Updated: Jul 17
James Freemantle of St James Park Press
James Freemantle is the mind behind the highly-respected St James Park Press, tucked into the heart of London. First and foremost, he is a letterpress printer, but he also has worked alongside some wonderful bookbinders and artists to bring his entire artistic vision to reality through his imprint. He is a unique kind of artisan that doesn't budge an inch from his vision and has been committed to the most traditional forms of printing and illustrations in all his productions. Digital printing and cylinder presses are generally foreign concepts to a St James Park Press production, as James hand presses and uses relief forms of printing for illustrations in all his works. The sense of pride he has in his work is well earned and he seems to somehow be continuously pushing himself further with each production. We truly appreciate the generosity of time and hope you enjoy this fascinating look into the genius mind behind St James Park Press.
Q: When did the idea for St James Park Press first enter your mind and what were some of the pivotal moments and influences in your life that made you realize this could be your full-time occupation? Was there a particular project that confirmed that this was the right path for your life?
Bearing witness to individuals who were making books in the manner of the early private presses, from Kelmscott onwards, combined with a love and awe for those same presses, prompted a foray into letterpress printing. By incredible fortune, becoming acquainted to Ian Mortimer, a master of printing on the hand press, gave me my first opportunity to print on a Columbian and then Albion Press, under his watchful eye. Immersed into the small world of letterpress publishers provided invaluable osmotic counsel, and taking full advantage of a newly acquired Albion Press, every day thereafter became a self-learning experience. Having decided in 2014 to print and publish handmade illustrated letterpress editions, in 2021 the love of letterpress led to a decision for it to become a full-time enterprise.
The early private presses had a tendency to name their imprint after closely connected locations: Kelmscott after Kelmscott Manor, Doves after the Doves Pub in Hammersmith, and Ashendene after the family’s estate in Ashendene. This trend continued and for that reason, my home near St James’s Park, London, became my imprint. Typographically, however, disliking a possessive apostrophe, this was shortened under the guise of emulating the same local Tube station name given in the first London Underground map famously designed by Harry Beck in 1933: St James Park.
Going further back, books have been a constant in my life ever since childhood. I grew up surrounded by books because my mother was and still is a voracious reader. It was also the one type of purchase that had no boundaries as a young adult, as my mother would allow me to buy as many books as I wanted when out shopping, so our family home was always bulging with books and papers. My parents also exposed me to the arts generally, as we regularly visited museums, galleries and sights of interest here and abroad. All this, combined with a creative streak manifested in acting, film and literature during my further studies, would have factored into the passion I have for printing and publishing.
The reality of being a printer-publisher financially, however, is that it is no substitute for a traditional occupation; so there is no moment and will likely never be a moment where I could realise that the St James Park Press could be my full-time occupation. It is solely the unbridled desire to do so, and a stubbornness not to accept that it is impossible, that sees me through. The generosity of those who subscribe to and support the Press is, like any small artistic enterprise, the only way it does work from year to year and although it is not immediately obvious, the sincere appreciation I have for those individuals and institutions is deeply felt.
Q: I love what your mother did to encourage your love for books, I think that might just become a tradition with my two boys. Tell us a little bit about your background as an artist, did you apprentice under anyone or has it mostly been self-taught? Where does your current inspiration come from and are there areas outside of fine press publishing that inform the way you think about your artistic endeavor with St James Park Press?
My sister is really the artist in the family and is a very talented painter. I actually commissioned her for a painting used as a repeat pattern design for one aspect of my Nineteen Eighty-Four edition. Interestingly, although I have no artistic ability in that regard, hence why I commission artists used in my editions, I have a sufficiently adequate eye for design and capable hand for the craft involved in letterpress printing.
My introduction into letterpress printing and printing on an iron hand-press was, as mentioned earlier, the one-to-one time spent with Ian Mortimer, the only man alive who was awarded an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) for printing, and founded his own imprint, I M Imprimit, in the 1960s. However, brief this period was, it was an invaluable grounding in how to print. Beyond this, my printing essentially falls into the category of self-taught, but this term does make light of the community of designers, printers, artists, papermakers, binders, type-casters and book collectors who all in their own way have an effect.
The inspiration behind all my projects is nothing more complicated than a sudden moment of realization, based on that which has taken my greatest interest at any time in my life. This is the entire influence behind every title.
