The son of a coachbuilder, Emery Walker was born in Paddington, London in 1851.
Unlike his friend William Morris, Walker came from a working class family and was forced to leave school and start earning at the age of 13. However, Walker always continued a programme of self-education. The quality of his intellect is evidenced by his ability to write for readerships whose formal education would have undoubtedly far outstripped his own, and by his association with organisations such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the Society of Antiquaries.
After several miserable years as an apprentice draper he joined the Chiswick-based Typographic Etching Company in 1873. It was a period of new developments in printed reproduction of illustrations and photographs as well as in typesetting. The mainstay of their business was producing blocks for printing line illustrations using photographic negatives.
In 1886, in his mid 30s, Walker founded his own company, which built a reputation for expertise in photogravure, a technique that could reproduce photographic tones. His firm specialised in cutting-edge techniques for reproducing works of art and photographs as book illustrations and helped to revolutionise the book making industry.
A later Walker letterhead described his company’s activities as ‘process and general engravers, draughtsmen, map constructors, copperplate printers, collotypers and photographers of works of art’ - just some of the processes in which he was expert.
Walker became a father-figure and fount of all wisdom to typographers all over the world – C.J. St John Hornby in the UK, Bruce Rogers and D.B. Updike in the US, and Harry Kessler, the Anglo-German publisher and political activist who was involved with the influential Art Nouveau-era magazine Pan.
Colin Franklin, in Emery Walker; Some Light on His Theories of Printing describes Walker as being:
‘at the centre of an art, though no artist – its teacher, if not the founder’
‘(Walker) carried everywhere with him an atmosphere of genial friendliness.’
J.H. Mason (Doves Press chief compositor)
‘an almost reprehensibly amiable man.’
George Bernard Shaw
‘the universal Samaritan whose services were laid on, like water, but required no rate payment.’
Philip Webb (architect)
Although the quotes above are flattering, the ability to run successful businesses, and work constantly on committees, requires at least a quiet determination to get one’s way. Walker's reputation for amiability doesn’t entirely square with his perfectionism and extremely steely counter-insurgency when his business partner T.J. Cobden-Sanderson wanted to close down the Doves Press. Walker pursued legal redress even after Cobden-Sanderson's death in 1922.
Lawrence of Arabia's translation of The Odyssey of Homer was designed by the American typographer Bruce Rogers and printed by Emery Walker in 1932. At the beginning of each book is a roundel in a classical Greek design, printed on gold leaf. The Emery Walker-Bruce Rogers Odyssey is now regarded as one of the most beautiful fine-press books of the twentieth century.
Lawrence wrote to Dorothy Walker after her father’s death: