Victor Hammer (Wells Years 1939-1948)

June 8, 2015


Victor Hammer was an artist of remarkable talents and skills: although his primary métier was painting, usually in tempera on gesso panels, and chiefly portraiture, he was also a master of the wood-cut, the mezzotint, and metal engraving. As a master artisan he crafted furniture, including two clavichords (prototypes for kits, encouraged by Albert Schweitzer, but never marketed), and worked in gold and other metals. He sculpted the bronze memorial bust and marble inscription for his friend the Austrian writer and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal for the Festspielhaus in Salzburg. As an architect he built and appointed a small stone chapel in Alsace. Victor also carved letters and sculpted in stone. Victor was master of the book arts: printing, bookbinding, calligraphy, and typography, cutting the punches for five type-faces during his long life. Victor has also left a legacy of writings about art and architecture that are keenly perceptive and persuasive of his aesthetic vision. In short, Victor Hammer was a master craftsman of every medium in which he chose to work, and an artist of unique vision and rare abilities.
Before moving from Vienna, where he was born, and where he had studied painting at the Academy of Art, to Florence in the winter of 1922, Victor Hammer supervised the cutting of the punches for an uncial type-face from letters he had written in his uncial hand. Victor did not like this type, known as Hammer Unziale, and never used it. After meeting Rudolf Koch, Director of the Klingspor Foundry in 1923, Koch’s son Paul was sent to Florence to work with Victor on a second type. By 1928 the new uncial was cast, and a wooden common press was constructed, modeled after one in the Bibliotecca Laurenziana in Florence. In the spring of 1929 John Milton’s Samson Agonistes – a title suggested by Bernard Berenson, a neighbor of Victor’s in Florence – was in the planning stages, and it was printed in 1930-31, on paper made by the Magnani Mills in Pescia, under Victor’s imprint, the Stamperia del Santuccio. The second typeface became the Samson Uncial, and with its use, the character of the press was established. Seven more books followed, and a third uncial face known as the Pindar Uncial.
In 1937, after spending some time on portrait commissions in London, Paris and the United States, after building the small chapel in Alsace for his patrons Alexandre and Antoinette de Grunelius, and directing an art school in Western Austria, where another title was printed, Victor Hammer returned to Vienna as a professor at the Academy of Art, set up his press and printed two more books. By 1938, Germany had annexed Austria and Victor, feeling he could not freely practice his arts and crafts under the yoke of Nazi oppression, and additionally fearing he would be co-opted as a propaganda artist, planned to leave.

With the help of three friends, Alexandre de Grunelius, Albrecht von Bernstorff and Nicolas Nabokov, it was arranged that he come to teach in the Art Department at Wells College in Aurora, New York. Leaving his types and presses in Vienna, the Hammers arrived in Aurora in the autumn of 1939. The college obtained a press for Victor’s use, and established The Wells College Press. Jacob Hammer often served as pressman, and several students were involved with its publications, including Jean Gleason, Elizabeth Wallace, Barbara Sayre, and Kay Wilson. The Wells College Press imprint appeared on a number of books, including A Satire Against Mankind and Other Poems by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, printed for James Laughlin’s New Directions; Le Mystère de la Charité de Jeanne d’Arc by Charles Péguy for Kurt & Helen Wolff’s Pantheon Books; The Three-Cornered Hat by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón for Herbert Bittner; and The Clouds by William Carlos Williams, printed jointly with Harry Duncan and Paul Williams at their Cummington Press. The Wells College Press also printed the Aurora and Mesa series, edited and published by Herbert Steiner. A second press, The Hammer Press, was set up by Victor and his son Jacob Hammer in their home. Books issued from that press included some of Victor’s own essays: A Dialogue on the Uncial, A Theory of Architecture, and Type Design in relation to language and the Art of the Punch Cutter. These presses used the Spiral type given to Victor by Joseph Blumenthal, and supplemented by the purchase of more of Blumenthal’s house font, marketed under the name of Emerson.

In 1940-41 Victor began to cut a new type. Some twenty-five letters for a trial typeface were cast by the American Typefounders, but the project was abandoned by the foundry as the typeface was deemed unmarketable. Over fifty years later, Wells College commissioned Theo Rehak of the Dale Guild Type Foundry to cast this type for the re-establishment of The Wells College press in 1993. This typeface is known as the Aurora Uncial. At this time Victor also cut punches for his American Uncial, and with the help of R. Hunter Middleton and other members of the Society of Typographic Arts, it was cast in 1945 by Charles Nussbaumer of Chicago. The first use of this type was a keepsake printed for the Society of Typographic Arts: A Dialogue on the Uncial (1946). Once again with his own types, Victor began to set and print his edition of a selection of Hölderlin’s poems. For the title page he engraved on brass a likeness of the poet, after F. C. Heimer’s pastel of 1792, and had printed the title page and two other signatures on a domestic paper when he learned that the Magnani Mills could again make his paper, first used in Florence for Samson Agonistes. In order that this book should be printed on the same paper which he had used for others in the Opus series, he decided to wait for the shipment of paper from Pescia. In the winter of 1948, the Renaissance Society held an exhibit of Victor’s paintings and books in Chicago, and here he was introduced by R. Hunter Middleton to two friends from Kentucky, Raymond McLain, president of Transylvania University, and Joseph C. Graves, Sr. a trustee of the College. Following this meeting, Victor was asked to come as Artist-in-Residence to Transylvania, and to set up his press there. He accepted the offer, and moved from Aurora to Lexington in September, 1948. Setting up his press in the Bluegrass of Kentucky, he printed again under the imprint of the Stamperia del Santuccio, shared with his wife Carolyn after the 1958 printing of Cassiodorus’ Institutiones divinarum lectionum. The Lexington years were productive, and Victor continued to practice his book and painterly arts, cutting one last typeface, the Andromaque Uncial. During the early months of 1967 Victor Hammer wrote and set in type his last book, Fragments for C. R. H., which Carolyn finished printing, and had bound a few copies before Victor’s death in July of that year.

Dr. Paul Evans Holbrook
The King Library Press
Bibliographer to the Estate of Victor Hammer

Lexington, Kentucky
April 2003

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