Joe Tanner

'Mr Joe' of Butler & Tanner
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The Independent Online

Joseph Russell Tanner, printer: born Beckington, Somerset 28 January 1928; managing director, Butler & Tanner 1964-70, chairman 1970-94; married 1956 Fenella Flemming (died 1981; two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased), 1993 Geraldine Akerman; died Bruton, Somerset 6 April 2006.

Butler & Tanner have been printers in the Somerset town of Frome since 1863. When Joe Tanner joined the family firm in 1948, printing was done from metal type, mostly in black and white; when he retired, 55 years later, he left the business in the forefront of modern colour photo-lithography.

For 30 years he was in charge of this progress; in a time of rapid and radical change, he never put a foot wrong, and it was his skill, both technical and in what he would have been the last to call "management", that made the revolution peaceful as well as successful.

Born in Beckington, north of Frome, Tanner grew up contentedly in the Somerset countryside, its landscape, buildings and the ambling Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway all embedded in his heart. He went to school first at Durlston Court in Christchurch (then in Hampshire), and then at Bradfield.

After National Service, he pursued the two-year course for young master printers at the London School of Printing. This was not taken over-seriously by its students, among them his great friend James Wainwright. Together they devised a new technical process, leather plate-making, and wrote an article on it for The British Printer (familiarly known as "The Pianola Roll-Cutter's Gazette").

First, they said, a cow should be coated in a photo-sensitive emulsion, then driven into a disused railway tunnel, with negatives imposed on the coated hide. Once it was led further up the tunnel, light from the ventilator shafts would develop the image. The unexposed areas would then be washed away, and the hide removed from the cow and fixed for printing on the press cylinder.

The article was illustrated with photographs of bucolic figures (Tanner and Wainwright), suitably dressed, treating a cow and leading it into the tunnel. The technical detail was impeccable, and evoked several serious enquiries.

Back in Frome in 1948, Tanner went through his apprenticeship, beginning with the compositors and working through the machine-room and the bindery. Wainwright had joined him, and they enjoyed life, in and outside the firm, which was privately owned, then as now. The chairman was Captain Timothy Flemming, whose quarterdeck manner belied his kindliness. He had married a Tanner, and their pretty daughter Fanny, Joe's cousin, caught his eye and then his heart. They were married in 1956, and their family grew up in the old rectory at Great Elm, just west of Frome. There Tanner kept his own small hand-press, much indemand for posters for the village fête.

Tanner became increasingly involved in technological development at Butler & Tanner. DPE 54s, which used flexible plastic plates (not leather), were added to the traditional flat-bed presses. The pride of the firm was the great "Dreadnought" that could print 192 pages at a time, but took five days, a working week, to make ready for printing. This was superseded in the 1960s by another giant press, the "Bristolian", more versatile since it could take paper with a variable web-width; it could run at higher speed and even print half-tones. For this the ink had to dry quickly, and gas burners were introduced; it looked terrifying, but the racing paper hardly ever caught fire.

At the same time, Butler & Tanner pioneered the then new Photon Lumitype, the first truly original photo- setting machine, which under Tanner's eye was tuned up to the firm's high standard for composition, and then, as more machines were added, adapted for digital data-entry. The first "through-line" was added, so that sheets that came off the web-press folded could then be bound in an almost continuous process.

In 1980, the firm was at a crossroads: was it to go for speed and the big paperback market with more and faster web-presses, or should it stay with its long tradition of sheet-printing, making up quantity with larger sheet sizes? Tanner chose the latter, and with it turned the firm more and more towards colour printing. The first four-colour Roland press was installed in 1987, and by 1993 there were four, prospering in an increasingly international market. By 1996 the first KBA colour presses were installed, twice as fast and capable of even higher-quality printing, demonstrated on television in Challenge Anneka, when a book was set, printed and bound in 24 hours.

In all these innovations Tanner took the lead, from 1964 as managing director and chairman from 1970 to 1994. Part of his success lay in finding good staff and giving them their heads. He knew everyone in the firm by sight and voice and name, and their spouses and most of their children. He took a keen and wholly unpatronising interest in everything they did, their work and what they did outside. To them he was just "Mr Joe".

Reserved, even shy in conversation, he never pushed himself forward. He hid the pain of the early deaths of Fanny and one of his sons, regaining happiness when he married again in 1993. He lost his hair quite early in life, but never his sense of humour. He could tell the tallest stories with a stonily straight face, although there was always a twinkle behind his glasses if you knew where to look for it.

At Frome "work-study" was a shared enterprise and labour disputes unknown. This attracted the curiosity and wonder of Butler & Tanner's competitors. Collins, always at odds as to whether printing or publishing was the more profitable, wanted to know how they did it in the West Country. Tanner, hospitable as always, greeted the Scotch deputation and handed them over to the department overseers. How did it go, he asked them afterwards. "Oh, Mr Joe," was the reply, "they wanted to know about our budgets, but I think they thought they were something you kept in a cage."

In the hard winter of 1962-63, when the last proofs of The Letters of Oscar Wilde were coming through, there was an unexpected delay. I rang up Mr Joynt the order-clerk to enquire why. "You'm right," he said, "you'm right; only the stone-hand on that job come a terrible tumble off his bike down that steep hill from Midsomer Norton." I passed this on. "I like to think," said Joe, "that at Butler & Tanner we have a better class of excuses than other printers."

Besides the leather plates, he invented a sort of alter ego, Talbot Baines Carew, an amalgam of Talbot Baines Reed, the learned 19th-century historian of the old English letter foundries and founder of the Boy's Own Paper, and Bamfylde Moore Carew, son of a Devon rector, who ran away from school, joined the gypsies and became a sharper, was transported to Maryland, returned and joined Bonnie Prince Charlie, his Life a best-seller in 1745. This doppelgänger became the author of a number of enchanting and entirely fictitious historic anecdotes and some equally delightful parodic verse, all impeccably printed on his own press.

He was handy in all sorts of other ways, making a railway and toys for his children. He also wrote a short history of Butler & Tanner with original illustrations, from its beginning in the Ruskinian Gothic Selwood Printing Works at the western top of Frome to the modern works by the railway down below. This made a memorable address to the Double Crown Club, which left his audience speechless with admiration of his knowledge, and equally so with laughter.

Joe Tanner did much good by stealth. He paid for the catalogues of the Holburne Museum of Art at Bath, a favourite among many local charities, and rescued the last-surviving two-colour Wharfedale press for the Type Museum. But, first and last, it was the well-being of Butler & Tanner that engaged him. Almost his final outing was to see the new Kolbus "Republica" through-line installed, barely a month ago. He could hardly walk, but his delight in it added days to his life.

Nicolas Barker