Celebrating the Spirit of Joy in Printed Things

Founded in 1863 by the Reverend John Curwen, Curwen Press was initially conceived in order to produce printed manuscripts denoting a new music system that he was promoting. Coinciding with the development of ‘tonic sol-fa’, the new method of writing and reading music was the production of a monthly magazine, The Reporter. These enterprises operated out of Plaistow, East London, where the Curwen family were newly based.

Following John Curwen’s death in 1880 the printing press was passed to his two sons who continued their father’s mission to secure and expand the company, and who changed its direction – focusing entirely on publishing. The reverend’s grandson, Harold Curwen, joined the family business in 1908. He had a background in cabinet-making, metalwork and calligraphy and, as a result, had an understanding of the design revival that was being promoted by the Arts and Crafts movement at the time. Harold Curwen encouraged diversification and expanded the company’s outreach, establishing Curwen Press as a leader in the field of fine art commercial printing. Crucially, the Press began to work directly with artists, including Claud Lovat Fraser who designed the iconic visual identity of Curwen Press which is centred on the image of a unicorn. The company’s “courageous” approach to printing, marketed by the slogan “Get the spirit of joy into your printed things’”, made a vital contribution to the shifts in newspaper and poster advertising that occurred after World War II.

The direction of Curwen Press was to change again when Oliver Simon joined the company in 1920. Although he was primarily concerned with publishing, he succeeded in forging links between Curwen and the Royal College of Art. The working relationship between Harold Curwen and Oliver Simon has been credited with turning Curwen Press into ‘an agent of cultural change’. During this period the Press commissioned work from leading artists including Edward Bawden, Claud Lovat Fraser, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and Edward McKnight Kauffer. From the 1930s the Press was an advocate for lithography and the mass production of original work. In 1936 John Piper formed Contemporary Lithographs with Oliver Simon and Robert Wellington of the Curwen Press to encourage and commission artists to make lithographs. Contemporary Lithographs was a pioneering scheme who had helped make Curwen Press the centre for modern art in the 1930s.Their inspiration was to take good quality prints into schools across Britain. Together they commissioned and produced two series of prints, with in some cases Piper taking on the task of coaching artists who were not familiar with the auto-lithography process. They involved many of the Curwen artists, as well as their own friends: Edward Bawden, the Nash brothers, Eric Ravilious, Graham Sutherland and John Piper himself. Oliver Simon especially took a lead on the wider appreciation of the graphic arts by the production of his own magazine Signature, in production from 1935–1954. It set an incredible standard for innovative design, featuring articles by the leading artists of the day.

The Curwen Studio was established by the Curwen Press in 1957 and its reputation was solidified in the 1960s onwards, under the direction of Stanley Jones, through the work it did with major artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, John Piper, Ceri Richards, William Scott, Alan Davie and Elisabeth Frink. In 1977, following a major gift of prints from the Curwen Archive to the Tate Gallery, an exhibition at the Tate “Artists at Curwen” was held. In 2008, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Curwen Studio, Tate published Art and Print: The Curwen Story, fully documenting the history of the Curwen Press and Studio.