Q: It is clear that you are an artist respected not only by your customers but also by your peers and fellow artisans. Though a large amount of your time is spent on your own projects, you do a fair bit of work for other fine presses and institutions as well on the printing side. You have had works purchased by institutions such as the Yale University Library, the National Library of Wales, Bodleian and many other bibliophilic institutions. Do these achievements feel any different than finding an audience with the general public or do they each hold their own type of charm and fulfillment?
Printing for institutions or other bodies, which to a greater extent forms the largest output of my ephemeral printing, is a great treat as I feel no particular desire to print such items otherwise, my primary focus being on publishing works in book form. Printing books for others adds another layer to this, as it allows me to either print editions which I would not necessarily wish to publish under my own imprint but would like to see in print anyway under my own influence or hand, or it simply pushes the range of styles of printing that I may not otherwise plan to do under my own imprint. In one sense, this all highlights the care I take in curating my own list of St James Park Press titles, but also how keen I am to explore beyond this nonetheless.
My Press is very much an embodiment of me, with my hand on every aspect of the production. Having my works purchased by anyone is therefore greatly rewarding on a personal level, and the positive feedback I receive is even more so, as it represents at its most basic level an indication for me of my own value. This is especially so as I am fully aware that subscribing to the books I publish is an expensive luxury for those who do. Having my works purchased by institutions holds a different type of reward, as it secures a legacy and permanency which is a great part of my own vision for the Press and if one takes the analysis above to a deeper level, this provides for me a life beyond the grave. I gain exceptional pleasure knowing that to date, every title under my imprint has been purchased by one or more institutions around the world. Both, therefore, provide a sense of fulfilment but for different reasons.
Q: At this point, you have created multiple personal projects under your imprint and also regularly collaborate and take commissions for other work. I’m sure you are proud of everything you have done, but were there any that were particularly rewarding or ones that you are especially proud of? If someone was completely new to St James Park, where would you recommend they start with your work?
I would not necessarily claim to be proud of everything I have done. Like any artist, I suppose, I am deeply critical of my own work and see the failings in everything I do. I console myself in the knowledge or hope that those who subscribe will not see that which I consider a flaw or concession and for the most part, they don’t, because there is a great disparity between what the producer hopes to produce and what the recipient considers appealing. Nevertheless, I have a general guiding principle when working, which is that if I am ultimately content with any particular printing, that is when I am happy for it to be considered done. If I look at something I print and have an inkling that it is not right, then I know at that point I have to do something different. To that extent, I am proud of what I have done. This way of thinking may all stem from a sense of British modesty, so the best anyone may hear from me to indicate all this would be a low-level muttering as I hold up a freshly printed sheet, of: “That looks quite nice actually. Yes, I like that.”.
It seems impracticable to recommend where anyone new to my press should start out, as this implies an ease in sourcing the same from an abundance of availability, where the opposite is true. I suppose the simplest answer to this, however, would be the latest title still available and I say this because every book is a learning experience for different reasons, so to some extent every edition relies on what came before it.
Q: It is common, if not nearly a requirement by definition, for a fine press to engage in letterpress printing at some level. However, letterpress printing takes different forms and can be done on something less manual like a cylinder press, or can be done on a traditional hand press. Based on your own methodology, it is clear that you have a preference for the more manual forms of letterpress printing. Since this clearly takes much longer and creates an imposed limit on the magnitude of work that can be produced, why is it important to you to stay true to this method and do you ever see yourself using a cylinder press for future releases?
The definition of a private or fine press has been long debated and numerous writers have dissected it, albeit without resolution, so although I have my own thoughts on this, that is for another time.
What I do find interesting within this debate, however, is that whereas private press collectors are keen on letterpress (and rightly so), the means by which that letterpress was achieved is of less concern. Although it sounds critical to say, it is by no means so as I am no different in this regard than any other, but there is a vast difference within the method of letterpress printing between printing on a hand press or printing on a cylinder press, or printing from metal type and wood engravings to printing with digital plates and from line blocks (although this does not mean any of it is simple); but when one holds a letterpress printed book in one’s hand, beyond the fact that letterpress was used, the holder finds little reason to concern himself or herself with such questions. As I say, for the most part, I am no different in this regard, as I equally wish to simply find an edition appealing, so what does it matter whether it was printed on a hand press from handset foundry type? I think that for subscribers the term “letterpress” is really just an embodiment of that third dimension of being truly handmade.
