Born in London, Walker took an active role in many organizations that were at the heart of the Arts and Crafts movement, including the Art Workers Guild, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.
His father was a coach-builder who moved to London shortly before Walker was born. When he was just 12 he bought a 17th century book from a rag and bone man in Hammersmith, starting a lifelong passion for books and printing. But only a year later, Walker had to leave school to earn money to support his family because his father lost his sight. He started off in a linen drapers, but soon went to work at the recently started Typographic Etching Company, and worked with books for the rest of his life.
He quickly taught himself the history of printing and learned the processes of printing. In 1877 he married Mary Grace Dunthorne, and in 1879 he moved to Hammersmith. His only child, Dorothy, was born in 1878. In 1883 Walker set up in business with his brother-in-law Robert. Two years later he founded with his friend Walter Boutall the firm of Walker and Boutall, Automatic and Photographic Engravers. The firm developed a highly influential technique of process engraving for illustrating books with photographs and artworks. The company was considered the best in the business.
The street on which Walker lived happened to be the same street where the poet, designer and social reformer William Morris was renting a house. At first, the two didn’t meet, but the Morris family observed Walker and his family, calling him the ‘brown velveteen artist’ who sometimes flitted by ‘leading by the hand a pretty little maid in white muslin.’ Morris also spotted Walker on the train reading one of Morris’s own works, the Earthly Paradise, but they didn’t speak.
Emery Walker finally met William Morris through the Socialist Movement. Their shared passions for books, architecture and design cemented a close friendship. It was Walker who introduced Morris to the possibilities of designing type and printing books. His technical expertise was crucial to the success of the Kelmscott Press founded by Morris in 1890.
Walker became friends with many of the members of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but his greatest influence was on the people who took forward the Private Press Movement. He was a technical advisor to the St. John Hornby’s Ashendene Press, and helped many aspiring printers, as his wide correspondence shows. Many of the private press books in the library are personal gifts from the people who ran the presses. But it wasn’t until 1900 that he set up his own press, the Doves Press, with a friend, the bookbinder and fellow member of the Morris circle, T J Cobden-Sanderson. The two men were very different in temperament. Walker’s humility and down-to-earth approach was a contrast to Cobden-Sanderson’s visionary, irrational nature. The partnership lasted only eight years, but produced a series of very fine and austerely decorated books.
Walker spent time in the Cotswolds. He was a good friend of the Arts and Crafts designer Ernest Gimson, and stayed several times with his friend in Sapperton, near Cirencester, Gloucestershire. In 1922, after Gimson’s death, he rented Gimson’s old showroom, Daneway House near Sapperton. The artistic community in the area was strong thanks to Gimson and his friends Ernest and Sidney Barnsley, but Walker developed a creative circle of visitors including Rudyard Kipling, T E Lawrence, and the Sitwells. The American printer Bruce Rogers was a visitor, as was Walker’s good friend the bookbinder Katherine Adams who bound many of the books in the collection.
Walker was knighted in 1930, and received many honors for his services to both Private Press printing and the printing industry. He died in 1933 and is buried in Sapperton churchyard.