A unique collection of books, mezzotints, drawings, and illustrations from the work of seven European and American presses was featured in this exhibition, The Work of Victor and Carolyn Hammer, which ran at the Grolier Club between May and July in 1995. The curator, James Birchfield of the University of Kentucky, brought together books printed and bound by both of the Hammers as well as paintings, mezzotints, drawings, engravings, and sculpture by Victor Hammer.
Victor Hammer was active in Europe before World War II as a painter of portraits and religious scenes. His technique reveals remarkable discipline, and was normally carried out in the medium of egg tempera on panel. Hammer, an Austrian-born artist trained at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, moved to the United States in 1939, teaching first at Wells College, in Aurora, New York, and later at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. In addition to his painting, he worked in the field of the mezzotint, which enjoyed widespread popularity in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Hammer recaptured its methods in the twentieth century.
Victor Hammer's career as a printer illustrates his commitment to techniques from the past which require the complete command of the artist. Hammer designed his own wooden hand press, based on an early Italian example at the Laurentian Library in Florence. He designed his own typefaces, patterned after the uncial letters in medieval calligraphic forms and also cut the punches for this type himself. He set, printed, and bound his books, occasionally illustrating them with engraved decorated initials or portraits. Hammer's choice of texts included the Tindale translation of the Four Gospels into English, a selection of twenty sonnets of Tasso in Italian, and a volume of the Gedichte of Hoelderlin in German. He also published several volumes by the Catholic monk Thomas Merton. Hammer's printing was done with the assistance of several apprentices, including Edgar Kaufman Jr., who later studied with Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1955 Victor Hammer married Carolyn Reading. Together they continued to publish, using Hammer's Stamperia del Santuccio imprint. They also participated in the productions of the Anvil Press, a publishing venture supported by a circle of loyal patrons. Victor Hammer died in Lexington in 1967.
Carolyn Reading began her work as a private press printer in the 1940's with another printer, Amelia Buckley. At their Bur Press, they produced a series of books on themes relating to Kentucky, ranging from biographies to an illustrated architectural monograph. Later, two other friends, Harriet Holladay and Mary Spears, added their talents to the enterprise.
In 1956, Carolyn Hammer founded the King Library Press at the University of Kentucky, where she served as curator of rare books. With the participation of colleagues and student apprentices, the King Library Press began printing books, including work on Victor Hammer's Florentine wooden hand press, after it was given to the university. Over twenty books have been produced at the King Library Press.
The exhibition at the Grolier Club included books and artwork from private collections as well as items from such institutional lenders as the Morgan Library, the Library of Congress, Wells Congress, the Wolfsonian, the University of San Francisco, and the National Portrait Gallery. Accompanying the exhibition was a bibliography of the publications of Victor and Carolyn Hammer containing four illustrations, published by the Anvil Press.