by Jessica Svendsen
Sitting at tea on her thirty-third birthday, Virginia and Leonard Woolf agreed on three resolutions: they would purchase Hogarth House in Richmond, procure a handpress to do their own printing, and buy a bull dog, whom they would name John. There is no further mention in Woolf’s diaries of John the bulldog, but they soon bought Hogarth House and two years later, they purchased a handpress, thereby merging their home and a small-scale letterpress studio into the Hogarth Press.
After Leonard and Virginia were rejected from the St. Bride’s school of printing because they were not trade union apprentices, they visited Excelsior Printing Supply Co., where they found the machines and materials required for printing. Leonard describes the scene in his autobiography: “Nearly all the implements of printing are materially attractive, and we stared through the window at them rather like two hungry children gazing at buns and cakes in a baker shop window.”  They explained their predicament to the shop owner, who encouraged them to pursue printing without taking an apprenticeship course; he sold the Woolfs a printing machine, type, chases, and cases, along with a 16-page pamphlet that would “infallibly” teach them how to print.
It was not until April of 1917 that the press and the typecases were delivered to Hogarth House. “We unpacked it,” she wrote to her sister Vanessa Bell, “with enormous excitement, finally with Nelly’s help, carried it into the drawing room, set it on its stand—and discovered that it was smashed in half!”  While they waited for their handpress to be repaired, they began distributing the type to be properly stored in the typecases. Virginia wrote that sorting out type was “the work of ages, especially when you mix the h’s with the n’s, as I did yesterday.” The infinite patience and meticulousness required for letterpress printing, however, did not discourage Virginia; rather, she concluded from these preliminaries, “real printing will devour one’s entire life.” Virginia recounted in her letter that after two hours of typesetting, Leonard “heaved a terrific sigh” and said: “’I wish to God we’d never bought the cursed thing.’ To my relief, though not surprise, he added ‘Because I shall never do anything else.’ You can’t think how exciting, soothing, ennobling and satisfying it is” (Woolf, Virginia 2:151).
The book arts were not wholly unknown to Virginia; beginning at the age of nineteen, she bound her own books. Thus, at least from her nineteenth year, Virginia had a practical knowledge of bookbinding that complimented her appreciation of books as a reader, novelist, and literary essayist. Woolf’s bookbinding skills—which she continued during the flourishing years of the Hogarth Press—contributed to her favorable inclination, as J.H. Willis argues, towards Leonard’s birthday proposition of purchasing a printing press. Willis explains: “Collecting books, conversing with sellers of old books, reading for hours in a library, writing at a stand-up desk, or hand binding books…doesn’t lead inexorably to a handpress and a publishing venture at age thirty-three, but these experiences must have predisposed Virginia Woolf to the idea of a press and partly determined what sort of printing and binding she would do with Leonard” (Willis 8)
Though the Hogarth press evolved into a publishing house for Bloomsbury writers, Leonard also initially purchased the press as a form of therapy for Virginia—printing would be a “manual occupation [that] would take her mind completely off her work” (Woolf, Leonard 233). As envisioned by Leonard, the mechanical and physical nature of letterpress printing would liberate her imaginative mind. However, the printing press became, instead of mental therapy, a form of “aesthetic therapy” for Virginia—it contributed to and changed her work, rather than allowing her to escape writing.  Moreover, it bridged the gap between language and reality; language no longer simply conveyed the fictional world, but was composed of real objects to be physically lifted and moved. Indeed, after Virginia became acquainted with type composition, the physical placement and modification of words, required by letterpress printing, is reflected in her writing. Printing forced her to reevaluate her word choice, punctuation use, and how she built a sentence. Indeed, printing at the Hogarth Press marks the beginning of a new direction in Woolf’s writing, one that playfully experimented with form and composition.
Virginia as Printer
Through the beginning months of 1917, Virginia learned how to become a type compositor. Because Leonard was plagued with shaking hands, it was impossible for him to properly set type. Thus, while he ran the press machines, Virginia was responsible for the setting and distribution of type. For each story printed at the Hogarth Press, Virginia needed to set each line, letter-by-letter, word-by-word. The line of type would need to fill the width of the composing stick, packed with differently sized pieces of spacing. Once an entire page was typeset, the block of lead pieces would need to be compressed together so that none of the words would fall out when the page was carried over to the nearby press. As self-taught beginners, the Woolfs had considerable problems. As Virginia conveyed in her letter to Vanessa, she mixed up the n’s and h’s. When they printed, the ink came out unevenly—thick in some places while too thin on some letters. They didn’t proofread after their initial print, contributing to misspellings and improper punctuation. In addition, both the first notice publicizing the establishment of the Hogarth press and their first publication, Two Stories, had irregular spacing and blotted ink, making their finished product amateurish. Yet, as biographer Hermione Lee notes, these self-taught amateur printers quickly began to transform themselves into professional publishers. 
