Craft: The press gang

Albions, Heidelbergs, platens, friskets, cases of old wooden type... James Fergusson celebrates the printing press. Photographs by Ski Anderson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
William Morris had a credo: "If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer a beautiful House, and if I were further asked to name the production next in importance and the next thing to be longed for I should answer a beautiful Book. To enjoy houses and good books in self-respect and decent comfort seems to me to be the pleasurable end towards which all societies of human beings ought now to struggle."

Morris's contribution to the beautiful House was spectacularly displayed in last year's monumental exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His contribution to the beautiful Book is less often trumpeted. For he was the father of the modern private press movement; his Kelmscott Press, founded in the last years of his life and named after his house in Oxfordshire, made a generation of would-be publishers, just as mass- production printing was under way, look again at how a book was built and presented.

The astonishing thing about the art of book printing is that it was born perfect. While the practice and machinery has subtly changed, a change that has accelerated with the spread of offset printing and the application of computer technology, the design of the book has not improved since the late 15th century (Morris's own inspiration), when Gutenberg and Caxton and Aldus Manutius pioneered the process. Hundreds of years of monastic calligraphy and illumination had prepared them for the moment.

A century after Morris's death, the private press, whether a one-man band or a whole small industry unto itself, amazingly still flourishes. Its vigour, reinforced by the decision of most printers to abandon traditional letterpress (so releasing a wealth of cheap, unwanted prime machinery on to the market), is demonstrated in Portraits of Presses, a remarkable new book published by one of the doyens of the business - John Randle of the Whittington Press in Gloucestershire. It gathers essays on a selection of British printers, illustrated with sets of black-and-white photographs taken by Ski Anderson. Anderson worked for more than two years at pictures of Albion and Heidelberg presses, platens, friskets and tympans, pressmen and presswomen and cases of old wooden type. She used exposure times of 15 to 30 seconds and no flash. The results are powerful, ruminative, absorbing; and, of course, beautifully printed. CTD of Twickenham, whose tritone process and perfectionism were responsible for the reproduction, are themselves the subject of an eloquent essay by John Randle.

The eight other presses represented are a maverick bunch: an extraordinary but triumphant set of late-20th-century dropouts. Here are two runaway artists, Ian Mortimer (I.M. Imprimit) and Nicholas Parry (Tern Press); two escapee publishers, Nicholas McDowall (Old Stile Press) and Randle himself; Simon Lawrence (Fleece Press) who had been a social worker; Jonathan Stephenson (Rocket Press) who left school at 16 to start a press in his clergyman father's stable; David Esslemont, who threw up life in Newcastle to manage the revived Gwasg Gregynog in deepest Powys; only Sebastian Carter (Rampant Lions Press), following in the footsteps of his father, Will Carter, seems to have taken the obvious option.

They write about their happily deviant careers with a certain naughty relish. One moment, it seems, they had respectable, salaried employment - teaching, training, marketing - the next, they enjoyed a life of wayward self-indulgence and complete freedom. "The printer," writes John Randle, "produces that which he creates, he is his own master, he needs to ask nobody's permission to letterspace a line or print the text in blue or green, and, although he is working on a small scale and within a limited compass, he is using the best materials, the finest types, the most talented illustrators to produce a result which will, if he is lucky, give both himself and his clientele some satisfaction."

To this end, Simon Lawrence is prepared to spend 500 hours single-handed at his 1853 Albion working on one project, a book on the artist Gwen Raverat; while Ian Mortimer locked up a press for 10 years for a Sir Joseph Banks Florilegium. The money may not be good, but their job satisfaction is obvious.

What is it that so motivates them? What devil drives these people to wrestle with antique presses that were based, after all, on the peasant wine-press, or with dangerous behemoths out of the last phase of the Industrial Revolution?

The answer is evident in the very object. At a time when commercial books are makeshift affairs, grey-printed, whose pages either fall out instantly or age yellow and flake almost in an afternoon, it is enlivening and inspiriting to pick up a book that is properly bound, printed in real black on real paper, made to last; whose margins are bold and spacious, whose pages have character and architecture. There is something about a piece of idle printing from, say, the Rampant Lions Press that makes the heart sing. It is to do with materials, technique, proportion, attention to detail.

Portraits of Presses, printed on a mould-made brown paper in a pretty type called Poliphilus, quarter-bound in cloth in an edition of just 500 copies, is itself a proof that craft can become art

"Portraits of Presses" is published by the Whittington Press, Whittington Court, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, price pounds 165

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