“We unpacked it with enormous excitement, finally with Nelly’s help carried it into the drawing room, set it on its stand, and discovered that it was smashed in half,” wrote Virginia Woolf on the afternoon of 24 April 1917. That day she and her husband Leonard took delivery of the hand press that heralded the birth of their brainchild, the Hogarth Press. Their £19 purchase had been long awaited, one of three resolutions made while the couple took tea on Virginia’s 33rd birthday: they would buy Hogarth House in Richmond, find a hand press to do their own printing, and buy a bulldog and name him John.
The missing part needed to fix the press and render it operative arrived several weeks later and the first publication notice, painstakingly hand set by the Woolfs, was sent out in May. In tidy lettering, it bravely announced the imminent publication of a pamphlet titled Two Stories: one each by Virginia and Leonard.
The Woolfs, photographed in 1914. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
So the Hogarth Press was born, and like all parents the Woolfs declared their lives changed forever. The publishing business that the two set up in their drawing room and which would eventually to take up their dining room, then much of their lives, was supposed to be an answer to so much. It was a physically engrossing activity to ease Virginia’s crippling anxiety, a business that could potentially free the couple from the whims of publishers and even a social outlet through which their diverse literary friendships could be monetised.
It almost lived up to all these weighty expectations. Those first afternoons, when Leonard and Virginia sat covered in ink in the drawing room of Hogarth House, learning by trial and error just how hard it was to set type and centre it on the page, were charmed ones. The experience was a simulacrum of the creative process: the beloved final product did not always reflect the pains of its production.But the labours of printing always delivered the satisfaction of a real and tangible object.
The press also fulfilled a desire for creative freedom that both Leonard and Virginia had craved. Virginia had long resented relying on her half-brother Gerald Duckworth to be her publisher. He was a man who, in her words, could not tell “a book from a beehive” and had no interest in avant garde writing. (Woolf would also later accuse him of molesting her when she was a child.) The acute anxiety she felt when waiting for answers from publishers was partially eliminated by Hogarth. Leonard, while happy to have cut out the middle-man, also revelled in the new venture, declaring in a letter: “I should never do anything else, you cannot think how exciting, soothing, ennobling and satisfying it is.”
He was right. Leonard’s commitment to the press would be lifelong, carrying on through the interwar period and then the second world war and even after Virginia’s tragic death. What started as a hobby would become a vocation and, in later years, his sole source of income. If Leonard’s involvement was steady, Virginia’s was mercurial, waxing and waning through her depressive and creative spells. As early as March 1924, as they got ready to publish her novel Jacob’s Room, she declared in a letter that “publishing one’s own books is very nervous work”. By October 1933, when Hogarth Press turned 16, Virginia declared herself tired of the “drudgery and sweating” and the “altered travel plans” that running the publisher required. She demanded that an “intelligent youth” be found to take over its day-to-day operations.
Leonard Woolf, pictured reading with the poet John Lehmann, who was managing director of the Hogarth Press between 1938 – 1946. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images
No youth was found but the press plodded along, continuing its early practice of converting friends into Hogarth authors. This too was laden with complication, at least for Virginia. The second book that Hogarth published was Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude, the production of which caused tension in their friendship. In 1934, Virginia would declare her affair with Vita Sackville-West over because of her intense dislike of the latter’s new novel The Dark Island. The book was still published by Hogarth, but only after protracted and awkward negotiations in which an embarrassed Sackville-West demanded more money from the Woolfs, who had chosen to ignore her previous hints towards a more lucrative contract. She got the money, but she lost Virginia. The whole episode was a fitting indictment of the inevitable acridity of lover-publisher unions.
The Hogarth Press ran until 1946 and, in 29 years, published 527 titles. Precisely a century on, the house is one of many imprints making up thegiant publisher Penguin Random House. That Hogarth has reached this milestone is a considerable achievement; as JH Willis writes in his book on the press, many small presses were birthed in the interwar period – and most perished. But beyond the obvious victory of its survival, the Hogarth story reveals much about publishing and the transformations wrought when writers change sides in the game of literary creation.
Virginia and Leonard both discovered that the limitations of publishers, their one-time oppressors, were now their own. In one striking instance, very early in the life of the press, the Woolfs wrote to James Joyce to reject his manuscript of Ulysses. It was too long and beyond their fledgling capabilities, the Woolfs declared in their letter. It was just the sort of statement they would have resented and mistrusted as writers. But they were publishers, now – and so they made it anyway.