Nancy Cunard's Private Press

Laura RIDING - Len LYE

Twenty Poems Less.

Paris, Hours Press, 1930.

4to, publisher’s half dark brown sheepskin over paper boards, both sides illustrated with a b/w photomontage by Len Lye, untrimmed. Half-title, title, 33 pp., 1 unnumbered leaf.

First edition, hand-printed by Nancy Cunard.

One of only 200 copies on Canson-Montgolfier paper numbered and signed by the author.

The British poet, journalist, editor, and activist Nancy Cunard (1896-1965), daughter of Sir Bache Cunard of the shipping family and Lady Emerald Cunard, was brought up in England. In 1920, she moved to Paris, where she was associated with the Dada and Modernist movements. She became a muse to some of the 20th century’s most distinguished writers and artists, both in France and in England, including Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Tristan Tzara, Ezra Pound, and Louis Aragon, who were among her lovers, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Constantin Brancusi, Langston Hughes, Man Ray, and William Carlos Williams.

Inspired by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who had hand-printed her poem Parallax at their Hogarth Press in 1925, she learned to print, purchased a well-used hand-press, and founded the Hours Press. A terrific example of the small-scale publishing practices of the modernist avant-garde, the Hours Press published work by now canonical poets such as Laura Riding, Robert Graves, Ezra Pound, and others. “The smell of printer’s ink pleased me greatly”, remembered Cunard in her memoir These Were the Hours, “as did the beautiful freshness of the glistening pigment”. Among Cunard’s discoveries was also a young, unknown poet named Samuel Beckett, whose very first work, Whoroscope (1930), she published. The press existed for three years (1928-1931) in Normandy and Paris and published twenty-four volumes in the three years of operation.

In 1928, Cunard met and became involved with Henry Crowder, a black American jazz musician. Through him, she became committed to African diasporic culture and emancipatory politics and published her famed anthology “Negro” in 1934 at her own expense. Nancy Cunard was a lifelong political activist who advocated communism as a solution to oppression based on race and class prejudice. An early opponent of fascism, she was a free-lance correspondent in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Then, she agitated for better treatment for the Spanish refugees in France after Franco’s forces had prevailed. She travelled widely in South America, the Caribbean, and Tunisia, writing about the effects of colonialism as she went, and she frequently raised the issue of the colour bar in her home country of England. She died alone in the utmost poverty in a Parisian charity hospital.

Stunning cover design by Len Lye (1901-1980), a New Zealand-born painter, kinetic sculptor, writer, theorist, musician, experimental artist, photographer, and filmmaker.

From 1926 to 1944, Len Lye was based in London. He made paintings and batiks and became a member of the 7 & 5 Society, a leading group of avant-garde artists, including Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Frances Hodgkins. Lye also became a member of the Surrealist group and was included in the famous International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. What made him famous, however, were his animated films. Tusalava (1929) had a unique style influenced both by Modernism and Aboriginal art. Len Lye pioneered a new method of “direct film-making” (creating films without a camera by scratching or painting directly onto celluloid) and became a leading experimenter in the new medium of colour film. His first direct film, A Colour Box (1935), won awards and had screenings worldwide. With its soundtrack of Cuban dance music, it was both a tremendous experimental film and a forerunner of what are today called “music videos” (Len Lye Foundation). During the latter part of his life, although he continued with film, Lye focused mainly on creating motorised metal sculptures.

Laura Riding Jackson (1901-1991) was an American poet, critic, and editor. She was closely associated with the Fugitive group, a cluster of American Southern writers centred at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, which included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. She had a long partnership with Robert Graves; they co-founded the Seizin Press, published several volumes of poetry, and co-edited the literary journal Epilogue. She is generally acknowledged to have influenced the work of Graves, the New Zealand filmmaker Len Lye, and the writers James Reeves, Norman Cameron, T. S. Matthews, Jacob Bronowski, and W. H. Auden.

A very good copy.

Ref. Nancy Cunard, These Were the Hours, p. 211