John Curwen started his printing business in Plaistow in east London in 1863 to print music. It was incorporated as J. Curwen & Sons in 1897. Harold Curwen (1885-1949) took over the business in 1914 and began a specialism in well-designed jobbing work. After 1920, Oliver Simon (1895-1956) extended Curwen's reputation for good typography and design to book-work. The Press employed many important artists and designers, notable among whom were Claud Lovat Fraser, Barnett Freedman, Edward Bawden, Albert Rutherston, and Edward Ardizzone.
In 1933 the Curwen Press Ltd separated from J. Curwen & Sons (which continued as a music publisher until 1969). The original directors were Harold Curwen, and Oliver and his brother Herbert Simon (1898-1974). The business suffered extensive war damage.
Owing partly to its costs in London, the business was never highly profitable. In 1964 it merged with M. R. Harley & Co. and in 1965 Basil Harley became managing director. Under him, Curwen developed its business in high-quality colour lithography, notably for natural-history illustration. Letterpress work gradually declined in importance. Curwen Prints Ltd, a workshop for the production of artists' prints, became a separate business in 1968.
In the 1970s various plans were considered, but never carried out, for the Curwen Press to be taken over by other printers. A merger of the letterpress department with the John Roberts Press was likewise planned then abandoned in 1981. The printers' strike of 1980 inflicted a final blow to the firm's financial position. It had a brief respite under a new owner Harry Myers in 1982, but finally went into receivership in 1984.
The collection contains papers of the company and personal papers of Oliver Simon, Herbert Simon, and Basil Harley. These include correspondence; papers relating to specific printing jobs and to types, paper, printing processes, etc.; business papers; and specimens of printing.
Papers of Oliver Simon were acquired about 1970. These included, besides his own correspondence and records of the Fleuron and Signature, much printed matter from the Press.
The Curwen Press's own archives, not apparently systematically preserved, were acquired in 1984.
Papers of Herbert Simon were acquired from his son Robert in 1984. Besides his own papers and a further collection of Press ephemera, these included some original drawings for patterned papers.
Papers of Basil Harley were purchased in 1988.
Some other items were acquired from unidentified sources and from the clearance of the Curwen Press works.