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New Hands on Old Papers: Modernist Publishing and the Archival Gaze

This article is part of a special series on the Visualities blog exploring digital archives connected to modernism’s visual cultures. Contributors to the series introduce and model the uses of online resources spanning art, film, media, book history, print cultures, and more. In attending to specific visual artifacts from these collections, they also reflect on issues of methodology raised by developing and using digital archives, including in times of crisis and remote working. Building on the previous article in this series, which attests to the many hands that make the digital project Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde, in this piece the creators of the Modernist Archives Publishing Project show us how their collaborative work (re)visualizes the networks and processes of modernist publishing, finding new ways for us to see, and handle, its history.

Alix Beeston 

How my handwriting goes down hill! Another sacrifice to the Hogarth Press. Yet what I owe the Hogarth Press is barely paid by the whole of my handwriting. Haven’t I just written to Herbert Fisher refusing to do a book for the Home University Series on Post Victorian? Knowing that I can write a book, a better book, a book off my own bat, for the Press if I wish! To think of being battened down in the hold of those University dons fairly makes my blood run cold. Yet I’m the only woman in England free to write what I like.[1]

Virginia Woolf records in her diary, September 22, 1925, clarion testimony to the transformational power of the Hogarth Press on her writing life. The avowed feminism of that final sentence has the force of proleptic aphorism; one woman’s victory over a male-dominated publishing industry might well become the rallying cry for later women printers and press owners.[2] But the future-making turn of the last sentence also eclipses the quiet force of the first: Woolf’s lament that she has sacrificed, willingly, her handwriting to the Hogarth Press.

The occlusion for us latter-day “University dons,” reading her published diaries, is doubled: we read the word handwriting through the veil of print. Typescript dominates holograph. But if we overlook that paradox, we might find ourselves asking: why has her handwriting gone downhill?  Because as an editor, not just a self-publisher, she has been mired in acres of manuscript submissions? Because as a writer, she has been churning out book after book “off her own bat”? Or, because as a printer, years of typesetting has trained her hands in different formations of work, selecting letters from case boxes, setting tiny pieces of type upside down and backwards in composing sticks, shifting blocks of text into chases? The ergonomic shift in grasping a nibbed pen to record the day’s fleeting thoughts cramps the hand even as the passage itself evokes the manifold freedoms accessed by owning her own press.

From an archival standpoint, the search for and discovery of the authorial signature has a romanticized but also highly visual appeal. For some, there is what Ted Bishop has called the “archival jolt” from coming into touch—visually, emotionally, haptically, situationally—with the authorial hand.[3] Woolf’s own handwriting, her chicken scratch on sky blue paper in a signature purple ink, is both highly recognizable and, if not entirely illegible, languidly casual about its legibility (fig. 1).

Letter from Virginia Woolf to Frances Cornford about A Room of One’s Own, Darwin and Cornford Papers.
Fig. 1. Letter from Virginia Woolf to Frances Cornford about A Room of One’s Own, Darwin and Cornford Papers. Vol. L. Correspondence with Frances Cornford: 1913–1955, n.d. Image courtesy of the British Library.

But what connects the search for the author via their hand with the visual appeal of the sought-after, allegedly authenticating archival object? “Every visible is cut out in the tangible,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues, “every tactile being somehow promised to visibility. . . . [T]here is encroachment, infringement, not only between the touched and the touching, but also between the tangible and the visible . . . as, conversely, the tangible itself is not a nothingness of visibility, is not without visual existence.”[4] Touch and sight are intimately interwoven, and it is in the archive as traditionally understood that those mutually constituting elements reinforce themselves. The visual metaphors of searching or looking in the archive are twinned with the less-discussed tactile acts of opening boxes and leafing through pages: new hands on old papers.