Printing for Virginia was not a burdensome labor, meant only as a financial supplement to her writing. The Hogarth Press became successful without the structure of a standard publishing business because, paradoxically, they were not interested in the success of the Press. They refused to publish volumes that they did not consider worth printing for their own sake, even though they might make money.  Yet Virginia found the printing process “exciting, soothing, ennobling and satisfying,” and consequently, both Leonard and Virginia developed into professional printers precisely because they found the labor so gratifying. The Hogarth Press was not only fulfilling on a visceral level; it also profoundly affected how she thought about writing, reading, and the circulation of literature. Indeed, when Virginia began learning about the art of typography and printing, she was simultaneously, as biographer Panthea Reid argues, “discovering how writing could be not invisible but opaque, a signifier in its own right” (Reid 198). Setting each unit of type with her own hands and arranging the empty spaces between words magnified Woolf’s sense of how a text appears visually on the page. Indeed, Reid explains that in her revision of Melymbrosia, “Virginia had conceptualized language as ‘blocks.’ Now she experienced it literally as blocks of type, an experience that extended her ‘visual literacy’” (Reid 198). Woolf conveys how she imagined words as blocks, objects, or units of individual letters or type in her unpublished essay “How Should One Read a Book?” She writes:
“Try to understand what a writer is doing. Think of a book as a very dangerous and exciting game, which it takes two to play at. Books are not turned out of moulds like bricks. Books are made of tiny little words, which a writer shapes, often with great difficulty, into sentences of different lengths, placing one on top of another, never taking his eye off them, sometimes building them quite quickly, at other times knocking them down in despair, and beginning all over again.”
The process of typesetting is evident within this passage; Woolf stresses that each word should be considered as a single, visual unit, made by a combination of single letters. Moreover, each word is considered like a single block of type; when these blocks are built next to one another or placed “one on top of another,” a sentence is shaped. Hermione Lee comments on this essay, concluding that “The writer is imagined as a kind of mental compositor, and the reader is invited to think of the book not as a fixed object, but as a process—something like the process that goes into type-setting” (Lee 368).
The influence of the printing process on Virginia’s writing style is noticeable in the language she uses when she discusses writing or the composition of a novel. While she was writing The Waves, she wrote in her diary, “Perhaps I can now say something quite straight out; and at length; and need not be always casting a line to make my book the right shape. But how to pull together, how to compose it—press it into one.”  She imagines the book as a shape—“made of tiny little words”—which a writer must compose, pull together, and compress into one shape, just as a printer sets type, aligns it with spacing on a composing stick, and presses it into one block.
Heralding the title page of Leonard and Virginia’s Two Stories is the header, “Publication No. 1.”  Undaunted by their initial difficulties with their handpress, Leonard and Virginia began setting “Three Jews” in May of 1917, later to be accompanied by and bound with Virginia’s “The Mark on the Wall.” Printing “Three Jews” was so occupying for the Woolfs that it was only after its complete production that Virginia was able to write “The Mark on the Wall.” Indeed, Virginia was absorbed in the process of typesetting and printing, as she conveyed in a letter to Vanessa: “We have just started printing Leonard’s story; I haven’t produced mine yet, but there’s nothing in writing compared with printing.”  By publishing together in one volume, the Woolfs indicated that the Hogarth Press was a joint enterprise. For Virginia, publishing her story “marked,” as the title suggests, a new direction in her writing, one with a modernist form and experimental language. Indeed, Lee interprets Woolf’s “casual remark” that she had yet to write “The Mark on the Wall” as one of “the utmost significance: the new machine had created the possibility for the new story” (Lee 359).
