Rowley Atterbury: Pioneering colour printer and early adopter of computer technology

By Nicolas Barker
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:12

Rowley Atterbury was a pioneer in colour printing and in the application of computers to typesetting, and as with most pioneers, his influence was greater than his achievements would suggest.

Late in life he wrote a memoir called A Good Idea at the Time?, but his ideas not only seemed good, they often were good; if they did not come off as he wished, it was because they were ahead of their time. From his ancestor Francis Atterbury the non-juror he inherited a natural tendency to be "agin the government", and his irrepressible mischief enlivened as well as annoyed those staider and more respectable than he ever wished to be.

His father, another Francis, was in the Sudan government service; home on leave in 1919, he met and married Barbara Streatfeild one of the daughters of Canon Streatfeild; their son was born the following year. His parents went back to Sudan for six years, leaving the infant Atterbury to be looked after by aunts, one in particular, the writer Noel Streatfeild, was a constant and benevolent influence in his life. In 1926 his parents came home, settling at Dedham, in Essex where Rowley went to school, before being sent as a boarder to Colchester Royal grammar school, which he loathed. A prescient neighbour rescued him, recommending that he join the RAF as a boy entrant.

War found him with 9 Squadron at Stradishall in Suffolk, "bombing up" Wellingtons, many of which "failed to return". He was injured due to "a little carelessness" with a 500lb bomb in 1940, and in 1942, just married and on the brink of posting to the Far East, he was told to compile a training manual on bombs and guns. Air Publication 1984 came out with Edward Price's illustrations in 1943; updating it occupied him until May 1944, when those who had served for four years were released for three months to return to their pre-war vocation. Atterbury had none. What was he to do? The manual suggested publishing and he found a position at Faber & Faber.

Five years there, under the kindly eye of Berthold Wolpe, decided the direction of his life; he became hooked on printing and typographic design. A Streatfeild house at Westerham provided a home for Atterbury, his wife Audrey and their young son. Its garage housed a printing press, and in 1950 Westerham Press was founded; Faber's and the music publishers Boosey & Hawkes (his cousin Joyce Boosey both worked and took shares in the Press) led a steady and growing group of customers. The business grew, and they moved to Prospect House in the middle of Westerham.

In 1953, thanks to Noel Streatfeild, the Westerham Press started printing for Bernard Miles's new Mermaid Theatre and Arthur Grimwade's The Queen's Silver, printed for Rainbird, McLean, was the first of many prize-winning new books. The British Council commissioned a series of catalogues of British books for the Frankfurt book fair, with covers by contemporary artists. Joanna Drew at the Arts Council chose the Press for fine exhibition catalogues and the business soon outgrew its premises and letterpress equipment, moving on to a former sergeants' mess at Biggin Hill leased from the RAF.

Biggin Hill provided a base for experimenting with lithography and colour-printing, with Duncan Macintyre, a talented electronics engineer, in charge. A closer link with Rayne's London Merchant Securities led to the building of a new printing works, specially designed for the new technologies, in the heart of Westerham. This was the realisation of a dream: not only the work, but also the workers, were all the better for this changed environment.

Next came the pioneering venture of Rocappi (Research on Computer Applications to the Printing and Publishing Industries) with Colin Barber. Computer-generated tape for a Goldsmiths' Company exhibition catalogue produced three columns of type simultaneously without intervention of human hand (the caster operator crossed himself as he saw them emerge). The first computer-set Bible, specially keyboarded at Rocappi, was printed by William Collins at Glasgow for the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1965. In 1966, the British Imperial Calendar and Civil Service List were the first books to have electronically generated indexes.

Rocappi came to an untimely end, but by this time Atterbury had embarked on more advances in colour-reproduction methods, newer and more versatile presses. The Westerham Press now enlarged its reputation for high-quality printing of all sorts, both by letterpress and offset-litho. Robert Harling's The Letter Forms and Type Designs of Eric Gill (1976), designed by Eva Svensson, John Piper's Stowe, published under Atterbury's Hurtwood Press imprint (1983), facsimiles for the Roxburghe Club and programmes for Glyndebourne, all set new standards in their field.

Atterbury's talent for attracting the best craftsmen and technicians and customers who appreciated their work was backed by an equally enlightened support for contemporary graphic artists. Many came and worked at the Press, among them Paul Sharp, David Gentleman, and Charles Mozley. Labour relations were based on equality and camaraderie, which puzzled the money men and the unions alike. Neither group shared Atterbury's belief that technical change was inevitable: it was, he said ironically, "a cancer that had to be stopped in case common sense should prevail".

It was too good to last. In 1984 commercial pressures led to the sale of the business. The model factory was pulled down and housing built on the site. Atterbury bore the collapse of his dream with fortitude as well as resentment. He was left with his house on top of the Downs looking down on Westerham. He observed the progress of print and printers with as sharp an eye as ever. Sheila Elson, who "was generally thought to run the company" since she joined it in 1963, continued to look after him. Many friends in all walks of life came to enjoy his hospitality, his ribald wit and inextinguishable joie de vivre.

Not everyone liked him; some said he was an unprincipled rogue. They were wrong. He had principles, and stuck to them: "Take a risk, don't play safe", "Never talk down", "Customers prefer to talk to craftsmen, not salesmen". Right or wrong, he was always straight.

Rowley Streatfeild Atterbury, printer: born Eastbourne, Sussex 2 July 1920; married 1942 Audrey Holman (one son; marriage dissolved 1957), (one son with Jasmine Atterbury, née Cleaver), 1972 Mary Harman (one son; marriage dissolved 1977), 1993 Joanna Plachcinska (marriage dissolved 2000); died Sevenoaks, Kent 28 March 2011.

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