Sampson Low, as an imprint, has existed for over two hundred years. Today it’s still – or again – managed by the Low family, and based just outside London. One newish interest is in publishing small-scale poetry chapbooks, often combining the work of writers and artists. Sphinx editor Charlotte Gann caught up with Alban Low on email. 

Alban Low, illustrating and inspecting the first Sampson Low chapbook back in 2015 (Photos by Bill Mudge)

Alban Low, illustrating and inspecting the first Sampson Low chapbook back in 2015

(Photos by Bill Mudge)

Hello, Alban. I see from your website that Sampson Low, as a publishing house, started way back in 1793 and has been in the Low family, through various incarnations ever since. It’s had a colourful history – do you want to share a couple of highlights?

Like many readers I grew up with Sampson Low publications on my book shelves from Noddy to Jules Verne to sporting heroes like Dennis Compton. I’d heard the family stories about famous authors and how eventually the company slipped through our fingers and fell into the hands of the British Printing Corporation and Robert Maxwell.

The most tangible link to the past was a large selection of two hundred letters in two ancient volumes. There were letters from such great Victorian writers as: Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Anthony Trollope, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, Richard Blackmore, John Clare, Mrs Gaskell and Lady Noel Byron. There were several from eminent politicians of that era too, including W.E. Gladstone, John Bright, Henry Mayhew and Lord Shaftesbury. 

My personal favourites were from Florence Nightingale, the Duke of Wellington and Robert E. Lee – people I learnt about at school. I didn't realise it then but the letters I read from John Everett Millais and George Cruikshank proved to be an inspiration for my future profession.

I believe you’ve only recently started publishing chapbooks? When was this? And what made you decide to branch into them? 

We started publishing chapbooks in 2015 after I had a chance meeting with a pamphlet enthusiast in the South of France. I’d organised a map exhibition called ‘On The Map’ at the Sunbury Embroidery Gallery earlier that year: I’d commissioned twelve artists to produce a set of colour maps that could be used and enjoyed by the public. I realised that, if we gave these A5 maps an extra fold with a couple of staples and a trim or two, we could produce small books that could give artists a whole new platform. 

In 2010, I’d co-founded an artists’ group called CollectConnect which, over the years, has exhibited the work of more than a thousand artists – and we’re always on the lookout for new ways to reach new audiences. So the idea, format and authors were all ready but I didn't know how to bring them together.

Inspiration strikes at strange times, as I'm sure you know, and I was sharing a glass of Blanquette in my adopted home of Limoux when the gentleman next to me told me about the history of chapbooks and offered to fund our first ten books. You don't say no to an offer like that, nor to another glass of wine to celebrate.