As the type compositor at Hogarth, Virginia was also confronted with the visual, textual, and linguistic experimentation of other modernist writers, an experience which undoubtedly contributed to her own literary style. Her typesetting skill was tested at least three times: by Hope Mirrlees’s Paris which was, with its one line running vertically down the page, self-consciously modernist in its typographical form; T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with its innovative use of paginal space; and James Joyce’s Ulysses. As for the latter, regardless of the Woolfs’ disdain for the text for the obscenity of Joyce’s novel, it was an impossible job for the Hogarth Press to publish it. Beyond being exceedingly long, it was challenging textually, far beyond the capabilities of Virginia’s typesetting and Leonard’s machining (Willis 72). But the Woolfs agreed to publish Eliot’s epic poem—Eliot even inscribed Leonard’s copy of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by calling him his “next” and “second publisher” (Woolf, Leonard 242). They began production in early 1923; Virginia typeset the poem herself and Leonard printed the text. By July, Virginia wrote: “I have just finished setting up the whole of Mr. Eliots poem with my own hands: You see how my hand trembles”  The Waste Land was one of the most typographically challenging works to be published by Hogarth, or for that matter, to be typeset by Virginia. Eliot was skilled in adroit spacing with lines indented to the center of the page or beginning near the border edge, making it difficult for a typesetter to perceive his intended space.
Contextualizing the Modernist Text
By the time Leonard and Virginia were able to realize their two-year dream of establishing the Hogarth Press, private presses and fine commercial printing had been flourishing in England for over twenty-five years, ever since the revival of the craft arts by William Morris in the late 1880s. Yet, when the Hogarth Press was founded, there was a deluge in the 1920s of emerging presses and publishers, ranging from small studios to large establishments, private presses to commercial companies, the fine book arts to mass production. Yet, the Woolfs did not follow the paths of the other presses and develop into fine printing. Indeed, the Hogarth Press was never as professional or as self-consciously ornate as other studios, like Morris’ Kelmscott Press or the Bodley Head Press. Willis explains: “Whether they lacked the visual sense of style, the artist’s and designer’s eye for materials and spatial relationships necessary for fine printing and book designing, or whether they lacked the skill, or the time and interest to develop it, or the money, the Woolfs produced books plainly printed in various dimensions, with attractive but inexpensive wrappers” (Willis 36). Indeed, the Woolfs deliberately rejected fine printing; as Leonard describes in his autobiography, they did not want to develop into a press, “the object of which is finely produced books, books which are not meant to be read, but to be looked at” (Willis 36).
Leonard’s distinction between typographically artistic books, that are designed “to be looked at,” and literary books, that are “meant to be read,” reveals his authorial perspective—authors do not want the form or design of the printed book to be gawked at, and skilled designers make certain that it is not. According to this principle, the best design should read clearly with the print serving only as an invisible conduit for the meaning of the words. Michael Kaufman describes the role of design in textual prints, arguing that design is a medium “that suppresses its own presence for its content. In such a system of design, readers usually see the printed body of a book when some irregularity—a misspelling or a broken character—calls their attention to it…they have been trained not to see print, but to see what it ‘means.’” Kaufman describes how readers do not want to be disturbed by the physicality of the novel. Instead, a reader wants to be inserted into the fictional world of the novel; they do not want to see the printed words, but to see through them, imagining the events and characters the words describe.
However, many modernist texts flaunt textual composition, inviting readers to stare at the design, from everything to the composition of the page down to the shape of a letter. They render it difficult for the reader to look past the black print on a white page in order to imagine the fictional narrative. They expose the skeleton of a book; modernist writers reveal a text for what it is: ink and paper. Seeing the physical shape of the words, page, and book is unavoidable in numerous modernist texts: Eliot’s poetry disrupts the layout of the entire page, beginning lines and verses in a random position on the page; James Joyce reconsiders textual structure in Finnegans Wake, with the Book II chapter composed with observational notes and footnotes surrounding the text in the marginalia with hand drawings and diagrams interspersed throughout the section William Faulkner’s coffin shape and textual gap in As I Lay Dying functions in a similar manner, interrupting the regular flow of language with signs announcing that they are printed shapes. Kaufmann deems these techniques metatextual: “they ‘show’ themselves and comment physically on their material existence in the way that metafictional works comment on their fictiveness. Metatextual works break up the print rectangle of the page and make the physical form of the book visible to expose print conventions and the effect of print on language. Typography, footnoting, paginal arrangement, and chapter organization, all take on different visual configurations. The printed form of the work becomes part of the narrative” (Kaufmann 14). Therefore, to ignore the printed form in modernism—and in turn, to ignore the role of the printed word in Woolf’s writing and daily life—is to neglect one of its most noticeable and striking aspects.
Kaufmann compares this growing awareness of the print medium’s influence print on language and perception to a similar trend in the visual arts. As painters and sculptors called attention to the pigment, canvas, clay, wood, or metal, writers began to consider printed words and paper as the materials in their verbal art. Writers realized that the physical materials of one’s art contributed to and created new textual meaning. Hugh Kenner characterizes the modernist period as a time during which “space was whelming verbal art” and the printed voice “separated into components that which the skilled reader put back together” (Kaufmann 32). Identifying space as verbal art is a technique used by Woolf; in novels like Jacob’s Room or The Waves, Woolf was in constant dialogue with the printer, ensuring that the spaces between scenes were of a precise thickness. The absence of words, or the space in between scenes, becomes another source of meaning; space becomes verbal art in the same way in which Woolf practiced a linguistic art.
