As a 15 year old boy Julius Stafford-Baker wanted to learn how to make and print books. His quest led him to dropping in to the Lanston Monotype Corporation’s headquarters in London, unannounced, where he met with none other than typographer and type historian Beatrice Warde. Warde would tell him to go off and set type and when he had more to show he should come back to her. Which he did. Again and again. Until one day, while looking through one of Julius’ books Warde noticed that the descenders of the italic ‘f’s of Eric Gill’s Joanna (1931) were missing in his text. ‘I didn’t like the look of them so I just cut them off’ Julius would explain. She kicked him out and he didn’t come back. Years later Julius would hear some stories of an affair between Mrs. Warde and Mr. Gill, which accounted for a lot in Julius’ view of things.
Julius started his Happy Dragons’ Press in 1969, 20 years after he first started printing. He was around printing from a young age as his father, also named Julius, was a popular cartoonist, a renowned wood engraver (‘maybe 6th best in England’ Julius would comment!) and an accomplished linocut artist. Justin Knopp, Rob Pratley and I payed a visit to Julius on a cold January morning this year. We had hardly knocked on the door when Julius appeared, already wearing his green apron, and bundled us into his print shop. I must also say that Julius never worked or trained as a printer. He spent his working life in the accounts department of various printing firms, but he kept a keen interest in printing all the way through. He is the first to say that he never qualified as a journeyman printer and as a gentlemanly nod to this fact he wears his apron turned up with a safety pin, something he had traditionally seen apprentices do until they were ‘banged out’ as qualified printers.
The Happy Dragons’ Press is a small but well equipped printing office where Julius puts out several small poetry publications a year, all printed to a very high standard on a 1904 ‘Kobold’ treadle platen press. He specialises in translations and boasts a brilliant selection of types in Greek, Arabic, Cyrillic and more. Having taken over Roy Lewis’s (The Keepsake Press) established series ‘The Keepsake Poems’, Julius finds himself very busy. Not quite satisfied with producing books of poetry at a not-for-profit price point he also sources and sells plenty of letterpress equipment in an effort to promote and pass on the craft. He, of course, has a huge interest in letterpress printing and he spoke with us for several hours about many different aspects of the printing trade as it used to be and as it is now, all illustrated by a brilliant selection of books from his library.
During the visit Julius kindly gifted me a copy of his recent book ‘Other Voices of the British Isles’ (2010). This book just about sums up Julius’ approach and dedication to his craft. He has painstakingly sought (and translated into English) poems in all the lesser languages found on the British Isles including Cornish, Gaelic, Guernsey, Hebrew, Irish, Latin, Manx, Shetlandic and plenty more. Hand set mostly in Monotype Bell series 341, this book is no.13 of his ‘New Garland’ series, edited by Shirley Toulson and Rosemary Grant and with illustrations from Liz Myhill, Katrina Porteous, Liz Pottinger, Trevor Sowden and Julius’ father, Julius B. Stafford-Baker. One interesting element of the book was the fact that in his quest to translate the Irish poem ‘Winter’, Julius contacted the National Print Museum in Beggar’s Bush, Dublin, and acquired some Monotype Colum Cille series 121 (designed by Colm O’ Lochlain, Karl Uhlemann and Stanley Morison, 1933 – 1988) which adds a very authentic feel to the work. Dermot McGuinne had just taken down his incredible exhibition on ‘From Colum Cille to ColmCille’ at The National Print Museum a number of weeks previous so I was able to tell Julius a little about the face and where it came from.
Away from the close quarters of the production area of The Happy Dragons’ Press we were brought down a hallway flanked by stacks of books, boxes and paper. This led to a beautiful Columbian hand press which was lit by a solitary 60 watt bulb, hanging from a clothes peg, fastened to a clothesline which spanned the width of the press. Here Julius rummaged amongst the boxes and emerged with an original Monotype issued THIS IS A PRINTING OFFICE, Beatrice Warde’s famous type-specimen for Eric Gill’s Perpetua Titling (1932). Who knows what other treasures of printing history are hidden away in this incredible collection?
The Happy Dragons’ Press is a perfect example of how a quaint letterpress workshop with limited resources can produce work of an exceptional standard. Be sure to go through Julius’ past bibliography on his website and help support his worthy cause, the preservation of the craft that he knows so well and loves so much.
The Happy Dragons Press
8 Stambourne Road