This then brings it full circle to the reality, which is that however a book is made, the primary draw is how a book makes you feel and to what extent it appeals to the head and the heart. In that regard, the importance to stay true to hand-press printing is lessened, meaning the importance is to my own personal interest. Of greater importance is producing the best edition possible, which means I am not averse in any way to printing on other presses and by any means necessary.
Although, it should go without saying that letterpress generally is at the heart of everything I do.
The interest in printing on a hand press really stems from two things. The first is that it is without a doubt the symbol of the fine press and embodies private press printing, so it gives me a greater feeling of connection with that historicity. A cylinder press, by contrast, is far more akin to a commercial publisher. The second is from my own innate thinking, which is best summed up in another experience from my life. I learned some years ago to scuba dive. Now a lot of people choose to do so when travelling abroad to a warm climate with crystal clear waters in a wet suit. I, on the other hand, chose to learn in the middle of winter, in the rain, in a dank stagnant pool of water with no visibility, in a dry suit, in England. My reasoning was that if I was capable of scuba diving in that environment in that way, then anywhere else would be effortless. The same seemed true to me for printing on a hand press.
Q: The level of thought, skill and quality of materials are consistent across all of your releases, however, the content meanders through many different time periods and genres. You’ve published books on Greek and British myths, a report on a municipal art college, the story behind the production of Aurora Australis and are currently working on 1984 and Animal Farm by Orwell. When you start planning on your next title and design, how does an idea usually start to formulate? Do you find yourself thinking more about the design elements or the content itself?
The content is of course the very first element decided upon. As I said earlier, it has to have interested and appealed to me first and foremost. Whether I then pursue it is entirely dependent on the vision I have for its production. An interesting example for this is Moby Dick. It is a novel which I would be keen to publish, but as yet I have been unable to consider a means by which to do so which would surpass a number of editions which have come before. To me, there seems little point in producing an edition that has been done before if you do not consider your own will be more worthwhile than all others. The same conundrum confronted me when wishing to print Paradise Lost, but I believe I have overcome that now.
Although my editions appear quite disparate, I believe at present they can be categorized into three: myths and legends, the art of the book, and classic literature.
There is one essential ingredient beyond all others, aside from letterpress, and that is the inclusion of illustration within the edition. I cannot envisage printing without illustration and particularly illustration that is not digitally printed.
Q: That commitment is certainly appreciated by those of us who own your work! Since your productions are focused heavily on the personal process and materials, I want to give you a chance to talk a little bit about the intricate detail that goes into every piece. Can you walk us through your shop, the letterpress setup, your favorite tools of the trade and the materials you are most commonly working with on any given day?
My print room is a characterful converted brick barn, with soaring oak beams and plenty of space.
There are now seven presses. Of my iron hand presses, there is a Super Royal Columbian Press made in 1854, capable of printing a sheet 22” x 28”, a Crown Broadside Albion Press made in 1861, which prints half that size, and my first Albion Press, a Half Sheet Post made in 1869, which again prints half the size of the 1861 Albion. Smaller still is a table-top Albion. All of these need hand-inking. For self-inking, I have a platen press, Crown Folio Arab, made in 1906, as well as a large more modern proofing press, made by Stephenson & Blake. There is also a Farley tabletop press for quick proofing.
There is a substantial collection of metal and wood types, as well as borders and ornaments. The majority are foundry types, dating from the Victorian period to the present.
Of course, beyond this, I have the usual paraphernalia one needs to print, from shooting sticks to precision aids. One of the hardest aspects of starting a printshop is in fact sourcing all of these items, without which it is almost impossible to print properly. As none of these things are being made anymore, one expends a great deal of their time at the outset finding them on the secondary market. There is nothing more I now need in this regard, although it’s hard to break the habit of running to buy another of the same thing, just in case something breaks or is somehow lost. Certainly, one of the greatest barriers to anyone being a letterpress printer is the quantity of printing equipment needed and where to find it. All of my editions are predominantly printed on hand presses, although for portions of each edition, I may utilize one of the other presses, for the sake of expediency or ease.
