices. In line with our emphasis on purity of design, we have reprinted these companion volumes in a more generous format, with wider margins and a binding case to match the elegance of the whole.

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