A Visit with Ward Ritchie

The Sewanee News, April 1986, p. 31.

By John Bethune

On the western edge of the continent, a few steps from the Pacific, Ward Ritchie, C’28, lives in busy retirement, designing books, writing essays and lectures, and—when he finds the time—printing small books on the antique hand press he keeps in his basement. I visited Ritchie in his Laguna Beach home in late December on a quintessentially Californian day, warm and sunny, with a mild breeze rising from the ocean—precisely the inspiring climate that Ritchie, in one of his lyrical memoirs, has credited for his successful career. “It was just the environment,” he writes, “to foster self-assurance and confidence, and when I recollect the successful careers as doctors, lawyers, and businessmen of most of those with whom I shared my youth in grammar school, I conclude that they too must have shared in my legacy of youthful self-confidence and faith.”

How this Southern Californian came to study at Sewanee illustrates his optimism and spirit of adventure. “When I was a senior in high school,” he explains, “I wanted to go east to school, and I applied to Amherst, Williams, and Yale. But in those days you had to have four years of Latin and Greek to go to those schools, so I couldn’t get into any of them.” After a year at Occidental College, near his South Pasadena home, he transferred to Stanford, where he remained for several terms.

In the winter of 1927 he was invited to spend the summer visiting relatives in the East and “all of a sudden” realized that this was his opportunity to go east to college. Limiting himself to the few schools that, like Stanford, were on the quarter system, Ritchie applied to Cornell, North Carolina, and the University of the South. His interest in Sewanee was piqued when he came across a copy of the Sewanee Review. The Review “had quite a long article about the college, and I was fascinated by it. When spring vacation came I hopped into my little Chrysler and drove back east.”

Ritchie arrived in Sewanee one evening in March and happened to encounter some fraternity brothers, who took him in and showed him the campus the next morning. He liked what he saw: “I was so intrigued that I immediately signed up.” Part of the charm of Sewanee was its difference. “I was a Westerner among Southerners. Their mode of life was completely different from what I had experienced in California.” During the four months he was at Sewanee, he received many letters from his Occidental classmate Lawrence Clark Powell (later the distinguished writer and UCLA librarian), which finally persuaded him to return to Occidental for his senior year.

After graduating from Occidental, Ritchie went on to law school, but his intense love for literature and art made law seem comparatively dull. During this period of dissatisfaction he attended the opening of the Huntington Library, where he came across a case of bindings by Cobden-Sanderson, the turn-of-the-century printer and binder. “I was fascinated by the beautiful work that he did,” Ritchie says. “It seemed to me that this was right in my field.”

Soon thereafter he took some courses in printing at a Los Angeles trade school. “They didn’t know what to do with a college graduate,” he recalls with a laugh, “so they let me create my own curriculum and do what I wanted.” With his characteristic self-confidence, Ritchie went straight to the top for material to print, writing to Carl Sandburg, Archibald Macleish, Marianne Moore, and others for poems. Nearly all of his famous correspondents sent him something to print.

Some months later, he read that the outstanding creator of the modern book was a Frenchman named Francois-Louis Schmied. So, as Ritchie says matter-of-factly, “I naturally decided to go to Paris and work for Schmied—which I did.” After a year of working for Schmied and knocking about Europe, Ritchie returned to California and, after founding the Ward Ritchie Press, embarked on his distinguished career.

In the years since, he has designed many hundreds of books. More than twenty-five them have been selected, as recently as 1982, for inclusion in the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ prestigious Fifty Best Books of the Year. At eighty years of age, Ritchie is still an active book designer, much in demand. The Huntington Library Press relies on him to design most of its publications; currently he is designing centennial histories of South Pasadena and Occidental College.

Ritchie is also a popular lecturer. In October, he lectured on the history of printing in Southern California at the Library of Congress and this spring will give a talk at Whittier College on artists he has known—Rockwell Kent and Paul Landacre among them.

And, he says, “when I get a chance, I work on the hand press downstairs.” Since “retiring”—as he calls it—in 1972 and creating a new imprint, Laguna Verde Imprenta, he has printed twenty-five titles on his 1835 Albion hand press. Ritchie prints only a few copies of each book, which become instant collector’s items. Since twenty-five is a milestone number, he thinks his next hand-press project—when his schedule allows him the time—will be a bibliography of Laguna Verde Imprenta.

The many essays about Ward Ritchie tend to describe him simply as a printer or designer, but his career is not so easily categorized. He has also been a publisher, a scholar and bibliographer, a memoirist, and a poet. Of all these careers, he takes a special delight in the poetic one, to judge by the pleasure with which he shows visitors his Quince, etc. This chapbook, which he printed in 1976, exposes, as the subtitle explains, “the several disguises of Ward Ritchie, poet.” The few collectors who own this pamphlet have the exceedingly rare signatures of James Beattie Pitwood, Davie Dicker, Betsey Ann Bristol, Peter Lum Quince, and Peter Mallory—a strange but resonant assortment of names, and all of them Ward Ritchie’s.

Sewanee is fortunate in having a copy of Quince, etc., along with nearly 150 other Ward Ritchie books donated by the generous Frank Gilliam, C’46. Such a collection is an eloquent tribute to this master of the book arts who, nearly six eventful decades later, still remembers his brief stay in Sewanee as one of the highlights of his life.

John Bethune, an assistant professor of English, is teaching this semester in the College. He is also a free-lance writer and has an interest in book collecting.