As collaborators on The Modernist Archives Publishing Project (MAPP), a large-scale digital humanities initiative aggregating artifacts from diasporic publishers’ archives, we have become highly cognizant of what it means to digitize archival objects, to display them to view. We open them up to the kind of access that—as Brandon Truett discusses in the first installment of this special series—circumnavigates the travel, expense, and donnish privilege of imbibing with hand and eye the aesthetic appeal of so many different kinds of historical artifacts: from author photos to letters, handwritten and typed, or a hybrid of both; from dust jackets to readers’ reports, printing estimates, and draft illustrations—the full “scriptural economy” Lisa Gitelman, citing Michel de Certeau, ascribes to cultures of paperwork.[5] We’re keenly aware of the various elisions and slippages among the researcher’s hand digging into the archival box, rifling through the often oddly shaped and differently sized pieces of paper; the hands that digitize the objects at source; and those that click open each file image in our critical digital archive.[6] Though digital researchers don’t touch the objects in the same way, there is nonetheless a visual alightment when, to invert Merleau-Ponty’s words, the tangible infringes the visible. Compared to the author letter, for instance, there may be a slightly more sedate but no less evocative multisensory aesthetics attendant on the carbon-copy typescript, a gray official sort of look, but still one that evokes the sound of manual typewriters and the busy workaday world of a (bygone) office place (fig. 2).[7]

Hogarth Press Business Letter from Aline Burch to Ernest Jones, 1949.
Fig. 2. Hogarth Press Business Letter from Aline Burch to Ernest Jones, 1949. Image courtesy of Penguin Random House Library and Archive, University of Reading Special Collections.

What we might lose in a digital realm by lacking physical contact with the originary object, we gain in new pathways the digital object opens up to (re)viewing, navigation, and narrativation. MAPP’s metadata structure works to make each object not a node in a fixed narrative plot, but instead a portal that decentralizes the potency of any one image to tell the whole story. It allows viewers to find multiple pathways through a set of disaggregated but related images, redistributed from their places in the brick and mortar archive (with that location data nonetheless captured in our metadata, to allow a toggling across time and context).

Given these many varieties of visual artifactual engagement—which press us to ask how we hold onto artifacts from the past while using them to reconceptualize cultural history—in what follows, we allow the metadata and the finding aids to fall by the wayside so we can really look at the materials. We’d like to show you the archive with a prismatic view, close and far and historical and modern, in black and white and in color, with several kinds of images as stopping points along the way. Like the team behind Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde, who wrote recently of their work in this forum, our team foregrounds non-hierarchical collaboration as feminist principle. MAPP similarly facilitates a horizontal, networked exploration of digital objects, which are linked in a multiplicity of new ways. MAPP’s decentralized and de-hierarchizing organization informs a feminist archival logic—and visual aesthetic—within the digital realm. As Kate Eichorn has argued, the recent archival turn in literary studies is not one that reifies a fictive search for origins, nor one that lauds only a preservationist ethic, but instead one that self-consciously historicizes its own making and the genealogical interrelationships of its artifacts: “Genealogy, after all, is not about the quest for origins but rather about the tracing of accidents, disparities, conflicts, and haphazard conditions, and this . . . is how possibilities are pried open.”[8] One of the possibilities pried open by our revisualization of the archive is the data work it opens up, and the new forms of visual artifacts it offers to viewers, in the forms of network diagrams, data analysis, or quantitative study of book-sale records.

Working Hands

Let’s begin with Leonard’s compact bookkeeper’s hand, recording sales for the Hogarth Press’s handprinted copies of Fredegond Shove’s poem, Daybreak, in May 1922—creating necessary order from the haphazard flurry of requests that had greeted earlier publications (fig. 3).[9]

Page from Hogarth Press Order Book, 1920–1922.
Fig. 3. Page from Hogarth Press Order Book, 1920–1922. Image courtesy of Penguin Random House Library and Archive, University of Reading Special Collections.

