By printers, for printers
Archive / The Penrose Annual
Until its 1980s demise, ‘Penrose’ documented a fascinating trail of printing and design developments
The Penrose Annual was a one-off, in every sense. Its design and production needed to be planned with military precision; it was a complex and demanding publication that drew on, and demonstrated in its pages and inserts, every innovative technique, material and idea that had emerged in the course of the previous year. Sections to be bound in would arrive throughout the year from printers all over the world. There were tip-ins, fold-outs, different paper stocks, inks, artwork and processes to dissect and present, and advertising copy that more often than not needed binding in separately. And as a showcase not only for the printers themselves but the whole international industry, it had to be immaculately presented, printed and bound. A small staff spent the entire twelve months planning, compiling and producing it; and the printers, who were also its publishers, Percy Lund, Humphries & Co, would dovetail its production into their normal schedule.
At the same time, as the concept progressed and developed throughout the twentieth century, Penrose spent less time dissecting the past in order to balance mature reflection with speculation about the future of an industry in a constant technological ferment. It is only now, nearly a quarter of a century since its demise, that it has acquired the veneer of nostalgia. Experimental processes, once painstakingly described and beautifully presented, have now been abandoned and largely forgotten, or have passed into the mainstream.
‘The shaping and fabrication of every volume is an adventure,’ said its editor R. B. Fishenden, in the jubilee 50th edition of 1956. ‘Each is the outcome of a wonderful co-operative spirit – surely unique in a publishing endeavour – which seems to gain impetus in time.’
Penrose went through a number of phases and sizes from its modest beginnings in 1895 as Process Work Yearbook – Penrose’s Annual, its original title. Lund Humphries printed it from 1897, and acquired the title and took over publication in 1906. It appeared each spring, with gaps only during the war years, and remained profitable well into the 1960s. In its heyday – which lasted several decades – the industry would eagerly await its appearance and make investment decisions largely on what Penrose advised. Each issue would sell around 10,000 copies: Japan took 800, there were agents selling it worldwide, and it was published separately in the US by Hastings House. It attracted significant advertising revenue. Looking at the substantial shelf space the complete run occupies, the boom years are obvious from the sheer size of the books. The final issues are almost half the weight of those in the 1950s and 1960s, and even the name was trimmed to Penrose: they could no longer guarantee its annual appearance.
The rapid growth during the 1960s of weekly and monthly magazines dealing with print, design and graphics ate into Penrose’s near monopoly of information and advice; the economic and industrial disasters of the 1970s – the three-day week, inflation, devaluation of the pound – all conspired to shake the publisher’s confidence in its future.
‘So gradually the circulation fell off and costs increased,’ recalls John Taylor, Penrose’s publications manager in the 1960s, originally hired as assistant to the then 80-year-old Bruno Schindler, a scholarly German émigré. ‘It got to the point where it was not losing a great deal of money, but it was not making it either. But because of this tremendous sentimental affection for it, having been associated with it for 60 odd years, it would have been very difficult for the company to close it or find another home for it.’ But out of the blue Northwood, part of the Thomson organisation, offered to buy the title, and give Lund Humphries a five-year contract to continue printing it. [. . .]