ENGLISH artist Nicholas Parry tells a revealing story about a London book dealer's reaction to a book he and his wife Mary made in 1987. ``Birds Nesting'' is a large-format, slim volume bound (by Mary Parry) in a decorative ``English Bird fabric ca. 1800,'' as the colophon states. Its text is a previously lost poem by 19th-century Northamptonshire poet John Clare, edited by Clare scholar Eric Robinson of Boston, Mass.
The London dealer in question knew and liked the Tern Press's highly individual kind of books. But this dealer also happened to be an expert on birds and books about birds. Before he saw ``Birds Nesting'' he was confident he could sell the entire edition - some 84 copies. But when he looked through it, Nicholas says, ``his jaw dropped.'' Mary offers that he was probably expecting zoologically accurate depictions of birds. But, says Nicholas, ``my favorite bird artist is Braque!''
That French 20th-century artist was not at all concerned with ornithology. Nor is Nicholas Parry in his many colored prints of etched, cut, and engraved linoleum in ``Birds Nesting'': He is clearly after the feel - more than strict observation - of the birds he has suggested in the subtle variations of silver-greens, misty grays, tree-branch browns, downy yellows, and sudden flashes of red or orange in his cuts.
With justice the prints have been described by Joshua Heller, who deals in rare books (including the Parrys') in Washington, D.C., as ``hauntingly beautiful.'' Although Mr. Heller can be critical of some Tern Press books, he calls this one ``a watershed,'' a ``coming of age'' as the 50th title produced by the Parrys' press since its founding in 1973.
It was the woman in charge of the antiquarian books department of the London shop who managed to save the day. She looked at ``Birds Nesting'' and said: ``Oh, it's all right - it's art, it isn't birds!''
``Art'' is what the Parrys and their two-person press are all about. They feel that this, above all, is what makes their efforts different from the 200-odd other private presses in Britain. The Parrys aim to ``bring the book up to the realm of art, I suppose,'' says Nicholas. Art, he feels, has to do with a more finely tuned balance of eye, soul, nature, and hands than ``craft,'' which usually emphasizes ``materials and techniques.''
Visiting and talking with the Parrys in their home-cum-workplace here, one is soon aware that what this unpretentious but determined couple is managing to pull off is something much more than a ``cottage industry.''
Their house goes back 300 years at least, is decorated (not without significance) with Morris-design wallpapers and, in the kitchen, curtains and a tablecloth in an oddly familiar ``English Bird fabric ca. 1800'' (left over after the book).
The Parrys combine extreme seriousness and ambition in their books with a love and enjoyment that, at best, communicates itself with fresh directness. People buy their books, the Parrys reckon, because they find them ``friendly'' - or so some have said. But Nicholas also maintains he would ``like to think people buy our books for the risk.'' Risk is finally what he feels differentiates between craft and art.
Many private presses settle for a formula, for a type face or a paper they can master and then use over and over again. Such automatic perfection is not the Parrys' way: One critic, Roderick Cave, has faulted their earlier books for ``roughness'' and for being too ``hand crafted.''
The Parrys do not believe this is a necessarily a negative thing, though. They say they have never once repeated themselves: Every book is different, worked out from scratch. This can lead to a certain amount of ``mess.'' Their subjects range from the gospels (in unfamiliar versions) and verses from the psalms (an ongoing, five-book project), to early English verse; from modern poets to translated Anglo-Saxon writings to short essays by 19th-century nature-writer Richard Jefferies.
With each new book - and both husband and wife choose the text - they try to find the form and texture and techniques best suited to it. ``In the past,'' Mr. Parry muses, ``two or three people have accused us of having ambitions beyond our abilities. Which is fair enough - but....'' That qualifying ``but'' has to do with ``art'' versus ``craft,'' in his mind. ``Every time, you should take a chance, shouldn't you?'' Parry asks rhetorically.
He displays a host of drawings and ideas in a sketchbook - things he has tossed around in his mind: echoes of Michelangelo, some of them, figures in action - background and preparatory thinking for his current project, the 5th-century ``Taliesin.'' He is urgent to get this book ready for the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. ``At this moment, it's all risk.'' That word again.
BOTH the Parrys were artists before they took up the cause of the book. Mary is a trained lithographer, and her previous work in dress design has provided her with some fresh ideas, and materials, for clothing books - tailor's canvas, for instance, for binding.
The originality of the Tern Press books certainly comes in part from the Parrys' not having had previous experience of making books: They have broken rules. Joshua Heller believes they ``purposely live on the fringes of the private press movement - and there's a lot of it going on now - in England,'' and he praises Nicholas Parry's determined streak of originality: ``He follows his muse.''
Mr. Parry enjoys the whole idea of a book's privacy. On a more commercial note, he also points out that a buyer can purchase 20 original prints, all hand printed, in the pages of a Tern Press book for a price that is actually less than the cost of any one of those prints framed separately on a gallery wall. Books also very effectively preserve the fresh colors of their art work.
There is a market for such books, even if it is a slow one. The Parrys don't often now deliver their books by tandem bicycle as they used to. When they started, they thought they would have to do without a car. Still, running their press full-time is a cliff-hanging business, financially. In Britain, unlike the United States, there is nothing much available in terms of grants or prize money to support private presses.
Heller has sold some of their books to a number of leading libraries in the United States. But he says, ``I can't sell their books from the catalog. I've always got to show the books, introduce them, and then people buy them and become absolute fans.'' This accurately shows that the Tern Press books are things of texture, of unreproducible color, of form and feel that need to be experienced first-hand. Heller is convinced that ``down the line, in 50 years' time, they will be recognized, in the revival of the artist's book in England as being something that is uniquely the Parrys'.''