We get tabular information on order dates, prices, and aggregate sales—a slew of quantitative data—as well as qualitative data on individual buyers, bookshops, and book distributors. In these still early days of the Press, there was a subscription service with “A” subscribers paying a pound per year to receive all Press publications and “B” subscribers receiving a list of books from which to order select copies. These records offer us rare in-the-moment glimpses of specific purchasers, from the well known (the English aristocrat and patron Lady O[ttoline] Morrell, line 23) to the obscure (Eric Humphries, line 13, likely referring to master printer at the publisher Lund Humphries, a Bradford-based leader in printing technology which would become a well-known publisher of art books). But there are larger, institutional buyers too; bookshops like Jones and Evans (line 9), Truslove and Hanson (line 8), and the large wholesale distributor Simpkin Marshalls (line 18, with the largest bulk order at 25 copies). In later years, these financial accounting books, or Order Books as they were known in-house, will feature dozens of other workers’ hands besides Leonard’s, as the Press expanded and became more professionally complex. The stories of those hands await the telling.[10]

Cover of Rebecca West, A Letter to A Grandfather (Hogarth Letters, 1933), designed by John Banting.
Fig. 4. Cover of Rebecca West, A Letter to A Grandfather (Hogarth Letters, 1933), designed by John Banting. Image courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

Anonymous hands also appear as eye-catching designs in the Hogarth Press’s 1931 Letters series (fig. 4). John Banting’s cover design features a distinctly modernist hand. A long, nibless, conical pen squiggles and curves along the page without words, evoking the ethos of a letter without determining any one meaning. The line itself calls to mind Laurence Sterne’s plot diagrams in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the digressions and meanderings of real stories freed from the artifices of conventional narration (fig. 5).

Diagrams of digressions from Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767).
Fig. 5. Diagrams of digressions from Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767). Image courtesy of the British Library.

There’s a sense in Banting’s design of catching the hand in the epistolary act: this isn’t an opening page with a date or a salutation; this is, instead, a new leaf of a longer letter in medias res. The staining and spotting, the visible aging of the archival object itself now recalls spotting on hands over time, signs of mortality the digital view does not airbrush away. The hand itself is bold, but the veins are delicate, perhaps like all veins, and remind one of branches or tributaries, curiously delicate lines against the thicker, more distinctly Postimpressionist black outlines of the hand and of the papers on which it writes. Banting’s unintelligible script becomes replicable and open to a variety of interlocutors and interpretive possibilities: those loops could be any words written to anyone.

And indeed that hand appears, mechanically reproduced, over and over again in other pamphlets, the same but different, in a subversion of the particularities of manuscripts and of hands as metonymic representations of individuality.

The Hogarth Letters Series, 1931–1933.
Fig. 6. The Hogarth Letters Series, 1931–1933. Image courtesy of the Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, Massachusetts.

As a pamphlet series, The Hogarth Letters was designed to turn the rhetorical art of the letter into an art that could capture, idiosyncratically, the most pressing issues of the literary and cultural world. The whole series fanned out together provides a colorful collective view (fig. 6). Far from the materially solid, overtly didactic Home University book series Woolf felt liberated from having to write for, the Hogarth Letters represent a different vision for a series: a collection that resists rather than reinforces an idea of mastery or comprehensiveness. Occupying a space between formal and informal, intimate and public, a pamphlet is a paradox: a book and not a book. Its material composition is ephemeral, made to last a shorter time than a book, and less expensive to acquire, but it is still more substantial than a newspaper. Similarly, the subjects discussed in the pamphlets were timely, but given a longer treatment than in a newspaper article or a review. Leonard Woolf was a fan of this train-journey-length genre and always felt that it should have been even more popular than it was.[11]

