The Hogarth Press

The Hogarth Press

  • Article by: Duncan Heyes
  • Theme: Capturing and creating the modern
  • Published: 25 May 2016
Virginia and Leonard Woolf set up the Hogarth Press in 1917 and published works by key modernist writers as well important works in translation. Duncan Heyes assesses the contribution that the Hogarth Press made to modernism and to British literary culture.

On the afternoon of 23 March 1917 Leonard and Virginia Woolf were walking down Farringdon Road in London when their attention was caught by the window display of the Excelsior Printing Supply Company. They had been discussing the possibility of taking up printing for a while, and towards the end of 1916 decided that they would definitely do it. They had even gone as far as enquiring about enrolling at St Bride School of Printing, only to be turned down because courses were only open to trade union apprentices whose numbers were strictly controlled. Nevertheless, undeterred they entered the small printing supplier and explained their plight. They were greeted by a helpful assistant in brown overalls who convinced them that with the aid of a 16-page booklet they would be able to teach themselves all they needed to know to get started. So, for the sum of £19 5s 5d the Woolfs became the proud owners of a small hand-printing press, some Old Face type and all the other necessary paraphernalia to begin their printing endeavour. The printing press was duly installed on the dining room table at their home Hogarth House, which gave the Press its name.

Flyer announcing the Hogarth Press

Flyer announcing the Hogarth Press

‘The whole process of printing and production (except in one instance) is done by ourselves’, c. 1919.

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Usage terms: © Reproduced by permission of The Random House Group Ltd. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

There were a number of reasons why the Woolfs were keen to start printing. In his autobiography, Leonard stated that he wanted a distraction for Virginia to give her a break from the intellectual effort of writing. Virginia had already suffered a number of breakdowns, and Leonard felt the occupation of printing would provide a therapeutic respite. Despite both Leonard and Virginia’s enthusiasm for printing, the Hogarth Press was only ever meant to be a hobby; it was not intended to grow into a full-time publishing enterprise. In her late teens Virginia had developed an interest in bookbinding taking formal instruction from a Miss Power in 1901. Although bookbinding was only a pastime, Virginia had taken it seriously and was proud of the results and the skills she’d acquired which would benefit their new press. The Woolfs decided that the Hogarth Press would concentrate on small and experimental publications likely to be of no interest to commercial publishers. A further important consideration for acquiring the press was that Virginia was hypersensitive to criticism, and the process of submitting work to a publisher and publisher’s reader for assessment filled her with horror and misery. Owning their own press would give them the freedom to publish whatever they liked. Virginia’s first novel The Voyage Out had been published in 1915 by Duckworth’s, the publishing company of her half-brother Gerald Duckworth. Duckworth’s reader, Edward Garnett, had written an enthusiastic report on the novel, but even this and the family connection could not alleviate Virginia’s anxiety. Unfortunately, Virginia’s second novel Night and Day (1919) was also committed to Duckworth’s, but her third novel, Jacob’s Room (1922) was published by the Hogarth Press, giving her the freedom to continue developing her experimental style.

Monday or Tuesday by Virginia Woolf

Monday or Tuesday by Virginia Woolf

Published by the Hogarth Press in 1921, Monday or Tuesday is a collection of experimental short stories written by Virginia Woolf.

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Usage terms: Virginia Woolf: This material is in the Public Domain. Vanessa Bell: © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Vanessa Bell dust jacket for To the Lighthouse

'Vanessa Bell dust jacket for To the Lighthouse

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, designed the book jackets for nearly all of Woolf’s works published by the Hogarth Press including To the Lighthouse (1927).

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Usage terms: Vanessa Bell: © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

After a month of experimentation, setting type and inking blocks, the Woolfs felt confident enough to print a page of a book. Their first publication, Two Stories, appeared in July 1917. It contained ‘Three Jews’, a story by Leonard and ‘The Mark on the Wall’ by Virginia. The 31-page pamphlet also contained four woodcuts by the artist Dora Carrington. Two Stories, although not without its faults, was a good first attempt, and it was clear that a lot of effort had gone into making the publication attractive. The book was type set, printed, stitched and bound by Leonard and Virginia in an edition of 150 copies. Most of the copies were sold to friends and acquaintances. As their confidence grew, the Woolfs started to sell their books by subscription. They compiled two lists of subscribers, group A, those who would buy all the Hogarth Press publications, and group B, who could be notified of new publications and would then select the titles they wanted.

Two Stories, written and printed by Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Two Stories, written and printed by Virginia and Leonard Woolf

The Hogarth Press’s first publication, written, printed and bound entirely by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, 1917.

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Usage terms: Virginia Woolf: © The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Leonard Woolf: © The University of Sussex and The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Leonard Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Dora Carrington: This material is in the Public Domain.

Leonard Woolf said that one of the reasons for the success of the Hogarth Press was that they had no overheads. The printing was done in their home, they didn’t pay themselves for their time and any profit they made was always reinvested. This may have been the case but the Press undoubtedly benefitted from the Woolfs’ ability to recognise interesting new authors and significant new works. They were also able to draw on works from their extraordinarily talented circle of friends and acquaintances. In its first five years the Hogarth Press published works by Katherine Mansfield, T S Eliot, E M Forster, Clive Bell, Roger Fry and Sigmund Freud.

