The Definitive Dwiggins no. 37—The Mystery of the Printing Press

In W.A. Dwiggins’ account book for 1914 there is this entry: “JUNE / 1 PM MP redraw press salt } 20 00” Translated it says that he redrew a printing press, using a salt print as a guide, for the Merrymount Press and was paid $20 for his efforts. This is confirmed twice in his carbons. There is one dated 1 June 1914 that explicitly says, “Merrymount Press / Redrawing printing press 20 00” with payment made on June 20 of that year. And, oddly, a second one dated 3 July 1914 that says payment was made on July 30. There is no indication in the second entry that Daniel Berkeley Updike of The Merrymount Press asked Dwiggins to redo the drawing.

For a number of years I have been trying to figure out which Merrymount project (book or ephemeral item) this drawing was made for. But until this summer I had no luck despite looking at every Merrymount Press book I could access printed between 1914 and 1916. It turns out that I overlooked one—and a well-known one at that—because I was relying on internet searches for Merrymount imprints. I discovered my oversight during my latest research into The Merrymount Press business records at the Huntington Library.

In Job Book no. 17 (which covers 30 October 1913 to 12 May 1915) entry 7610 says “Feb. 26, 1914 Josiah Henry Benton, L.L.D. John Baskerville / W.A. Dwiggins Redrawing printing press 20 00.” And a continuation of this entry at the back of the book (p. 116) repeats the information in a slightly differently manner: “Feb. 26, 1914 Josiah Henry Benton, L.L.D. John Baskerville / W.A. Dwiggins Redrawing old printing-press 20 00.” (At present I cannot explain why Updike records hiring Dwiggins four months before Dwiggins does records being hired. There is no reference to this project in my 2002 notes on the correspondence between the two men.)

John Baskerville, Type-Founder and Printer, 1706–1775 by Josiah Henry Benton, L.L.D. is well known but it has no Merrymount Press imprint. The title page says it was privately printed and there is no colophon crediting The Merrymount Press with the printing. But it is included as no. 405 in Notes on The Merrymount Press  and Its Work; With a Bibliographical List of Books Printed at the Press, 1893–1933 by Julian Pearce Smith (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1934).

Illustration of a printing press from John Baskerville, Type-Founder and Printer, 1706–1775 by Josiah Henry Benton (Boston: Privately Printed, 1914), p. ?

Illustration of a hand press from John Baskerville, Type-Founder and Printer, 1706–1775 by Josiah Henry Benton (Boston: Privately Printed, 1914), between pp. 24 and 25.

Illustration from The History and Art of Printing by Philip Luckombe (London: J. Johnson, 1771), p. 293.

Illustration of the printing press from The History and Art of Printing by Philip Luckombe (London: J. Johnson, 1771), p. 293.

Armed with the Merrymount Press Job Book information I looked up a copy of Benton’s biography of Baskerville online. Sure enough there is an illustration of a printing press between pp. 24 and 25 (see the first image above). But the caption says, “Hand-Press such as was used by Baskerville / From Luckombe’s ‘History and Art of Printing’.” There is no credit to Dwiggins, no WAD signature, and no indication stylistically that the illustration is Dwiggins’ work. So, why do the business records of both Dwiggins and Merrymount indicate he made a redrawing of a press?

The answer is that the image in the Baskerville biography is misleadingly labeled. It is actually a redrawing by Dwiggins of an illustration in Luckombe (see the second image above). There are no discernible changes differences between the two illustrations in terms of content. Everything appears to be in place in Dwiggins’ rendering that is in the original. It is a skillful bit of mimicry. But it is not identical. The shading and line work in the Baskerville illustration are more consistent and darker. In short, Dwiggins has improved the Luckombe illustration without changing it.

When Updike was faced with the need to include Luckombe’s illustration in the Baskerville book he had three options: 1. photoengrave a copy of the Luckombe illustration; 2. hire someone to redraw it; or 3. hire someone to make an entirely new illustration. He apparently rejected the first (and cheapest) option because the Luckombe illustration is unevenly printed, the shading is variable, and the border is broken. Rather than commission a new illustration from T.M. Cleland, Dwiggins or Rudolph Ruzicka (his three favorite artists), he chose the middle path and asked Dwiggins to redraw the Luckombe one.

This was not the first (or last) time that Updike hired Dwiggins as a “retoucher”. And it was not a practice unique to him. Bruce Rogers routinely retouched and redrew old illustrations to make them usable in new contexts. And Jan Tschichold did the same thing decades later. Unlike Rogers and Tschichold, Updike was not an artist. Thus, he relied on Dwiggins—not Cleland or Ruzicka—to carry out such tasks. I believe that he preferred Dwiggins for several reasons: 1. he was geographically the closest of the three men; 2. he was more willing to do such tasks without balking; and 3. he accepted lower fees for his Merrymount work than either Cleland or Ruzicka.

The redrawing of a printing press is a minor item in Dwiggins’ oeuvre. In and of itself it is of little significance. The importance in identifying it as his work is how it helps build a deeper understanding of his relationship with Updike as well as of his commercial art career as a whole.