Distinctly Canadian: Golden Dog Press to Lumiere Press

Laurence Hyde, Macbeth, Actus Tertius, Scena Prima, 1937. Wood engraving on japan paper, 26.5 x 15.8 cm; block: 17.8 x 11.5 cm. Gift from the Douglas M. Duncan Collection, 1970. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Laurence Hyde Photo: NGC

Across Canada, small presses have played an important role in the publishing of poetry, literature and experimental work, to the point that, according to scholar David McKnight, the rise of these small publishers during the 20th century can be considered one of the most important developments in the country’s literary culture. “There is, however, one kind of press that seems to me distinctively Canadian – so Canadian that it goes largely unrecognized in the world and has no name … it is run like a Renaissance publishing house, printing what it publishes and devoting as much attention to physical workmanship as to literary values, ” so describes poet and typographer Robert Bringhurst these small presses. Not only did they highlight their enthusiasm for the production of beautifully conceived and executed books but also for unconventional subject matter, both often overlooked by large trade publishers.

Labour of Love: Selections from Some Small Canadian Presses, on view at the National Gallery of Canada's Library and Archives, is a special display of work by private or fine presses in which every aspect of production is done by hand and by non-commercial presses that produce slightly larger editions. All of these projects are collaborations between artist, author and printer that create content that is generally avant-garde or literary in nature.

Carl Schaefer, Corn Stooks, 1933. Wood engraving on japan paper, 26.9 x 18.3 cm; block: 15.1 x 15 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Carl Schaefer Photo: NGC

Small presses first gained visibility in Canada in the 1930s, inspired in part by a revival of the skills of hand printing in Britain and by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press and the Arts & Crafts Movement. Toronto’s Golden Dog Press, founded by J. Kemp Waldie in 1933, produced only eight titles during its short, six-year existence. Responsible for all aspects of book design, Waldie was chiefly interested in typography. His most ambitious work, Engravings for MacBeth, features 14 dramatic woodcuts by the well-known graphic designer Laurence Hyde. Sadly, Golden Dog Press shut its doors at the outset of the Second World War and never reopened. Another early press that played a monumental role in advancing modern and experimental poetry was Contact Press, which was started in 1952 by poets Raymond Souster, Irving Layton and Louis Dudek. The press worked with many important Canadian poets whose work was overlooked by mainstream publishers, and it asserted the poet’s role in the publication of his or her own work. The 1957 Winds of Unreason, published as part of the McGill Poetry Series, contains drawings by multidisciplinary artist Peter Daglish, who studied under Albert Dumouchel, an influential Montreal Surrealist.

By the 1960s, according to scholar Kathleen Scherf, the small press movement in Canada had blossomed, thanks to Canada Council grants to publishers and authors, the country’s centennial and the expansion of universities and their student bases. Coach House Press, started in 1965 as heir to Contact Press and a key player during the literary boom of this decade, paid particular attention to contemporary art movements such as Pop, Surrealism and Dada. The press’s second publication, The LSD Leacock, contains 18 lithographed and silkscreened illustrations by Robert Daigneault, while The Great Canadian Sonnet was illustrated by Greg Curnoe and The Story So Far by General Idea. These publications exemplify the cooperative spirit among printer, poet and artist that the press was known for.

Examples of this collaborative approach could also be found in French Canada, notably through the activities of Éditions Erta, founded in 1949 by poet, typographer and engraver Roland Giguère. The artist has been credited with establishing the livre d’artiste, a French tradition combining the arts and the book trade, as a Québécois institution. Books such as the portfolio Les semaines…, featuring engravings by his friend and fellow Surrealist Gérard Tremblay, and Voyage au pays de mémoire, with etchings and engraved slipcase by Automatiste Marcelle Ferron, elevate the art of bookmaking to a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk).

Circus: Five Poems on the Circus. Pochoir illustrations by Walter Bachinski. Shanty Bay, Shanty Bay Press, 2002.

Today, fine presses continue to be small one- or two-person endeavours. Shanty Bay Press originated in 1996 and is a partnership between Janis Butler, who is responsible for typesetting, presswork and bindings, and Walter Bachinski, who contributes illustrations in the form of woodcuts, linocuts or pochoirs. Pochoir, a technique often associated with Matisse and his 1947 illustrated book Jazz, was used to create the illustrations for their Circus: Five Poems on the Circus in 2002, an example of exquisite artistry.

Some small presses have favoured specialization. Brandstead Press and Barbarian Press have focused on wood engraving. The latter's Endgrain: Contemporary Wood Engravings in North America, composed of 121 wood engravings by Canadian and American artists, has spawned an ongoing series of books called Endgrain Editions, each one featuring the work of a particular engraver. The contemporary Lumiere Press has distinguished itself by exclusively publishing handcrafted photography books. Started by photographer Michael Torosian, Lumiere publishes in limited editions of 250 at most, each book focusing on a single photographer. The first was Edward Weston: Dedicated to Simplicity which featured three silver gelatin photographs printed by Torosian himself and tipped-in amongst the text. In keeping with the title, the book is an exercise in restraint, the product of a 10-year learning curve during which Torosian taught himself all aspects of bookmaking. Every book published in the intervening years has maintained the refinement of this strong début, combining scholarly texts with the craft of bookmaking.

The beautifully executed books created by these small presses highlight the great enthusiasm and dedication these publishers have applied to workmanship and to every aspect of production. The selection on view features beautifully conceived and executed books that have been important to the development of the country’s avant-garde and literary culture.


Labour of Love: Selections from Some Small Canadian Presses is on view at the National Gallery of Canada's Library and Archives until June 9, 2019. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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