Minding the gaps : ARTS : PRINTING

Guido Morris went from avant-garde to London Underground guard. Tanya Harrod on the sad life of the printer of St Ives
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THE PRINTER Guido Morris was born in 1910, under, he would romantically explain, the sign of Cancer. In the mid-1960s, his passion for printing, his bad debts, his epicene good looks and his amorous adventures made him a legendary figure among a c oterieof bibliophiles, printing historians and St Ives bohemians. But by then he had long abandoned his craft. From 1955 he worked as a guard on the London Underground, dying in poverty in 1980. He had taken the Arts and Crafts project to extremes, disc overing, like so many others, that the economics did not add up. He is now, belatedly, being honoured in a comprehensive exhibition of his printing at the Tate St Ives.

The Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century was characterised by a measure of business sense. Its protagonists pioneered design reform but made use of commercial firms to realise their wallpaper, textiles, furniture and pottery. Although William Morris, Walter Crane and William De Morgan certainly had an intimate understanding of making processes, they rarely executed their own designs. But by the turn of the century greater stress was placed on the designer as actual maker, working as s pontaneously and directly as possible.

It was a philosophy that drove its upper-middle-class exponents to extremes of living. So a figure like Michael Cardew lived in poverty in Glouces-tershire, digging clay, creating clay bodies, throwing pots and firing them in an enormous country kiln, often with disastrous results. Trial and expensive error characterise the researches of many of the finest inter-war craftsmen and women; yet out of that difficulty came objects of great beauty, comparable in their stripped-down intensity to some of the sculpture of the period - the direct carving of Gill and Epstein, of Hepworth and Moore.

When, in about 1934, Guido Morris decided to dedicate his life to printing, he had an equivalent standard of truth to materials. In the world of private presses this kind of truthfulness was expensive, involving handmade papers, specially cut punches, hours of pain-staking press work, fine bindings and wood-cut embellishments. The famous inter-war presses such as the Ashendene and the Gregynog were financed with Medici-like extravagance by their owners. But Morris had no private money and, in any case, his artistry would always outstrip sensible economics. His first printings took the form of "letters" appealing for funds. The exhibition at St Ives includes two of these remarkable productions. The sheer extravagance of setting and printing a letter suggests the impractical quality of Morris's genius.

Morris excelled at broadsheets, posters and pamphlets in which richly inked heavy impressions on handmade paper, close spacing of type and odd word-breaks gave the quality of an inscription on stone. At its best his printing had an abstract beauty that exemplified his desire to make, as he put it, "a semantic use of types" - the typography expressing the meaning of the text. But alongside these aims ran a chaos of a life. Money disappeared, deadlines were not met, admirers were let down, presses were seized. The story (apocryphal but apposite) that Morris was asked to print a marriage service, but finding the burial service more beautiful printed that instead, suggests a rare capacity for unreliability.

In 1946, Morris arrived in St Ives to set up his Latin Press in a netting loft overlooking the sea. In the late 1940s and 1950s some of the most radical painting in Europe was being made on the Penwith peninsula - and Morris found himself at the epicentre of an avant-garde. In his first year there he exhibited his printings in the crypt of the New Gallery with four young artists - Peter Lanyon, John Wells, Bryan Wynter and Sven Berlin. And he created the accompanying pamphlet (see below), using a 16th-century solution. As he explained: "The word `catalogue' was too wide for the measure of the page, and I set `CATALO' in large capitals duly letter spaced; and in much smaller capitals on the next line `gue of an exhibition'." Despit e the classical typeface the effect was arresting and contemporary. That show, Morris believed, was "the first time anywhere printing had been exhibited side by side with drawings, paintings and sculpture".

If St Ives was a special place after the war it was in part because of Morris. As the Tate show reveals, he operated as "jobbing printer", working for hotels and garages as well as printing for artists and craftsmen in the area. He wanted to raise job printing to a new level of nobility and wanted printing to be appreciated on a level with the fine arts - aims that were true to the Arts and Crafts ideal but perhaps incompatible. The money problems never went away and the Latin Press closed for the last time in 1953.

There is a footnote to this sad story. In 1969 Anthony Baker published an account of Morris's erratic career in the journal The Private Library entitled "The Quest for Guido". Morris apparently read it and, in the early 1970s, after his day's work on theTube, would print a few sheets on a table-top press. They do not have the boldness of those first printings of the 1930s, but they make one regret his lack of one final, munificent and patient patron.

St Ives (0736 796226) to 16 April.