A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift, The Officina Athelstane (2016)

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) has a well deserved place as one of the greatest prose satirists of all time, if not the greatest. His A Modest Proposal, in which he advocates that Ireland’s dire economic situation be solved by the poor selling their children as food for the rich, is simply astonishing in its powerful irony. His matter of fact description of the starving poor, followed by his stating “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout” is one of the most shocking and hilarious transitions in all of literature. The seriousness of the proposal and the arguments backing it, contrasted with its inherent absurdity, gives power to his underlying message about the publics uncaring attitude towards the horrid conditions of the poor and the ineffectiveness of the government in doing anything about their plight.

A Modest Proposal was first published anonymously in 1729, three years after Swift’s best-known masterpiece, Gulliver’s TravelsBoth are undoubtedly classics in the core of the Western Canon. Swift was extremely prolific. His collected prose works taking up 14 volumes, along with about a thousand pages of poetry and multiple volumes of correspondence. It is impossible for me to read his works without coming away with copious amounts of admiration for his wit and writing style. The world today could use a satirist of the capability of Swift but, alas, a person of his satiric genius only comes along once in history! Nor is it likely the current lack of free speech tolerance of the academic or journalistic West would tolerate his satire of the sacred cows he would surely skewer.

The Officina Athelstane is a relatively new private press based in Queensland, Australia. Derek Lamb is the proprietor. A Modest Proposal is the second production of the press, the first being a privately commissioned volume of poetry and prints, in an edition of 100, using vintage material from an old family printing firm for a specific event in Rockhampton in 2013. Mr. Lamb says:

The Officina Athelstane is a small press dedicated to the art of fine traditional letterpress. It exists on a shoestring budget and aims to foster collaborations in the book arts with writers and illustrators. The press produces books, posters and letterpress ephemera. It is an homage (with humility) to the great private presses of the past such as Kelmscott and Officina Bodini.

Mr. Lamb uses an 1887 Alexandra Press which allows him “absolute control over every pressing.”  He further mentions that “the press grew out of a passion for literature and fine editions” and that his use of only hand-set type and an iron handpress “is a means of keeping traditional letterpress alive in Australia.” Such is certainly a laudable objective and I wish him the best of luck!  I am especially excited about his passion for literature as I hope, from that, we will see many more fine editions of classic works from The Officina Athelstane.

As for this edition of A Modest Proposal, Mr. Lamb set the 16/18 point Centaur and Arrighi type by hand, with three points of leading, and did the same with 24 point Centaur for display. The type was cast as The Printing Museum of Wellington, New Zealand. The paper is mould made 135gsm Magnani Biblos Avorio. The edition contains 12 pen and ink illustrations by Maaret Sinkko, double and single page and in-text. The illustrations were reproduced by serigraph by Ms. Sinkko. Mr. Lamb tells me of Ms. Sinkko:

Maaret is one of those multi-talented artists that manage to be good at anything they apply themselves to. She is a painter and printmaker and also makes artist books. Maaret studied at the university (Central Queensland University) where I work and was a member of the local printmakers’ collective. I had admired her work and approached her when I was giving thought to a collaborative book project. Maaret hadn’t done a lot of illustration before but liked the suggestion of ‘A Modest Proposal’ and accepted the project with enthusiasm. She particularly admired some of David Hockney‘s responses to illustration and didn’t want to do a classic Hogarth style literal depiction of Swift’s text. The text has enough shock value, so to go along that avenue would have been both competing with the Swift for attention and gilding the lily. Instead she came up with a quite personal response as a mother and as a reader newly acquainted with the great satire. The whimsical pen and ink drawings came quickly and spontaneously and had little revision. We then looked at ways of reproducing the images and adding some colour. After investigating a number of options we settled on screenprinting. Maaret had never developed screens and went off and mastered the process. Since we both have other occupations it was a matter of fitting the printing of the pages and the screenprinting around our respective schedules. Maaret would take sheaths of pages away and individually print (and register each multicolour) each one and then drop them back for me to print the text. A laborious task but ultimately very successful in rendering the detail of the pen and inks.