My print room really is a home away from home. This wasn’t always the case, as starting out I occupied much less inviting spaces. My first studio was actually an underground storage unit, which was less expensive than a conventional space, but lacked any conveniences save for round-the-clock access. The lack of a bathroom was a particular compromise, but so too was the cold. The room had a concrete floor, and the units were all separated by thin metal sheeting only. No one expected them to be used for anything but storage, although I had special permission to do so. Having secured the use of a power socket outside the unit, lighting was by way of clip-on bulbs on the metal grating above my head that acted as a ceiling. I remember printing my Albion in the Antarctic edition at the height of winter, and after every couple of prints, I would need to move across to a portable fan heater and warm up my hands before printing again, repeating this exercise throughout the day. None of this, however, dimmed by enthusiasm for the task and the whole affair held its own charm for me.
Even when one has all the conveniences needed, printing is itself a learned skill, no matter what press one prints on, but even then, it isn’t straightforward. I have had many occasions where absolutely nothing will be printing as intended and there seems no logical solution. One ends up giving up for the day, returning the next to find that despite changing nothing it all appears to work perfectly. Printing is after all not really an exact science, as you are dealing with organic materials ranging from inks to paper to wood engravings, all of which can react differently on any given day. It is this challenge, though, that makes the craft even more appealing, and when one overcomes it, it becomes all the more rewarding.
Some of the most fun, in fact, is inventing ways to produce a desired outcome that is not possible through any conventional route. The most recent example of this was during the production of Nineteen Eighty-Four, where I wanted part of one of the illustrations to maintain the embossed effect of the image, but without the requisite ink transferring to the page for that portion, and a very specific portion in a very specific way. The illustration was of a face, from a block that mimicked a newspaper print with its hundreds of dots to produce the tone (a half-tone image). I wanted to make it appear that part of the individual’s face where her eyes were, had been ripped out from across the newspaper page. Now with careful hand-inking, this would be straightforward if one were producing a single print, as you would simply ink around that portion. However, when one needs to produce a set of prints, all appearing at least roughly the same, this is simply not possible. It would also preclude the required appearance of ragged edges from a torn newspaper. The solution was a system of masking, where the image was inked in full, but the portion needed to be printed in emboss only was masked by a thin sliver of torn paper, used repeatedly, which prevented the ink from transferring on the printed sheet, but able to allow for the emboss of the image to transfer through. Even with this method, numerous problems could arise, so nothing is ever foolproof and you are at the mercy of the Gods to see you through to the end. The most interesting aspect of all this, though, is that the painstaking effort you go through to work on some small effect like this may well or is almost certain to go completely unnoticed by the reader, except perhaps through some unconscious appreciation, as the eye tends to see things that aren’t immediately communicated through the brain. Thinking on it, there is a great deal of work in Nineteen Eighty-Four that almost relies upon this sense of unconscious appreciation.
So far as the materials I most commonly work with, funnily enough, part of the ethos of the press since inception is to try and use as many different materials as I can. So, for example, in my editions I have used: a range of types, from foundry, monotype, linotype and wood, from hand set to freshly cast, from Victorian to now; I have printed on papers ranging from mould-made to hand-made, antique to present day (I even printed on a handmade paper made in someone’s garden, which I had to shake the dirt off just to be able to use it); I have utilized printing presses from iron hand-presses to cylinder presses; I have printed from wood-engravings, woodcuts, linocuts, line blocks, three-dimensional objects. With the Beauty of Byrne specials, I currently have in mind to employ pop-up pages. Eventually, I will likely settle into something more standardized in the way I approach an edition, but right now my own personal interest is in exploration.
Q: You just mentioned Nineteen Eighty-Four and it is clearly your most ambitious project to date, likely to become the definitive fine print version of this text for the foreseeable future. How involved were you with aspects of this production like the art and binding?
I always find it amusing that I believe I am entirely relaxed about the way I commission artists for the illustrations in my editions, and for the most part, the artists themselves believe it at the outset. I seem to follow the same approach many times. To begin, I will provide the artist with a vague notion of what I am looking for, and usually end with some impression that whatever the artist decides will, I am sure, be as desired. The artist will return with an idea or sketch, and I will then proceed to explain in absolute detail what the illustration needs to look like, providing a detailed brief as to any character’s appearance, the mise-en-scene or focal elements. In that sense, I am quite Hitchcockian in my style of instruction. The artist will have been chosen because their style fits with the illustration I have in mind, so an artist is chosen to fulfil a stylistic requirement, rather than exert creative control. None of which diminishes the huge value each artist’s talent brings to an edition, because without them the vision I have for an illustration cannot be realized.