Banting’s Postimpressionist hands also point us toward surrealism’s fascination with hands and, in turn, to Virginia Woolf’s connection with the American photographer Man Ray. Man Ray, who also photographed Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Nancy Cunard, and T. S. Eliot, is among a number of prominent portrait photographers of authors and artists represented at MAPP, including Howard Coster, Alexander Bassano, and Ottoline Morrell. Man Ray invited Woolf to pose for him in November 1934 after she visited a private showing of his first (and only) UK exhibition in the galleries of the Bloomsbury offices of Lund Humphries. Woolf had been invited to the exhibition by Lund Humphries’s first Design Director, E. McKnight Kauffer. A prominent American graphic designer and artist working in London, Kauffer was an old friend of the Hogarth Press. He created the 1928 wolf’s-head logo and produced numerous book covers for the Press, notably Leonard Woolf’s antifascist Quack Quack! (1936).

One of Ray’s images became iconic and headlined Woolf’s contemporary global reception: the first image in the triptych we assemble below graced the cover of Time magazine in 1937 (fig. 7). Looking now at a broader selection of the photographs Man Ray took during the same sitting, staged at the Lund Humphries building, different stories emerge; we can begin to glimpse their many bibliographic and printerly visual codes.

Man Ray, Portrait of Virginia Woolf
Fig. 7. Man Ray, Portrait of Virginia Woolf, © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 1934. Image Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
Man Ray, Portrait of Virginia Woolf
Fig. 8. Man Ray, Portrait of Virginia Woolf © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 1934.
Man Ray, Portrait of Virginia Woolf
Fig. 9. Man Ray, Portrait of Virginia Woolf © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 1934, Artists Rights Society, Image Courtesy of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

Hands are prominent in these three photographs, metonyms for artistic power, the haptic signifier of the writer’s trade. The back of the chair Woolf sits on—a famous modernist design, the Paimio chair by Alvar Aalto—is often cropped from reproductions that privilege her face, but it is visible in the second image, where it looks almost like a curved sheet of paper or the drum of a rotary printing press (fig. 8). The framed and cropped verion, which is rarely reproduced, severs Woolf’s writing hand—which, given the intensity of Woolf’s stare, one might imagine at work beyond the frame, nib pen held tightly (fig. 9). Still, with her writing hand excised from the image, we are led to focus instead on the left hand with its wedding ring, signifying her marital and social roles.

The image chosen for the Time cover, however, seems to catch Woolf mid-sentence, or mid-motion, her hand describing something perhaps, her attention distracted, gaze left. But with her right hand raised aloft, thumb and index finger pincered together, our gaze is brought back to what that hand might be saying or doing—what might fit between those two animate digits? Perhaps a letter of type, carefully selected from its typecase? The Time editors thus made a wise decision when they used this photograph to telegraph Woolf’s writerly impact on the global stage: her own press had made that impact possible.

Handling Data

If MAPP attends to the many hands involved in the publishing, printing, and selling of books, the project also facilitates the handling of data, extending the scale of visualization and analysis from a handful of books to the otherwise unseen human and textual networks embedded in its metadata. MAPP reflects Johanna Drucker’s call to recontextualize data (from the Latin, “given”) as capta (“taken”): as “constructed as an interpretation of the phenomenal world, not inherent in it.”[12] Capta weaves together the tactile and the optical; archival materials whose invisible or embedded interconnections can be visualized to benefit humanistic inquiry and emphasizes the interpretive acts that are always involved in historical mediation. Taking data from records and ephemera digitized by MAPP, scholars can analyze the collaborative labor of authors, editors, assistants, and book-binders. MAPP provides new data to be taken, new forms of humanistic display to be built, which connect book history, literary study, and digital humanities, and which cross boundaries between the qualitative and quantitative, between material and digital cultures.

Consider, for example, the network of correspondence surrounding the publication of E. M. Forster’s 1923 volume Pharos and Pharillon (fig. 10). This evocatively floral or leaflike visualization reveals a small community involved in the book’s production, printing, publishing, and marketing—the author and the editor, along with other inky hands.

Visualization of Hogarth Press correspondence
Fig. 10. Visualization of Hogarth Press correspondence by Matthew Hannah.

