The origins of the Inky Parrot Press lie in the first half of the 1950s when Dennis Hall studied at Chelsea College of Art, followed by the Royal College of Art. He was taught by the painter and illustrator, Edward Bawden. Hall’s contemporaries included Len Deighton, John Norris Wood, the wildlife artist and Sylvia Hall his future wife.
A love of illustration drew Hall into creating the Inky Parrot private press in 1980. He was lecturing in art and design at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes) and proposed the creation of a private press to the college. The ‘powers that be’ thought it should be called the Oxford Polytechnic Press, but thinking that would be dull, Dennis named it the Inky Parrot Press instead, a play on the word Poly.
In the early days it was a collaboration between Hall as artistic publisher and Harry Crook, who was a senior technician at the college and skilled printer. Each brought their expertise to the final product. Binding of the early works was by the students, with printing either by Harry Crook on a Heidelberg press or by Didcot Press.
The Inky Parrot Press approach evolved into lithographic and digital printing, which is unusual, insofar as Private Press generally equates to letterpress and wood engravings. Early Inky Parrot Press books, primarily pre 1999 included linocuts. In fact, there was one attempt at linocut at Oxford Poly when the printer was away. Hall and illustrator Annie Newnham, a mature student, tried printing using lino blocks, but the blocks moved all the time on the press and they ended up with the prints drying in the sunshine on the lawn. That was the first and last time they tried printing linocuts themselves.
All of the signed limited edition books printed by The Inky Parrot Press have concentrated on illustrated books for adults.
"After being demobbed from the army in 1948, I went on to Chelsea School of Art, a pleasant change, and studied Illustration. I have never worked as an illustrator, but it left me with a very strong interest in book illustration. Adult book illustration is now extinct with the exception of the Folio Society and some small presses. Children's book illustration thrives. So books with illustrations have now become collectable antiques."
Dennis also used to sell illustrated books through mail order catalogues. Ronald Searle wrote a letter to him saying how much he liked the catalogues. The correspondence evolved into meeting for lunch at Searle’s house in Haute Provence when Hall and his sister were staying at her sister’s house nearby. At the lunch Searle produced a set of drawings which started the collaboration. From then on he would give sets of drawings to Dennis, who would choose 20 or so to form a book.
One of Hall’s most treasured books is by Searle and is titled My Darling Mrs Mole. It is a collection of sketches that Searle drew during one of the most challenging periods of his life, when the love of his life Monica was undergoing treatment for a rare and aggressive breast cancer. Back in 1969, Ronald would create a painting every time his wife underwent chemotherapy, to lift her spirits. At that time they lived in Paris and planned to move to the South West of France – which is where Ronald and Dennis met for lunch in the 90’s. Monica lived 42 years beyond the terminal prognosis that had been given to her by her doctors. Ronald and Monica were together 50 years until Monica died in July 2011, 5 months ahead of Ronald who died in December of that year.
The book catalogue Dennis created each year was a magnet for illustrators. Frank Martin also approached him through it. He had a house in Dieppe, hence one of the titles he produced for the press, Newhaven – Dieppe: recollections and some history of the town of Dieppe (1996). There are 30 wood engravings by Frank Martin (of which 8 are initial letters) and a linocut cover.
Further collaborations were to follow such as The Wood Engravings of Frank Martin in 1998 and Shadowlands pictures from a silent screen in 2002. The illustrations and commentary are interspersed with comments from Hollywood stars from the golden age such as Lillian Gish “Virgins are the hardest roles to play: Those dear little girls – to make them interesting takes great vitality, but a fallen woman or a vamp! – 75% of your work is already done.”
Annie Newnham had studied at the Royal Academy. After spending time in Hong Kong she came back to the UK and she called and asked if she could attend some of his lectures. Dennis recalls her being “very hardworking, and drew like a dream”. You can see a collection of her work here.
Hall’s background as an artist shines through his work and he gathered a cluster of the leading artists and illustrators around him. In addition to Searle, Martin and Newnham, these included Rigby Graham, John Vernon Lord and John Norris Wood.
John Norris Wood was at RCA with Hall. He used to be called Frogs Wood. Dennis remembers him coming to a life drawing class with a small tin which he opened to reveal a live frog. He also had a turtle compound at home. Len Deighton was also there at the same time. 50 years on Deighton, Wood and Hall were to collaborate on An Alphabet in Praise of Frogs and Toads.
It’s hard to choose a favourite from the Parrot pantheon, but this comes close for the sheer delight in the subjects articulated in the illustrations. It’s Wood’s lifelong love of amphibians, with an introduction by Deighton.
Unusually, Dennis approached John Vernon Lord and they collaborated on a number of books for the Parrot Press. John Vernon Lord said in a talk that Dennis was one of the 4 people who had most influence on his work, giving him the freedom, for the first time, to illustrate as he wished.
When Hall retired in 1985 the polytechnic wouldn’t let him take the Inky Parrot Press name with him. Undeterred the press continued with a clutch of Parrot Press hybrids, including:
- Hanborough Parrot Press 87 to 90
- Previous parrot press 91 to 99
- Pleomorphic Parrot Press - for a book about the Dorset coast
- Ploughman’s Parrot Press - for a book on farm workers
- Pensionable Parrot Press - for a book with Ronald Searle, "we were both pretty ancient"
- Treparrot Press - for a book about Cornwall
- Predatory Parrot - for The Predatory Bite of the Steel Nib, collaborating with Ronald Searle
- Inky Partridge Press - for The Twelve Days of Christmas
However, the Inky Parrot Press was never used again by the college and so in 1999 Hall reclaimed it.
In 2003 there was a branding change of direction with the introduction of the Artist’s Choice Editions. It was a collaboration with Carole Mannheim who was responsible for promotion, publicity and advertising at the Press. Hall, however, retained an affection for the Inky Parrot, and when Mannheim returned to Israel he returned to the Inky Parrot imprint.
Royal Academy of Arts
Most of the Inky Parrot books can be found at the Royal Academy of Arts Library but you need to make an appointment in advance to see them.
As Dennis Hall says, illustrated books for adults have become prized possessions for collectors, and the quality of all the Parrot Press imprints is evidenced by their selection for the Royal Academy.
Most of the deluxe editions created by the Parrot Presses include limited edition signed prints which in themselves are of significant value.
To view more of The Inky Parrot Press, our collection can be viewed here.
Creation of the Inky Parrot Press books starts with the illustrator. For the next article I’ll be talking to a private press founder with a different approach.