Hall of Fame – Alec Bolton

A post by Michael Richards

Alec Bolton setting type, 1987.

Alec Bolton setting type, 1987. Photo by Henk Brusse, National Library of Australia. NL 36085/B/7

Before the formation of ABDA, the Australian Publishers Association was responsible for awarding the annual Book Design Awards. In 1995 the APA Hall of Fame Award was presented to Alec Bolton (1926–1996), publisher, designer, typesetter and printer. Alec worked as an editor with Angus and Robertson in Sydney and in London, with Ure Smith and as publisher to the National Library of Australia. For the last twenty years of his life he designed and handprinted books for his own small but renowned literary press, Brindabella.

Alec Bolton ‘was engaged in the never-ending quest to make the perfect book, in which every element of type, design, paper, binding and text come together to produce a harmony that the reader cannot tire of. Asked to sum up his principles of design, he nominated simplicity, a minimum of ornament, restraint, a search for joy and esprit.’

‘What we infer from this book is that nobody in the publisher’s office could have cared for it,’ Alec Bolton once wrote, using his pseudonym of ‘Martin Em’. ‘There is no worse fate.’ His citation for the Hall of Fame reflects how different his own approach was. He had a ‘lifetime commitment to classical book design [which] is legendary, ’ it reads. The books of ‘his own small but renowned literary press, Brindabella…are each works of art.’  He cared deeply about the books he worked on, and made a significant contribution to both mainstream publishing and the Australian private press movement.

Untold Lives (1992)

Untold Lives (1992) cover and title page opening. Patterned paper designed by Adrian Young, based on a wood-engraved motif by Rosalind Atkins. Binding by Robin Tait. 236 x 140 mm (closed).

Bolton’s career in publishing began in 1950 when he joined the editorial staff at Angus & Robertson in Sydney. He was trained by Beatrice Davis, herself a legendary figure as one of Australia’s great editors. In 1953 he joined the team responsible for a new edition of the Australian Encyclopaedia, the firm’s flagship publication, and spent the next five years working with authors, copy editing, researching and writing. ‘Nothing would ever afterwards come close to that,’ he said in later years: he learnt a great deal about every aspect of Australia, and demonstrated outstanding skills as a professional editor. In these years he was also mentored by the graphic designer Henry Mund, production manager for the Encyclopaedia, who emigrated to Australia from Poland via the UK. Mund’s talks to staff on book history and design were significant influences on Bolton, and he also adopted his elegant italic handwriting at Mund’s suggestion.

He left Angus & Robertson in 1960 and worked for Ure Smith for several years, with book production and design added to his editorial role. Later he returned to Angus & Robertson as its London editor, working there from 1966 until 1971, before being recruited to the new post of Director of Publications at the National Library of Australia. There he established traditions of high editorial standards and excellent design that continue to the present day, balancing the needs of scholarly accuracy with the imperative of commercial viability in a tight budgetary environment. Many of his concepts of what makes for good book design can also be found in his occasional ‘Bookshapes’ columns for the Australian Book Review, as Martin Em, from 1978 to 1981. In these he was particularly concerned with the challenges of rapidly changing technology, which meant good design principles were frequently lost along with the production methods of the era of relief printing. (His identity as Martin Em has been established only recently, in the course of my research for a biblio-biography of Alec Bolton.) He retired from the Library in 1986 and devoted most of his time to his own private press from then until his death ten years later.

Paste paper sides and title page for Occasions of Birds (1987)

Paste paper sides and title page for Occasions of Birds (1987). Bound by Helen Wadlington, who also made the paper sides.