A virtual archive offers an exercise in visuality that lets us see the material world arranged anew. Whereas the archival or portrait photograph offers a close view of material history, visualizations like the above provide a long view, revealing the whole or the context or the many. Indeed, close and distant views exist in chiasmic relation, always leading back to one another, close to far and far to close. Visualizations invite us to look more closely at particulars we might not have seen otherwise, while any given visual object in a digital archive might also gesture outwards, the node leading to a view of the whole.

To look at the archive, to leaf through its papers, one needs many hands and many eyes, just as, in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), Lily says of Mrs. Ramsay: “Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with.”[13] Our collaborative approach is an attempt to get round an unseeable history, while at the same time honoring and acknowledging—as have many feminists before us, including Kate Saccone in her contribution to this series—the gaps and silences that will always remain. In her 1935 play Freshwater, Woolf depicts her great aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, famous late in life for her soft-focus, ethereal portraits, as an artist who hands over her way of seeing along with her camera: “Take my lens,” says Cameron; “I bequeath it to my descendants. See that it is always slightly out of focus.”[14] At MAPP we invite you to take our lens, see that it is always in the reader’s hands.



[1] Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3: 1925–30, ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 43. For more on the fascinating Home University Series, see A Series of Series.

[2] For example, the slogan of the See Red Women’s Poster Collective, “the freedom of the press belongs to those who control the press,” appears alongside an image of two women machinists in a press room. See Gail Chester, “Sex, Race and Class: The Radical, Alternative and Minority Book Trade in Britain,” The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Vol. 7: The Twentieth Century and Beyond, ed. Andrew Nash, Claire Squires, and Ian R. Willison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 632. With thanks to Ekalan Hou for sharing this citation.

[3] Ted Bishop, Riding with Rilke (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2005), 33.

[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Claude Lefort (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 134.

[5] Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge: Towards a Media History of Documents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 2.

[6] The accidental presence of digitizing hands has been documented by various artists and commentators, including most prominently the artist Benjamin Shaykin in his project Google Hands. On the “small but thriving subculture” of documenting the hands in Google Books scans, see Kenneth Goldsmith, “The Artful Accidents of Google Books,” The New Yorker, December 4, 2013. See also the book-as-library-cum-exhibition space in Fantasies of the Library, ed. Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016). We discuss the term “critical digital archive” in our book, Scholarly Adventures in Digital Humanities: Making the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (London: Palgrave, 2017).

[7] Photography theorist James Elkins notes a similar visual tactility when he views photographs online, embedded in an underlying non-visible but still felt digital infrastructure. See Elkins, What Photography Is (London: Routledge, 2011), 1926.

[8] Kate Eichorn, The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013), 8.

[9] Leonard writes of the reception to Virginia’s “Kew Gardens” (1919), an early tipping point which presaged the Press’s expansion: “When we opened the front door of Hogarth House, we found the hall covered with envelopes and postcards containing orders from booksellers all over the country.” See Beginning Again: A Biography of the Years 1911–1918 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963), 241.

[10] A faculty and undergraduate student team—including Alice Staveley, Victoria Ding, Khuyen Le, Emily Elott, Peter Morgan, and Ekalan Hou—has work forthcoming from a multiyear quantitative and qualitative examination of these Order Books supported by Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis.

[11] See Peter Morgan, “New Ways of Approaching the Public: Leonard Woolf and the Day to Day Pamphlets”, MA Thesis, Department of English, Stanford University, 2019, and Claire Battershill, Modernist Lives: Biography and Autobiography at the Hogarth Press (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 11923.

[12] Johanna Drucker, “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5.1 (2011): par. 8.

[13] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, ed. Mark Hussey (New York: Harcourt Brace, 2005), 201.

[14] Virginia Woolf, Freshwater: A Comedy (San Diego, CA: Mariner Books, 1985), 73.