The Imperial Court’s purveyor: Alexander Levenson’s printing house

January 24
Culture

In 1881, Alexander Levenson, the son of a well-known doctor, established a small private printing house in his father’s home in Rakhmanovsky Pereulok. It had one printing press and one manual printer. This was not enough to cope with numerous orders. The printing house therefore turned out commercial invoices and visiting cards, for the most part, and sometimes printed books, including the first collection of Anton Chekhov’s short stories called The Tales of Melpomene. 

In 1887, Levenson decided to set up a shareholding company. Its shareholders included book publisher and patron of the arts Joseph Knebel who owned a book shop with subsidiaries and a paid library. Levenson’s printing house was named Levenson & Co Trading House Ltd. In 1890, it was renamed the Levenson Printing Company and started turning out inexpensive posters and icon reproductions. It also printed such magazines as Cheap Library, News of Foreign Literature and Family, and Levenson himself edited them.

Joseph Knebel. The early 1900s

Purveyor of His Majesty’s Imperial Court

The printing house continued to grow and develop. In 1895, it was awarded a silver medal from the national Ministry of Finance. A year later, its management received a gold medal at an exhibition in Paris marking the 100th anniversary of the lithographic production process.

In 1896, the printing house received an order for the coronation of Emperor Nicholas II. This ushered in a new period in the company’s history. The Imperial Court Ministry’s officials were satisfied with the quality of work and officially named the printing house the Purveyor of his Imperial Majesty’s Court.

The Levenson printing house received three awards at the 1900 Paris Exposition. The workshop manager received a gold medal, the lithography shop manager received a silver medal, and the bronze medal went to his assistant.

The printing house also turned out lavishly decorated and very expensive gift books. Production continued to expand, and the company received order after order. Soon, Levenson decided to expand the facilities that could no longer keep up with the numerous orders. Company assets made it possible to purchase a land plot for the company’s building in Tryokhprudny Pereulok.

The cover of an issue of The History of Russian Art, a publication by Igor Grabar. Joseph Knebel Publishers, 1910-1916

The house that Shekhtel built

Fyodor Shekhtel, a relatively little-known architect, was commissioned to design the building. Shekhtel ranked among the best vignette-makers and theatre artists. The printing house’s managers decided that the appearance of their products played a major role in their success, and that the building should be just as imposing.

The building was completed in 1900 and featured the Moderne architectural style that was just becoming popular at that time. It resembled a Gothic castle, and stood out among other buildings in the area and became very popular overnight. The building consisted of an administrative building that resembled a castle and a four-storey production wing reaching deep inside the land plot. The latter housed the printing, lithographic, binding and numeration shops, the chromolithography shop, as well as gilding, stamping and engraving workshops.

The printing house of the Levenson Company Ltd. in Tryokhprudny Pereulok. Architect Fyodor Shekhtel, 1900

A moulded thistle ornament decorated the corner tower’s base. This plant motif was popular in Lorraine, France. The gates featured replicas of wrought-iron lamps. The design also included pilasters, plasterwork, smooth friezes, decorative stones and bas-reliefs.  

The interiors featured decorative ceiling beams, cast iron columns with capitals, a custom-made parquet floor, and Mettlach tiles. Seen as very prestigious and expensive, the tiles were multi-colour porcelain and featured intricate ornamental images. The tiles were named after Mettlach, Germany, where they were first introduced.

The oak window casements featured brass hardware. A bas-relief with a portrait of Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the modern printing press, decorated one of the halls. Gutenberg’s press was the first with movable type.

Travel guide and first edition of Tsvetayeva’s collected works

In 1910, poet Marina Tsvetayeva paid the company for the first edition of her verses called Evening Album, followed by The Magic Lantern. Joseph Knebel, the company’s main shareholder and head of book publishing, also printed his works here.

Various publications ordered by the Imperial Court remained an important part of operations. Under another contract, the company printed billboards, librettos and programmes for the Moscow Office of Imperial Theatres. Anyone wishing to obtain high-quality copies of ancient Russian manuscripts also contacted the company.

Alexander Levenson who was keen on culture published the Daily Libretto newspaper from 1899. It provided the latest news about theatres, museums, etc. The newspaper was extremely popular with advertisers. The printing house also published special anniversary editions, including The Collected Chronicles and Biographies of the House of the Romanovs. 

The Daily Libretto, 1912

In 1912, the company published a luxurious book about Moscow with pictures and gold bas-relief stamping. The book’s texts were printed in Russian, English and French and occupied three columns on every page. The book was basically an improvised travel guide on the city’s main landmarks and holy places, its residents, and included general information.

The book read in part, “According to the 1912 census, Moscow has a population of 1,617,009, including 879,286 men and 727,723 women … Despite expanding housing construction, occupancy levels remain high and average almost two tenants per room.”

By 1913, the company’s assets totaled about 500,000 roubles. Despite its robust performance, the company’s days were numbered. The printing house was nationalised after the October Revolution of 1917 and was converted into a state-run printing house under the Mospoligraf Trust. This also closed in 1942.

Source: mos.ru

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