Best lookers rather than best sellers: Gaberbocchus Press

Written by Fiona Melhuish (UMASCS Librarian)

“There is a madness about various Gaberbocchus books which is the spice of life, an ingredient somewhat lacking in the world of impeccable book production”.

(Ruari McLean in ‘Quarterly News Letter of the Book Club of California, Summer 1956)

 

Two examples of book cover designs by Gaberbocchus Press.

 

Gaberbocchus Press was founded in 1948 in London, by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson. It was the product of an artistic collaboration that had begun in Warsaw, when they worked together as experimental film-makers. With Franciszka as artistic director and Stefan as editor, the Press published sixty titles, during forty years, and the University of Reading Special Collections holds a set of these titles, in various editions, in the Gaberbocchus Press Collection, together with some archive records of the company.

Page from ‘The Good Citizen’s Alphabet’ by Bertrand Russell, illustrated by Franciszka Themerson (1953). GABERBOCCHUS PRESS COLLECTION–1953/01

 

The Themersons used their small press as “a vehicle for introducing new ideas”, and selected intellectual avant-garde texts. These ranged from poetry to philosophical novels, from authors such as Bertrand Russell and Raymond Queneau, to first English translations of Alfred Jarry and Heinrich Heine.

The name ‘Gaberbocchus’ was taken from the Latinised version of Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Jabberwocky’, a source which already points to a surreal and often absurdist sensibility running through the publications. Both the choice of text and the illustrations display a concern for morality and ethics, as well as a keen sense of the ridiculousness of human beings. One common characteristic of the publications is the intimate relationship between image and text as an expression of content.

 

Page from ‘The Good Citizen’s Alphabet’ by Bertrand Russell, illustrated by Franciszka Themerson (1953). GABERBOCCHUS PRESS COLLECTION–1953/01

 

A key objective was to produce “best lookers rather than best sellers”. The Themersons felt little sympathy for mainstream taste, with Stefan once identifying a ‘refusal to conform’ to be both the Press’s primary strength and primary weakness. The Press attracted curiosity from critics, who saw it as odd and yet appealing, observing in the words of one that Gaberbocchus books show “a pleasing and intelligent originality in presentation, which make them quite different from anything else appearing in London”. In its position outside the mainstream of the established world of publishing, Gaberbocchus Press is certainly one of the most interesting and original of British small presses of the twentieth century.

Books from the Gaberbocchus Press Collection are all catalogued on the Enterprise catalogue, and are available to view in the Special Collections reading room on request.

 

Page from ‘Semantic Divertissements’ by Themerson & Themerson (1962). GABERBOCCHUS PRESS COLLECTION–1962/01

Further reading:

The Themersons and the Gaberbocchus Press : an experiment in publishing, 1948-1979 / edited by Jan Kubasiewicz and Monica Strauss ; with contributions by Marcin Gizycki … [et al.]. New York, N.Y. : MJS Books & Graphics, 1993. Available to consult in the Special Collections open access reference collection: FOLIO–070.593-GAB/THE

Gaberbocchus Press : an exhibition / curated by Fiona Barnard (draft copy of a catalogue to accompany an exhibition held at the National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 14 April – 31 August 2003). Available to consult in the Special Collections reading room on request: PRINTING COLLECTION F–094.0942-GAB/BAR

One of the many versions of the Gaberbocchus Press emblem

 

Images reproduced by permission of Themerson Estate.

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