On 25 January 1915, Virginia Woolf celebrated her birthday. She was given two brown parcels by her husband, Leonard, one containing a green purse and the other a first edition book, along with breakfast in bed. They went to the cinema and then to tea at Buszard’s Tea Rooms on Oxford Street. Sitting at tea that day, she and Leonard decided to purchase three things: a house in Richmond known as Hogarth House; a printing press; and a bulldog, which would likely be named John.
John never joined the Woolf family, but the house was bought, as was the press that would be named after it. Two years after that birthday tea, and one hundred years ago this year, the Hogarth Press was founded. On 23 March 1917, Leonard and Virginia left the Excelsior Printing Supply Company having purchased a small hand-press and other necessary materials. These included some Old Face type and a sixteen-page pamphlet that promised to contain all they needed to know about printing. Considered too old and inexperienced for formal education at the printing schools, the Woolfs vowed to teach themselves.
The sturdy physicality of working the hand-press became an absorbing comfort to Virginia, acting as a counterbalance to her fast-paced mental energies. Typesetting (left to Virginia as Leonard had a tremor in his hands) required methodical concentration while covering and stitching were reassuring and rhythmical activities. This cultural cottage industry became an addictive habit. As Virginia explained to her sister, Vanessa Bell, in a letter of May 1917, printing had become so consuming that she could no longer bear to tear herself away to go to London, or to see friends.
Virginia was so engrossed in the setting and printing of Leonard’s piece which comes first in the inaugural Hogarth Press publication, Two Stories, that her own contribution was written at the very last minute. What she did write was brave and breathlessly innovative, and led her on the path to her strongest novels. ‘The Mark on the Wall’ is a story told from the site of the armchair, exploring ideas of distance that can be travelled at will by the mind. It suggests the act of reading as an intoxicatingly liberating holiday, one that can be experienced by anyone for the price of a book. The story says much that complements the pioneering ethic which enabled the Hogarth Press’s success, championing an amateur impetuousness, where almost anything can be accomplished even in the most unassuming of contexts.
The eponymous mark on the wall inspires a thirteen-page diversion, a roving meditation on life, death and many things in between, from opals to turnips, tablecloths and coal-scuttles. The mark, which transpires on the final page to be a snail (illustrated in that first edition by a charming woodcut devised by Dora Carrington) is like a full-stop on the white walls of the narrator’s home – but rather than closing a sentence, it sets others in motion. The whole story is a reverie on the act of reading, on the page and beyond it. Reading is celebrated as demanding and yet permitting focus, escape and the thoughtfulness that flows from physical and mental space. The story pauses the busy world and, like the armchair from which it is told, opens up sanctuary in which readers can simply be.
Ten years after Two Stories was printed, the Hogarth Press had become a thriving publishing business. In his autobiography, Beginning Again, Leonard Woolf recalls how the Press was only ever a ‘half-time occupation’ for both he and Virginia, and that this was key to its success. In keeping modestly-sized, overheads were also minimised, allowing the business to grow gradually at a measured (snail-like) pace. The benefits of keeping life low-key; slow, quiet, small-scale and unassuming yet considered and deliberate were enjoyed as much by the Press as its readers.
Words by Aimee Gasston
Images by Ane Thon Knutsen