Poems by T S Eliot, published by the Hogarth Press

Poems by T S Eliot, published by the Hogarth Press

The Hogarth Press’s first T S Eliot publication from 1919, which featured ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’.

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Stories of the East by Leonard Woolf, with design by Dora Carrington

Stories of the East by Leonard Woolf, with design by Dora Carrington

As well as publishing work by talented writers within their social circle, the Hogarth Press also commissioned modern artists such as Dora Carrington to produce cover designs and illustrations.

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Paris by Hope Mirrlees

Paris by Hope Mirrlees

Published in 1919, Paris is a radically experimental poem that challenged and developed the Woolfs’ abilities as printers.

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A key moment for the Hogarth Press came in 1919, when it published Virginia’s Kew Gardens, a short story which has been likened to an impressionist painting. The story follows four pairs of people on a day in July as they drift, without aim, through Kew Gardens. In contrast to the people, Woolf describes a snail making its way across a flower bed in a purposeful manner towards a definite goal. The story is full of light, colour and atmosphere, and eschews the characteristics of a traditional narrative. The book was favourably reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement leading to the Woolfs being deluged with orders. It would have been impossible to satisfy these orders using a handpress printing a page at a time so they decided to use a commercial printer, Richard Madley, who printed a second edition of 500 copies. From now on the Woolfs would use commercial printers for larger publications, but in tandem they would continue to handprint smaller works up until 1932.

Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf, 1919

Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf, 1919

Final page of Kew Gardens, the Hogarth Press’ breakthrough publication of 1919, featuring a woodcut illustration by Vanessa Bell. The floral paper is wallpaper that the Woolfs recycled to bind their books.

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Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf, 1927

Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf, 1927

The Hogarth Press republished Kew Gardens in 1927 with new design and illustrations by Vanessa Bell.

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Usage terms: Virginia Woolf: This material is in the Public Domain. Vanessa Bell: © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

In 1921 they bought a larger printing press and increased their activities to the extent that the Press was transformed from a hobby to a largely commercial publisher. The subscription system of selling books was discontinued, and they started selling books directly to booksellers. In 1924 the Woolfs moved to 52 Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury taking the press with them. The expansion of the company required more help. The Woolfs took on a succession of assistants and managers over the years, none of whom lasted particularly long. Those who worked at the Press included Barbara Hiles, Alex Sargent-Florence (who lasted only one day) and a succession of young men including Ralph Partridge, George Rylands, Angus Davidson, Richard Kennedy and perhaps most significantly, John Lehmann. Lehmann first joined the Press in 1931 but left the following year. He then returned six years later in 1938 as a partner and general manager buying out Virginia’s share in the concern. Under his influence the Hogarth Press published works by an emerging new generation of poets and writers such as Stephen Spender, W H Auden, Julian Bell, Cecil Day Lewis and the novelist Christopher Isherwood. Leonard and John Lehmann ran the press for eight years but increasingly could not agree on the direction it should take. The disagreements came to a head in 1946 when Leonard decided to terminate the partnership, buying out John’s share which he then sold to Chatto and Windus.

Poems for Spain, edited by Stephen Spender and John Lehmann

Poems for Spain, edited by Stephen Spender and John Lehman

Poems for Spain, containing work by W H Auden, was a poetry collection published in 1939 under the influence of new Hogarth Press partner, John Lehmann.

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Leonard and Virginia were both interested in translation; between 1917 and 1946 the Hogarth Press published 29 translations, particularly from Russian which often introduced English speakers to some of the great works of Russian literature for the first time. What is perhaps less well known is that in 1924 the Hogarth Press became the publisher of the International Psycho-Analytical Library, and as such the Woolfs were the first to publish the complete works of Sigmund Freud in translation.

On Dreams by Freud

On Dreams by Freud

On Dreams, Freud’s abridged version of The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), translated by James Strachey and published by the Hogarth Press for the International Psycho-Analytical Library in 1952.

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The Hogarth Press has made a significant contribution to modernism, publishing what are now considered some of the key texts in the development of the movement with works by Katherine Mansfield and T S Eliot, notably the first English edition of The Waste Land (1923), and of course works by Virginia Woolf. The press was also known for its pamphlet series on a range of literary and political topics and, by not being overly concerned about the commercial value of publications, the Woolfs were willing to risk publishing unknown authors and books on fairly obscure topics. Despite this they did have some bestsellers, particularly Virginia’s Orlando (1928) and Vita Sackville-West’s The Edwardians (1930), which sold almost 30,000 copies in the first six months of publication.

'Prelude' by Katherine Mansfield

Prelude by Katherine Mansfield

‘Prelude’, published by the Hogarth Press in 1918, is an innovative short story that explores characters’ psychology and rejects traditional narrative techniques.

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The Waste Land by T S Eliot, Hogarth Press edition

The Waste Land by T S Eliot, Hogarth Press edition

The first English edition of T S Eliot’s famous and acclaimed modernist poem The Waste Land, 1923.

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The association of the Woolfs with the Hogarth Press ended in 1946, by which time they had published 527 titles. However, the story of the Hogarth Press doesn’t end there as it continues to thrive today as a literary imprint under the aegis of Random House.

  • Duncan Heyes
  • Duncan Heyes is a curator in Printed Heritage Collections and Contemporary British Published Collections. He works with British material published from 1901 to date.

    He compiled the Bloomsbury Group audio CD in the British Library’s Spoken Word series.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.