This edition contains an excellent introduction commissioned from Swift scholar Emeritus Professor Clive Probyn of Monash University. The text follows the 1735 George Faulkner edition. The work was sewn on bands at the press and bound in quarter navy buckram with specially produced hand marbled paper sides by Joan Ajala. As a pleasant addition, it comes with a wrap around typographic dust jacket in Magnani laid paper with decoration and text from the book in 24pt Centaur. In short, this is an excellent work and you would be remiss not to have it on your shelf! With limitation of only 75, I would not expect it to last long. The cost is $375AUD (around ~$280 or so based on recent exchange rates).

Next up for The Officina Athelstane will likely be a poetic offering for older children (“or indeed anyone with a sense of fun“) by an Australian author. I am told that it is “an engaging tale” and will have illustrations by a previously published illustrator. The illustrations are nearing completion and the Press is hoping to have it released by August. I will pass on any information as soon as I get it. Those with interest or questions can contact Mr. Lamb here.

About the Edition

  • Designed by Derek Lamb
  • Text follows the 1735 Faulkner edition
  • Introduction commissioned from Swift scholar Emeritus Professor Clive Probyn of Monash University
  • 12 illustrations, pen and ink double and single page and in-text by Maaret Sinkko, reproduced by serigraph
  • Set by hand in 16/18 point Centaur and Arrighi, with three points of leading, and 24 point Centaur display
  • Type was cast as The Printing Museum of Wellington, New Zealand
  • The paper is mould made 135gsm Magnani Biblos Avorio
  • Printed on an 1887 Alexandria hand press
  • Sewn on bands at the press and bound in quarter navy buckram with specially produced hand marbled paper sides by Joan Ajala
  • Wrap around typographic dust jacket in Magnani laid paper
  • Edition limited to 75 copies
  • $375AUD

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Dust Jacket
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Dust Jacket
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Covers and Spine
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Covers and Spine
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Macro of Spine
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Macro of Spine
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Endpapers
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Endpapers
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Frontispiece and Title Page
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Frontispiece and Title Page
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Macro of Title Page
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Macro of Title Page #1
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Macro of Title Page #2
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Macro of Title Page #2
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Macro of Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Macro of Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Text #1 and Chapter Break
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Text #1 and Chapter Break
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #2 with Text and Initial Lettering
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #2 with Text and Initial Lettering
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Macro of Initial Lettering
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Macro of Initial Lettering
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #3
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #3
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #5 with Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #5 with Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #6 with Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #6 with Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #7
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #7
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #8 with Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Sample Illustration #8 with Text
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Colophon
A Modest Proposal, The Officina Athelstane, Colophon

7 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift, The Officina Athelstane (2016)

  1. I second the emotion – I purchased and received my copy several weeks ago and it is an impressive debut for Derek Lamb and his Officina Athelstane. There is always something special about a book printed on a 19th century handpress, which explains my attraction to and affection for the Allen Press books.

    What is most noticeable about this little book, aside from the quality of the printing, are the marvelous illustrations by Maaret Sinkko. They are playful, whimsical and are a perfect accompaniment to Jonathan Swift’s scathingly humorous essay on a solution to poverty in his native Ireland.

    Highly recommended.

      1. A (very) late update: The book is altogether beautifully made and printed, and I love the illustrations. The dust jacket, unfortunately, hides the gorgeous marbled paper sides of the binding, and is too nice in its own right to discard. 😉

        One quibble I have is the presence of two spelling errors, which I noticed on my first reading of the book: Page 9 paragraph 4 has the word “Countriesk” with an extraneous “k”; and page 10 paragraph 3 has the word “Pants” where I’m pretty sure the word “Parts” is called for. In such a short text, I would’ve hoped for better proof-reading.

  2. Very humbled to work with Derek. An opportunity to work on a two-year project which comes around not very often.

Leave a Reply