I believe I am the bane of my binder’s life, as I tend to produce books that require something out of the ordinary. For On the Birmingham School of Art, 1940, by example, I used engraved bamboo boards for the covers and in order to ensure there was a flush finish between the board and the leather spine, each edge had to be individually routed by hand, taking care not to snap the thin wood. For An Albion in the Antarctic as well as Nineteen Eighty-Four, I had individual pages which had fold-out edges, which meant the binder wasn’t able to simply put the whole edition into the guillotine to shave the edges as this would have cut the fold. My binder, Roger Grech – a wonderful talent – was particularly vocal about the nuisance of the latter edition, as I needed the individual posters on varying weights of handmade papers, to be sewn into the edition with a thin sliver of wraparound paper. None of this is straightforward, which for an edition binder is a particular bother. My edition of Beauty of Byrne takes all of this one step beyond, as the special edition has a complex mechanical engineering system for the covers to expand outwards.
So far as the design of the bindings are concerned, these are done entirely under my direction. Most often, I will simply brief a binder on the final design, and print the covers and provide the endpapers. The skill of the binder in these instances is putting into practice what I have briefed. Although I bound my edition of Hercules myself, the task of bookbinding is not something I have the inclination to engage with, as it is exceptionally time-consuming and requires as much skill as printing itself.
I am therefore extremely grateful to have fantastic artists and binders who can make my publications even better.
Q: What are some of your favorite publications from other peers and what fine presses do you look to for inspiration and to push you to continue getting better at your craft?
Wishing to print editions unlike any other press makes it difficult to take specific inspiration, but the world of letterpress publishers is a small one and I am always rejuvenated when I visit another press. Indeed, it is a great pleasure being friends with so many in the fine press
and book-collecting sphere (even those who print on cylinder presses!).
If I were to pick two inspiring titles from recent years, they would be: Color Proof (Makoto Yamada, 2018) and Ornata (Evergreen Press, 2016), both fantastic for their own reasons.
The printer and press I rate most highly would be Pat Randle at Nomad Letterpress (who despite my joshing, does primarily print on a Heidelberg cylinder press). The designer I rate most highly would be Mark Askam of the Chestnut Press. A special mention should also go to the paper merchant, John Purcell, of John Purcell Paper. I cannot imagine the fine press community without these good friends in it and I can well imagine a great number of other people would second that.
I would also say that although Suntup Editions is quite a different publishing model to my own, I cannot think of another publisher who has by his mere existence done more for bringing the private presses and letterpress printing to wider attention, which in turn benefits all of us. So, kudos to him.
Q: If there was one word or phrase that came to people’s minds when they think of St James Park Press, what would you hope that it would be?
There is a well-known phrase, which is “the art of the book”. I would add to this, “the art and feel of the book”, as I want my books to be experienced as much as appreciated for their art or design.
Q: What should we expect to see coming in the future from St James Park Press? You have announced that you are currently working on Animal Farm and The Beauty of Byrne, but are there any future projects you can share that may be coming further down the line beyond that?
Forthcoming titles are announced quite soon after I make a final decision to pursue them, so there is no need to mention these. One title, however, that is in the far distance, as it will be a huge undertaking, is Milton’s Paradise Lost. As I mentioned earlier, I was always reticent to print this title, because of the wonderful editions printed before me. I even curated an exhibition and wrote an accompanying monograph on the private press editions of Paradise Lost. It has always been on my wish list, however, to print, since my Press was born. I now have a plan for how it will work where it won’t (hopefully) be overshadowed by others before it.
Oh, and you may well see me with a cylinder press one of these days too.
This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth and we want to thank James for his generosity to be a part of this series and his thoughtful answers. If you want to keep up with the latest from St James Park Press then you can check them out at https://www.stjamesparkpress.com/ to see some of their past and current productions. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter to stay up with all of the incredible things coming from this press.
Interview by: Zach Harney a contributor to the Collectible Book Vault
Photography by: Yegor Malinovskii (King Arthur) and James Freemantle
*Since there are often different spellings in American English and British English of the same words, we have chosen to adhere to the spelling of the person who is speaking rather than conform to one convention for the whole interview.