While in London Bolton had taken evening classes in letterpress printing, in part inspired by displays of fine books at the St Bride Library that he visited in his lunch break. Once settled in Canberra he established the Brindabella Press as a weekend vocation, beginning with small poetry pamphlets printed on an old Chandler & Price treadle platen press but soon taking on more ambitious projects. Several of his books were written by his wife Rosemary Dobson, who had printed a small (and now rare) book of her own poems on a tiny Adana press as a young woman and who was now one of Australia’s leading poets. She was his most important colleague in the Brindabella Press project, and the person who had first suggested he take up letterpress printing. Other books were by some of the leading writers in Australia, people such as Les Murray, James McAuley, Barbara Hanrahan and Alec Hope, although he also had an interest in younger, less well-known writers such as Philip Hodgins and Philip Mead.

There were many fine books published by the National Library in the Bolton years, mostly designed by people such as Arthur Stokes and Adrian Young who had been commissioned by Bolton. Outstanding among them were The Bligh Notebook, Cazneaux (the Book of the Year for 1978 in the ABPA design competition), The Hunter Sketchbook and The Private Journal of James Burney. His committment to good design as the Library’s publisher was also evident in the numerous bibliographic productions of the Library, such as the annual volumes of the Australian National Bibliography and bibliographies such as French Plays 1701-1840 in the National Library of Australia. It is however his private press books, published under the imprints of the Brindabella Press and the Officina Brindabella, which are his greatest personal achievements in book design. At first he hand-set the type himself and printed small editions by hand, generally creating between two and three hundred copies of each title. In later years he used machine-set type and at the time of his death was experimenting with photo-polymer typesetting, but always still printed by hand. He commisioned edition bindings by leading Australian hand binders, most often Robin Tait and Helen Wadlington, and worked closely with Australian artists such as Barbara Hanrahan, Rosalind Atkins and Mike Hudson to illustrate his books. His particular passion was for wood engraving, but his most ambitious illustrated project was a suite of stunning linocuts by Barbara Hanrahan published in 1990. His limited editions are now keenly sought after by collectors and often fetch high prices, although he only rarely sought to make a profit from them.

Helen Ogilvie, Wood Engravings cover and title page (1995)

Helen Ogilvie, Wood Engravings cover and title page (1995). Hand-bound by Helen Wadlington, with decorated paper sides by the binder. 249 x 155 mm.

Shortly before his death, interviewed for the oral history program of the National Library, Bolton talked about the integration of design, craft and content. As someone who began in publishing as an editor, his first interest was always the content of a book, he said. Many beautiful private press books were, from the point of view of editorial content, simply not worth reading, he felt. A good book was, therefore, one in which meaningful content, good design and competent craft all worked together to produce a coherent whole. This can truly be said to be the case with the many fine books created by Alec Bolton in the course of a long working life that began in the early 1950s. He could always see the shortcomings of his own work, even when other praised it, and he always strove to do better next time. ‘Printing is like religion’, he once said. ‘We live in sin, but with the hope of perfection before us.’


Michael Richards worked at the National Library of Australia between 1986 and 1998, and curated the Library’s major exhibition for the Australian Bicentennial. He is working on a biography of Bolton, and is an amateur letterpress printer himself.

Gallery 1 images:

  1. Times and Places (1975) title page. The first case-bound Brinabella Press book. 243 x 168 mm.
  2. Time Given (1976) title page. Calligraphic display text was by Rod Shaw, of Edwards & Shaw fame. 237 x 145 mm.
  3. The Drifting Continent (1979), title page. 246 x 153 mm.
  4. End of The Season (1993) title page. 252 x 144 mm.
  5. A Torrent of Words (1996) title page. The last book of the Brindabella Press. 235 x 145 mm.

Gallery 2 images:

  1. Something to Someone (1983) title page opening (detail). 230 x 165 mm (closed).
  2. Iris in Her Garden cover and title page (1991). Coptic-sewn binding by Robin Tait. 216 x 137 mm. A later University of Queensland Press edition was a facsimile of all but the cover of the Brindabella Press edition.
  3. Some Poems of Shaw Neilson (1984) title page opening. The beginning of an important collaboration with the artist and writer Barbara Hanrahan. 215 x 137 mm.
  4. Granite Country (detail) title page. 247 x 162 mm (page).