The British poet Nancy Cunard founded the Hours Press in 1928 in Normandy, moving it to Paris in 1929. In its almost four-year run, the press published twenty-four titles, including books by Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, Laura Riding and Robert Graves. The Hours specialised in fine limited editions in a variety of bindings, usually signed by their authors. While Cunard’s initial aim in starting the press had been to focus on contemporary poetry, she ended up publishing a variety of works. As she explained, “my own idea of printing solely unpublished contemporary poetry receded when Norman Douglas, Arthur Symons and Richard Aldington all offered me works of theirs.”[i] But the Hours Press also published new voices. It printed Samuel Beckett’s first book, Whoroscope, in 1930, after he won an anonymous poetry competition set up by Cunard and Richard Aldington. Cunard’s association with the surrealist circle during the late 1920s influenced the themes and design of the Hours Press books,[ii] and she commissioned several artists, including Man Ray and Yves Tanguy, to illustrate her books.
Nancy Cunard was born in 1896 in Nevil Holt, Leicestershire and died in 1965 in Paris. Cunard started her career as a poet. Her first collection, Outlaws, was published by Elkin Matthews in 1921. In 1923, Hodder & Stoughton published Sublunary, in which Cunard drew inspiration from her travels around Europe, and in 1925 the Hogarth Press published her long poem Parallax. From the early 1930s onwards she embraced the civil rights cause, and she is today perhaps best known as the editor of Negro: An Anthology (Wishart & Co, 1934), a collection of articles, poems, art works and music scores exploring the culture of the African diaspora. Her varied writing career included reporting for the Manchester Guardian chronicling the mass exile of Spanish Republicans to France in 1939.
Cunard started the Hours Press from her house in Réanville, Normandy in 1928. Like many other exiled British and American writers in continental Europe, she decided to set up a publishing house, joining the group of Anglophone small presses in France which included Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions and Henry and Caresse Crosby’s Black Sun Press. She bought her Mathieu hand press from William Bird, the editor of the Three Mountains Press, who had published Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford and William Carlos Williams, and who supervised its installation at her house in Réanville. Cunard wrote a memoir of her time as a publisher, These Were the Hours, a work that chronicles the production of each of the Hours publications. Written in 1963 and published posthumously in an edition by Hugh Ford, the book is an interesting record of a modernist private press abroad, recording the difficulties of printing in rural France with unreliable electricity and assistants who did not speak English.
From its beginnings in Normandy, the Hours Press had a distinguished group of writers and artists as helpers and collaborators. The first of these was Louis Aragon, who helped Cunard set up the press at her house in Réanville and who hand-set his own translation of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, the first rendering of Carroll’s nonsense poem into French. After Cunard started a relationship with the African American jazz pianist and composer Henry Crowder, he also became involved in the running of the press, as he describes in his memoir As Wonderful as All That: Henry Crowder’s Memoir of His Affair with Nancy Cunard 1928-1935 (1987). The Hours published a book of songs by Crowder, Henry Music, with poems inspired in Crowder’s compositions by Richard Aldington, Harold Acton, Walter Lowenfels, Samuel Beckett and Cunard, and covers with a photomontage by Man Ray. It was through her relationship with Crowder that Cunard became aware of the struggle for racial equality in America, and began her involvement as an activist.
The Hours published poetry collections by Ezra Pound (printing in 1930 the first rendering of the collected Cantos, A Draft of XXX Cantos), Laura Riding, Robert Graves, Roy Campbell, Richard Aldington, and Brian Howard, a catalogue of the paintings of Eugene McCown, an essay by Havelock Ellis, and George Moore’s Peronnick the Fool. After the publication of Whoroscope, Samuel Beckett continued to collaborate in literary projects with Cunard for several years. He translated most of the French contributions for her anthology, Negro (1934).
At the end of 1929 Cunard moved the Hours Press to a small shop on rue Guénégaud, close to the Galerie surréaliste. The shop displayed works by Dalí, Man Ray and Miró, as well as Cunard’s own collection of African, American and Oceanic art. In 1930 she commissioned several avant-garde artists to create designs and illustrations for the covers. The names included Man Ray, John Banting, who designed the cover of God Save the King by Brian Howard; and Len Lye, whose photographic work illustrated the covers of three collections of poems by Laura Riding and Robert Graves.
As she became progressively more involved in the preparation of the anthology Negro, Cunard asked Wyn Henderson to manage the Hours Press. She had been the managing director of the short-lived Aquila press until its closure in 1930, and had published a book of poems by Cunard with a cover designed by Eliott Seabrooke, Poems (Two) 1925 (1930). Henderson was in charge of publishing the last Hours Press books, including Richard Aldington’s Last Straws, and Havelock Ellis’s essay The Revaluation of Obscenity.
Archives and Papers
Papers of Nancy Cunard at the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas at Austin):
Cunard, Nancy. These were the hours: Memories of my Hours Press, Réanville and Paris, 1928-1931, ed. By Hugh Ford (Carbondale ; Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), p. 70.