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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. 

Currently the company’s run by your father George? Is that right? On the website, he’s quoted as talking about launching out ‘with confident creativity into the internet era’. How do you use the internet to help further business?

My father George was the Editor of Education Magazine (published by Longmans) for many years. He worked in Lamb's Conduit Street where, two hundred years before, in that very road, his forebears had established a bookshop and library….

So, when Robert Maxwell died in 1991, he was well placed to rejuvenate the family firm. Sampson Low is now in the hands of myself and my three brothers: Sampson, Joshua and Jacob.

In recent years, I’ve taken the company forward by publishing the work of creative people I’ve encountered in my life as an artist. My father had great vision to see that the internet would play an important role for us – through the connections it allows us with artists all over the world, to the affordable printing we’re able to take advantage of and the shop window it provides for our publications. 

Do you publish much poetry? And only chapbooks, or full collections/ anthologies too? What got you interested?Photo shows eight chapbooks laid flat on a table. It is taken from above and looks down on the head and hands of the editor (looks like Alban Low) proofreading one of the covers.

Our poetry publications are all chapbooks. For Sampson Low, the chapbooks and poetry go hand in hand: it feels like they’re made for one another. Our first two were poetry based and, since then, we’ve produced eight mixed-media and four single-poem ones.

The format’s perfect for much of the pithy written work that I personally like. Our image-led chapbooks also complement short pieces of poetic text, and our authors seem to have enjoyed expressing themselves within these confines.

Villiers Path: Scalloped Time
seems to be your most recent chapbook (at time of writing): ‘Poetry and photography from Lucy Furlong’. What’s this one all about?

Lucy Furlong is a local poet who is active within the creative community of Seething Wells. Her poetry and photography describes local environments – so you can physically walk and explore the place, and its history and culture, in tandem with the work.

Villiers Path: Scalloped Time is about a narrow path in Surbiton and also about the beautiful young Lord Francis Villiers, killed there in battle in 1648.

Sampson Low is based in Hampton Hill on the outskirts of London and we’re only a cycle ride away from the State of Seething’s headquarters in Surbiton. We’ve published a few Seething chapbooks including Pasta Prose – compositions created using Alphabetti Spaghetti – and our legendary Glovewatch, which documented that whole world of single gloves lost over the period of December and January! 

Are all your chapbooks combining art and words? What’s the reason?

No, we have no set formula: the authors/artists are given the freedom to work as they wish. I travel into London frequently from the suburbs and often think that one of our chapbooks could be enjoyed during that twenty to thirty-minute journey.

I like the idea of it then being passed on to someone else, or stowed away in a pocket. Or else added, of course, to a chapbook collection. 

All your pamphlets so far have been, I think, A6 and 16 pp? Why this format?

We’ve published thirty chapbooks so far in this format and have twenty or so more currently in the pipeline.

It’s been fruitful both artistically and in terms of sales. True to the chapbook tradition, we’re a cottage industry. We receive the double-sided A3 sheets here at Sampson Low HQ in their flat form, and then fold, staple and trim them before sending them to the author and buyers through our website and other booksellers (Amazon, Waterstones etc).

Financially, it’s liberating for both the authors and us as publishers that the costs are low. This gives the artists the freedom to express themselves, take risks and get a return on their books sometimes as soon as 24 hours after a chapbook release.

So, your small-format, limited-print-run approach keeps the costs down? But the chapbooks are also four-colour? Do they currently pay for themselves? Or is the chapbook/ poetry arm subsidised by the books Sampson Low also publishes?

Quite the opposite. The chapbooks support themselves and are the most profitable part of our business at the moment. Nowadays it makes little difference to price whether you’re printing in one colour or four, so why not open up this opportunity to a new generation of creatives?

We enter into a partnership with our authors and often share the cost of printing and the stock. Both we and the authors sell the chapbooks, often on the same platforms and websites, but we work together to reach out to audiences.

The ISBN is the greatest gift we can give our authors: it’s the gateway to international markets and selling for free on the internet.