The modernists, including Woolf, who favored an innovative and experimental language, “sought to achieve a new reality in language and tried to use words as thing (Pound, the Imagists), something that printed words—already objects themselves—made easy” (Kaufmann 30). Indeed, Pound followed the tradition of French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé, who argued that “the rhythm of a sentence about an act or even an object has meaning only if it imitates them and, enacted on paper, conveys in spite of everything some element of the act or that object” (Kaufmann 31). The modernist movement, therefore, made it so that readers can no longer avoid the page so that they may gaze through it to the world of fiction, but are compelled to look at the page itself as a visual object composed of visual units.
Woolf uses techniques in Jacob’s Room that are, as Kaufmann would term them, metatextual. Woolf’s use of spacing, variant punctuation, and emphasis on words as single, constitutive units, exposes the printed rectangle of text on the page as a form of meaning, one as important as the narrative itself. For example, Woolf breaks up the shapes of words in order to replicate spoken language—how stress is placed on single syllables. When Archer calls Jacob, he shouts: “Ja—cob! Ja—cob!” and when Mrs. Flanders summons the two boys, she calls, “Ar—cher! Ja—cob!” Woolf’s separation of their names in this manner renders it difficult for the reader to avoid the physical shape of words. Yet Woolf exposes the paginal skeleton even further: two lines of space separate these initial shouts, secluding these broken syllables from the rest of the textual body. Indeed, throughout Jacob’s Room, Woolf experiments with spacing; four lines of white space separate some paragraphs, while other paragraph separations are thinner. Woolf, therefore, in structuring the book according to the spaces between scenes, not only considers the visual composition of the page but also how the absence of words—as indicated with blank space—becomes another origin of meaning.
Space, and the words and phrases surrounding space, feature prominently in The Waves. Woolf considers the visual composition of the page in a similar manner to how she used space in Jacob’s Room. Correspondence to the Hogarth Press’ outside printer, R. R. & Clark, who printed The Waves, reveals how Woolf calculated the space between scenes such that the white space, whether thick or thin, would enhance the meaning of her verbal art. The managing director wrote to the Woolfs, “explaining that while he had allowed a half-inch space in the seven places indicated in the text by the directions to ‘leave a larger space,’ he believed there were other places where there were distinct breaks in the narrative, perhaps requiring two kinds of space” (Willis 198). Leonard explained that though the novel was not divided into chapters, there were nine distinct sections, with short interludes in between; each interlude would begin with a new page and be printed in italics. He directed, “In the cases where we have merely marked ‘leave a larger space’ it will be correct if you leave half an inch space’” (Willis 198). This correspondence reveals how Virginia perceived the textual page as a visual canvas. When she was writing The Waves, Woolf reflected: “I shape a page or two and make myself stop…But I have never written a book so full of holes and patches; that will need re-building, yes, not only re-modeling…I begin to see what I had in mind; and want to begin cutting out masses of irrelevance, and clearing, sharpening, and making the good phrases shine.” When Virginia writes a page, she “shapes” it into a linguistic and visual form. The language Woolf uses in her diary entries recalls her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” where she describes a writer as someone who shapes words, building up and combining blocks of letters into a large whole. Here again, Woolf uses a building metaphor to characterize writing: there are holes in her structure, so she must “knock them down” in order to rebuild and remodel.
Virginia’s Collaboration with Vanessa Bell
Virginia wrote the foreword to the London Artists’ Association of Recent Paintings by Vanessa Bell, conveying a muted envy that Vanessa, as a painter, didn’t need words to convey beauty. She writes: “It is Mrs. Bell who is determined that we shall not loll about juggling with pretty words or dallying with sensations…No stories are told; no insinuations are made…and the puzzle is that while Mrs. Bell’s pictures are immensely expressive, their expressiveness has no truck with words. Her vision excites a strong emotion and yet when we have dramatized it or poetized it or translated it into all the blues and greens, and fines and exquisites and subtleties of our vocabulary, the picture itself escapes.”  Woolf conveys in this passage her subtle dissatisfaction that as a writer, she is compelled to rely on words in order to create visual art. Perhaps Virginia’s admiration and high esteem for Vanessa’s artwork is one reason why she frequently collaborated with her for Hogarth Press publications. Indeed, Vanessa designed numerous covers for Hogarth volumes, including most of Virginia’s novels or essays. Though Vanessa did not read the text before creating a dust jacket, Virginia would provide her sister with enough of a general idea about the book that she would be able to design a complimentary image. S. P. Rosenbaum comments on how Bell’s wrappers compliment the narratives of Woolf’s novels: “They are, to borrow a phrase of Henry James’s, ‘optical echoes’ of the text” (Rosenbaum 22).
