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Family heirloom inspires Petaluma card company

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When Crispin Clarke’s grandfather, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, presented his grandson with a Victorian-era book of illustrated Shakespeare plays, it was thought that he was merely passing down a treasured family heirloom. Neither could have predicted that, years later, the book would inspire a line of greeting cards literally taken from the pages of that now 145-year-old volume of plays.

Earlier this year, Clarke founded ShakesPrints, a collaboration with Petaluma designer Betsy Ehlen Hall. Now, the fledgling company has produced its first series of high-end Shakespeare-themed cards and posters, using illustrations carefully removed and reproduced from the ornate chromolithographs in the book.

“The book was hand-made by a publisher who once created books for Queen Victoria,” Clarke said, carefully unwrapping it from a large piece of silk cloth, and displaying the elaborately decorated tome proudly. “My grandfather passed away a few years ago, at the age of 93, but he grew up in Wales, in a small town called Hay on Wye, which is known for its love of books. He loved Shakespeare. He had this book in his possession for something like 40 or 50 years, till he finally bequeathed it to me, as the eldest grandson.”

At the time, Clarke was living in Taos, New Mexico, where he co-founded a health and technology company. Like his grandfather, Clarke has always loved Shakespeare, and when he received the book, which was missing its spine, he originally set out to have the valuable inheritance restored, engaging the services of a book-repair specialist in San Francisco.

“To me, the best thing about the book was the illustrations, which are just exquisite,” Clarke said. “So I carefully extracted the original pages from the book, intending to have had them duplicated.”

Using ultra-high-resolution scanning technology, the 21 separate illustrations - half of them in color, half in black-and-white – were each scanned into large digital files. The originals took months each to print, using 1800s printing technology, Clarke said, while the copies took one full hour each to scan.

“That was a big process, and it had to be very carefully done,” said Clarke. “The original purpose of the project wasn’t to make cards and posters. It was just to restore my grandfather’s book, and then to make a copy of each illustration so I could have them framed.”

Instead, Clarke said he ultimately had the originals framed, and the book-repair specialist used the reproductions when putting the book back together. Afterwards, Clarke was left with the digital files.

“The scans were so interesting,” he said, flipping through illustrations - Juliet on the balcony being courted by a mustachioed Romeo, a surprisingly plump Hamlet clutching a book, and the lesser-known Timon of Athens, refusing visitors at the mouth of his hermit’s cave. “The colors in these illustrations are so luxurious, and the artwork is so stunning, I decided to find a way to share them with the world.”

That’s when Betsy Ehlen Hall joined the effort.

“When Crispin initially approached me, the project was to design a poster for his father’s birthday, one that would have all of the images form the book on it,” recalled Hall. “He was looking for a graphic designer to help with that. And we just eventually realized that his skill set and mine complemented each other really well. When he started talking about maybe turning all of this Shakespeare stuff into a company, it seemed like a natural for us to partner up and make it happen.”

Hall says that after six-months of dreaming, designing, testing things out and trying them another way, it’s fun to finally see ShakesPrints products on the shelves.

“It’s a blast, as a designer, to see your work out there in the world,” she said. “The response has been very positive.”

Locally, Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma carries two different boxed sets of the ShakesPrints cards — one box of just the color illustrations, the other with the black-and-white illustrations. On Nov. 30, Clarke launched the cards and posters at Just Paper and Tea, in Washington D.C.

While there, Clarke visited the Folger Shakespeare Library, showed off the cards and told his story, and according to Clarke, the Library’s gift shop will soon be selling ShakesPrints products.

That, says Hall, gave them the idea of shifting their target market from bookstores, to other places like the Folger Shakespeare Library.

“There are Shakespeare Festivals, all over the place,” Hall said. “There are bookstores and gift shops that focus on Shakespeare. So now, the business plan is to target the most concentrated Shakespeare-loving places we can find.”

Asked if she is a fan of Shakespeare herself, Hall laughed.

“I’ve always liked Shakespeare,” she admitted. “But now, I’m really starting to love him.”