What’s ‘Poetry WTF?!’ all about? (I mean, I could hazard a guess…;-)) Editor Maartens Lourens is quoted ‘Poetry is fantastic, but in recent years it has disappeared up its own arse… ’ Instead, he prescribes collaging work? Have I understood this right? And are you planning more? Is this a series?

In the first year of chapbook production for Sampson Low I took on the roles of editor, publisher and occasional illustrator. I couldn't keep up with demand and so, in the last six months, we’ve installed several editors who are each compiling their own series: 

  • Francesca Albini's (Dreamtime) publications are whimsical and fantastical;
  • Maartens Lourens' (Poetry WTF?!) are edgy, contemporary and conceptual;
  • Lucy Furlong's (Seethingography) and Seething chapbooks have a geographic twist;
  • Kevin Acott's have travel and journeys at their heart;
  • Robert Good is working on a series of chapbooks about collections;
  • And finally (for now!) Debbie Chessell is currently publishing a series on the theme of Confronting Rape Culture.

I pick up the rest because I’m a magpie of an artist, working across many fields, from fine art to graphics, films to illustration and with occasional forays into performance and conceptual art. I think of publishing as an art form in itself and that’s why we support editors with vision like Maartens Lourens wherever he should choose to go next.

Maartens has got some wonderful work on his Poetry WTF?! website – really exciting and inspiring examples of the kind of poetry he likes. Why not take a look? And also check out Submissions here.

Ah, submissions… What is your submissions policy? How do you go about finding and choosing people (poets) to work with and publish? What kind of editorial process do you/ they then go through?

I’ve been really fortunate to get to know the work of more than a thousand artists through the six years of CollectConnect. At Sampson Low, we’ve published several (non-chapbook) books with CollectConnect – all achieved through an open call for artists and often with a completely inclusive, uncurated approach. We don’t mind doing work that’s different.

One example, Dwell (edited by Dean Reddick) is a book of nets that can be cut out and constructed as 3-dimensional forms. To launch the book we built all the nets and exhibited them on the streets of London during the winter of 2015. 

We’re committed to continuing to offer public opportunities like this to artists and poets, as well as working on smaller, quieter projects. If someone has an idea, we’re open to hearing it…

The Seethingographer  is a great name for a journal – is that what it’s planned to be? But you have to live in Seething, Surbiton, to contribute!? (Is there any poetry?)

The State of Seething is a state as in mind, not as in place. So everyone or anyone can be part of Seething. It’s a creative force: a community initiative that also fits together with much of what we do at Sampson Low.

The Seethingographer is packed full of poetry, and anyone can get involved. You can submit poetry here, or attend one of their writing meetings at the Museum of Futures in Surbiton. There's another Seethingographer just around the corner so expect more walking-based poetry, art and photography in chapbook form soon…

Do you have live events too? Tell us a little about them…

We’ve launched books in a variety of interesting ways. Freedbook was our first ever book and a group of authors visited every library in the Books for London network during an epic six-hour tramp across the capital in 2012.

When we launched the Cambridge Blue Plaque Walk map, as part of the Art Language Location Festival, we made a public appeal on BBC radio for everyday heroes and made our very own Blue Plaques in magnetic form. We walked the route along the map and posted our little plaques along the way!

Other events have included:

  • the book launch for A Life of Endings in the Gordon Museum of Pathology, with live poetry and music, and watched over by an audience of 8,000 specimens in glass jars;
  • the Resilience chapbook, launched on International Nurses Day;
  • and our Relationship Map exhibited at Middlesex University during Mental Health Awareness Week.

Over these weeks just now we're launching all five of our Confronting Rape Culture chapbooks at the Museum of Futures during a contemporary art exhibition showing work from over forty international artists. The event includes film, performance, workshops, writing, painting, sculpture and installation, intended to start a broad and in-depth conversation. 

Thanks, Alban, for this extraordinary overview. And all the very best with all of it!
Debbie Chessell, Confronting Rape Culture editor, with Sampson Low's original teapot. (‘We always brew a pot when we sign a new author or editor!’)
Debbie Chessell, Confronting Rape Culture editor, with Sampson Low's original teapot. (‘We always brew a pot when we sign a new author or editor!’)