One of the Oddest and Most Beautiful Books of 19th Century

Chiswick Press’ edition of Elements of Euclid makes list of most expensive tomes sold in 2008

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On-line book retailer abebooks.com recently released their list of the most expensive books sold in 2008. Amongst their annual top ten was The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid by Euclid which was sold for £8,080.

Charles Wittingham of the Chiswick Press published this edition of Euclid’s works on Euclidean geometry in 1847. Written and designed to simplify Euclid’s propositions, this remarkable example of Victorian printing has been described as one of the oddest and most beautiful books of the 19th century.

Other books in the list included a rare first edition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban signed by JK with the dust wrapper panels signed by the cover artist Cliff Wright and an autographed letter by the nonsense poet Edward Lear, most renowned for writing The Owl and the Pussycat, dated 9th September 1867. The letter contained a detailed self-caricature sketch showing Lear with outstretched limbs, as well as a comedic request to visit the recipient.

The most expensive book sold in 2008 was Etudes à l’Eau-Forte by Francis Seymour Haden which went for £11 840. The edition contained a collection of 25 etchings by Seymour Hayden - 24 of the plates depict the landscape around London, the Thames, Ireland and Wales and the final one is a portrait of Thomas Haden.

According to local website Chiswick History, Chiswick Press was a forerunner of the private presses started by William Morris and others later in the 19th century.

It was founded by Charles Whittingham (1767-1840) who had acquired a patent for extracting tar from old ropes. The hemp was pulped to produce a paper with a strong and silky finish while the tar was used to produce printing ink. In 1810 Whittingham took out a lease on High House (demolished 1880) in Chiswick Mall which he equipped as a printing works with a paper mill next door.

The riverside location was probably selected because of its proximity to the draw dock where barge loads of old ships' ropes from London and other dockyards could be unloaded. In 1818 Chiswick Press moved to larger premises at College House, Chiswick Mall. After Whittingham's death his nephew, Charles Whittingham (1797-1876) took over the business and continued printing at Chiswick until 1852 when he moved the Chiswick Press to its other office in Tooks Court, Chancery Lane.

Chiswick Press specialised in the production of small dainty volumes, noted for their woodcut engravings. The books were printed by hand on iron presses (one of the presses belonging to the Chiswick Press is now in Gunnersbury Park Museum). The Whittinghams not only pioneered a movement towards finely produced books at reasonable prices but also to smaller-sized books which were easy to fit in a pocket. They thus posed a threat to other publishers of the time which favoured big books at big prices.


February 21, 2009