John Curwen started his printing business in Plaistow in east London in 1863 to print music. It was incorporated as J. Curwen & Sons in 1897. Harold Curwen (1885-1949) took over the business in 1914 and began to specialise in well-designed work. After 1920, Oliver Simon (1895-1956) extended Curwen's reputation for good typography and design to book-work. The Press employed many important artists and designers, most notable among whom were Claud Lovat Fraser, Barnett Freedman, Edward Bawden, Albert Rutherston, and Edward Ardizzone.
In 1933 the Curwen Press Ltd separated from J. Curwen & Sons (which continued as a music publisher until 1969). The original directors were Harold Curwen, and Oliver and his brother Herbert Simon (1898-1974). The business suffered extensive war damage.
Owing partly to its costs in London, the business was never highly profitable. In 1964 it merged with M. R. Harley & Co. and in 1965 Basil Harley became managing director. Under him, Curwen developed its business in high-quality colour lithography, notably for natural-history illustration. Letterpress work gradually declined in importance. Curwen Prints Ltd, a workshop for the production of artists' prints, became a separate business in 1968.
In the 1970s various plans were considered, but never carried out, for the Curwen Press to be taken over by other printers. A merger of the letterpress department with the John Roberts Press was likewise planned then abandoned in 1981. The printers' strike of 1980 inflicted a final blow to the firm's financial position. It had a brief respite under a new owner Harry Myers in 1983, but finally went into receivership in 1984.
1863 The Reverend John Curwen establishes the Curwen Press in Plaistow
1908 His grandson Harold Curwen joins soon after the introduction of lithography and invites artists participation in print
1911 Harold becomes a director and starts the fundamental reorganisation leading to the revolution in the firms output and image
1920 Oliver Simon (later to become a renowned book designer) joins the press, shortly followed by his brother Herbert as MD
1924 Oliver had contact with the Royal College of Art which led to commissions for young artists, including Paul Nash, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious
1939 In spite of problems during World War II the press remained active, producing publications for Free France, The Belgian government in exile and the literary magazine Horizon
1958 Due to the emergence of artists original prints, Timothy and Robert Simon (sons of Oliver and Herbert) set up the Curwen Studio for artists under the management of Stanley Jones, where they developed prints with exciting new qualities. There followed a period when artists including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Graham Sutherland, Elisabeth Frink, Alan Davie, Josef Herman and John Piper produced many important lithographs.
1970 Herbert Simon retires as Chairman of Curwen Press.
1975 Death of Herbert Simon
1977 MD of Curwen Press John Hutchings ( joined the Curwen in 1960 as financial adviser) creates a new space for Curwen through the Business Art Gallery at the Royal Academy
1977 The Tate Gallery form an archive of contemporary prints and the Curwen Press and Studio's important contribution is duly recognised in an exhibition 'Artists at Curwen'
1983 Curwen Press taken over by Harry Myers
1984 Curwen Press goes into receivership. Curwen Prints and Curwen Studio remain as independent companies
1989 The Curwen Studio purchased by Sam Alper and moves to a more spacious location at Chilford Hall (a country estate and vineyard) in Cambridgeshire.
2011 The Curwen Studio is acquired by Jenny Roland and associates and Curwen Press is re-established by Alexander Hamilton.