Virginia’s collaboration with Vanessa for the third edition of Kew Gardens invites readers to stare at the design of the page. Indeed, on each page, the margins are filled with Vanessa’s illustrations of various lines and shapes, reminiscent of the foliage Woolf describes in the story. Yet their collaboration does not end at the marginalia. Instead, Vanessa’s drawings interject into paragraph breaks, and at certain places, the margins of the text are manipulated to allow for more space for the illustration. In one of the final pages of this edition, a flower and several fallen petals are placed directly in the center of the paragraph, with the narrative text justified around the drawing. Yet the images illuminate the text beside it: beneath the phrase, “the dome of the heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves” are curved, tongue-shaped petals; over the “breeze stirred rather more briskly overhead” are billowing clouds; and interspersed between the fallen petals, lying in the middle of the paragraph, are the words, “She stood there letting the words fall over her, swaying the top of her body slowly backwards and forwards, looking at the flowers.” Vanessa’s illustrations disrupt the traditional, block-like, rectangular layout of the page. With these images interrupting the regular flow of the text, the narrative itself emphasizes its materiality, depicting how visual and verbal art can enhance each other.
When the Woolfs moved from Hogarth House, Virginia wrote in her diary: “Nowhere else could we have started the Hogarth Press, whose very awkward beginning had rise in this very room, on this very green carpet. Here that strange offspring grew and throve; it ousted us from the dining room, which is now a dusty coffin; and crept all over the house.”  Woolf’s comparison of the dining room to both a womb and a coffin, with the press as its growing child, conveys her emotional attachment to the press. After Leonard left editing the Athenaeum, Virginia wrote: “we are now supporting ourselves entirely by the Hogarth Press, which when I remember how we bought five pounds of type and knelt on the drawing room floor ten years ago setting up little stories and running out of quads…makes my heart burst with pride.” Both of these passages convey the importance of the press to Virginia. The press progressed from the initial frustrations and delights of letterpress printing, to the more time-consuming activities of a full-time publishing company, where the Woolfs read and edited manuscripts and interacted with managers and assistants. J.H. Willis argues that the press “objectified Woolf’s world, allowing her to keep…in touch with young writers, new movements, women’s affairs, politics. It strengthened the bond with her sister Vanessa by bringing Virginia’s verbal art together with Vanessa’s visual arts in the texts, illustrations, and dust jackets of the sister’s joint press publications” (Willis 400). The Hogarth Press published over 525 books within a period of thirty years; considering Virginia’s intense involvement in the burgeoning years of the press, it is important to consider what was needed for each of her books to be articulated, both physically, with her letterpress typesetting, and mentally, with how she composed language.
- ↑ Willis, J. H. Leonard and Virginia Woolf As Publishers: The Hogarth Press, 1917-41. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1992.
- ↑ Woolf, Leonard. Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911 to 1918. New York: Harcourt, 1964. 234.
- ↑ Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. 6 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1975-80. 2:150.
- ↑ Reid, Panthea. Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 198.
- ↑ Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. New York: Random House, 1999. 359.
- ↑ Rosenbaum, S. P. Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. Austin, Texas: University of Texas sat Austin, 1995. 17.
- ↑ Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. 4 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1977-84. 26 January 1930.
- ↑ Woolf, L. S. and Virginia Woolf. Two Stories. Richmond: Hogarth Press, 1917.
- ↑ Rhein, Donna E. The Handprinted Books of Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985. 11.
- ↑ Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 3: 1923-1928. New York: Harcourt and Brace Company, 1978. July 8, 1923.
- ↑ Kaufmann, Michael. Textual Bodies: Modernism, Postmodernism, and Print. Lewisberg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press, 1994. 14.
- ↑ Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room. Richmond: Hogarth Press, 1922. 8, 28.
- ↑ Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. 4 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1977-84. 28 November 1928, 29 April 1930, and 1 May 1930.
- ↑ Woolf, Virginia. Foreword. Recent Paintings by Vanessa Bell. By The London Artists’ Association. London: The Favil Press, 1930. 2-3.
- ↑ Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume 2: 1920-1924. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. New York: Harcourt and Brace Company, 1978. January 9, 1924.