How to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the birth of the world’s most influential playwright? The man in question is, of course, William Shakespeare, and Stratford-upon-Avon will be on fire – literally, given the fireworks display being planned – with celebrations. But as a keepsake of luxury, The Folio Society has produced a letterpress series of all Shakespeare’s known plays, sonnets and poems. Only 300 copies of each of the 39 volumes – bound in Nigerian goatskin with hand-marbled paper – are available (sonnets and poems, £345; plays, £295; complete set, £11,555).
“My objective was modest,” says Joe Whitlock Blundell, production director at The Folio Society. “I wanted to design an edition so pure that the beauty of the text could be fully appreciated and as timeless as the text itself.”
When it came to the printing process, there was only one method that would allow the words to sing out from the pages. “Letterpress has a depth and elegance that modern printing cannot replicate,” explains Whitlock Blundell.
The letterpress process is incredibly labour intensive: the text is cast by hand in hot metal type then printed slowly and carefully just two pages at a time. This intricate and skilled task fell to Stan Lane, a master compositor who has worked with letterpress for over 50 years. The volumes have been created using rich and tactile paper produced on a mould, which creates a deep impression for the type. The paper is left to dry slowly, resulting in a distinctively rough deckle edge on two sides.
Each volume is individually numbered, titled in 22ct gold leaf and presented in a buckram-bound box. A separate volume contains the Oxford University Press edition of the written commentaries and appendices.
“Printing just one of the plays involved eight hours of work a day for six weeks,” says Whitlock Blundell. The Folio Society has worked hard to create not only exceptional quality but also individuality for the collection: “When the printing was complete the type was melted down, never to be used again.”