Beauty of print on an­cient presses

A pas­sion for the printed word has led to the preser­va­tion of a tra­di­tional skill in a Cotswold vil­lage

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: An­thony Bur­ton Pho­tog­ra­phy: Rob Scott Pho­tog­ra­phy

In a tiny Cotswold vil­lage, sur­rounded by coun­try­side that glit­ters with a fine coat­ing of frost, stands a grand 16th cen­tury manor house. The honey-coloured lo­cal stone used in the con­struc­tion of Whit­ting­ton Court adds warmth to the chilly Fe­bru­ary land­scape. But, just in­side the drive­way, be­hind a line of trees, sits a far more hum­ble build­ing. This sim­ple, for­mer es­tate work­ers’ cot­tage now houses a busi­ness where print­ing meth­ods hun­dreds of years old are lov­ingly and painstak­ingly car­ried on. It is ob­vi­ous, even be­fore en­ter­ing the sin­gle-storey stone build­ing, that the Whit­ting­ton Press is some­where very spe­cial. Next to the door is an exquisitel­y carved slate plaque, an­nounc­ing: ‘Wil­liam Caslon’s Ro­man & Italic in use at Whit­ting­ton’. This is a place where tra­di­tion and beauty are cher­ished, for the ele­gant Caslon type­face was de­signed in the 17th cen­tury and is highly sig­nif­i­cant for busi­ness owner, John Ran­dle. When John and his wife, Ros­alind, started Whit­ting­ton Press in 1971, it was partly “for a love of Caslon, Al­bion presses and hand­made pa­per” and also as a way for the cou­ple to en­joy days off when not at their pub­lish­ing jobs in Lon­don. The first book they printed was Richard Kennedy’s A Boy at the Hog­a­rth Press. It took a year of work­ing week­ends and hol­i­days to pro­duce the edi­tion of 525 books in 1972. It was so suc­cess­ful that they de­cided to be­come full-time prin­ters. They ini­tially worked from premises in the nearby vil­lage of An­dovers­ford, but as the busi­ness de­vel­oped, they out­grew them and moved to the present site at Whit­ting­ton in 1991. In­side the build­ing, the over­all im­pres­sion is that al­most ev­ery inch of space is filled with ma­chin­ery of var­i­ous types and sizes, and proofs of il­lus­tra­tions are ev­ery­where. Of the equip­ment, the most or­nate ex­am­ple is an 1848 Columbian hand press, de­signed in Amer­ica and with a huge gilded bald ea­gle roost­ing on top. This is no mere dec­o­ra­tion, but a coun­ter­weight for the lever that drops the press down onto the bed below. It is the press which John and Ros­alind used in the mak­ing of the book which led to their full-time ca­reer in print­ing. Nowa­days, pow­ered presses have taken over most of the work, and this ex­am­ple is no longer in use, but it re­mains at its home at Whit­ting­ton Press.

Let­ter­press print­ing

The na­ture of the work here is let­ter­press print­ing. This is ex­actly what the name im­plies. Words are added to a page by press­ing down pieces of inked type.

“The books - the gen­er­ous friends who met me with­out sus­pi­cion - the mer­ci­ful masters who never used me ill!” Wilkie Collins, Ar­madale

The pages which are pro­duced us­ing these tra­di­tional skills are of a very dif­fer­ent qual­ity to those pro­duced us­ing to­day’s meth­ods, where words are printed at the touch of a but­ton. John prefers to use what some peo­ple re­gard as out of date tech­nolo­gies. “Be­cause the type is pressed into the pa­per, it doesn’t just lie flat: it cre­ates a slight in­den­ta­tion with each let­ter,” he says. “In ef­fect, it is three-di­men­sional, and I think it gives the text an ex­tra sparkle.” The dif­fer­ence can be felt by run­ning a fin­ger over the page. The type or qual­ity of the pa­per is just as im­por­tant as the print­ing method. John uses hand­made pa­per, some­times from a mill in Cumbria, but also from Ger­many and Italy. It has a tex­ture which takes the ink per­fectly, and the re­sult both looks and feels lux­u­ri­ous. Tra­di­tion­ally, all set­ting, or ar­rang­ing of the type, was done by hand, and some work at Whit­ting­ton is still done in this way, mainly for print­ing posters, The com­pos­i­tor, whose job is to set ev­ery­thing in the cor­rect or­der with the right spac­ing, has cases full of pieces of type. Cap­i­tal let­ters are al­ways in the up­per case; oth­ers in the lower, hence the print terms of the same names. Each piece of type is picked out from its com­part­ment and placed in a ‘stick’, one char­ac­ter at a time. Small sliv­ers of lead are used to sep­a­rate the words, and the spac­ing re­quired can vary, mak­ing the process more com­plex. For ex­am­ple, if the let­ter ‘f’ is placed in the stick, a slightly larger space will be re­quired af­ter it than would be needed with a let­ter ‘I’. This is be­cause the top of the ‘f’ curls over. In ad­di­tion, the com­pos­i­tor has to set things back­wards, as when the im­pres­sion is made on the pa­per, it will be re­versed. The task re­quires much skill and ex­pe­ri­ence, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that books are gen­er­ally pub­lished with both left and right mar­gins aligned ver­ti­cally, known in pub­lish­ing as jus­ti­fied text. So an­other part of the com­pos­i­tor’s job is to fit each line into the re­quired space, en­sur­ing the dis­tance be­tween words and let­ters is pleas­ing to the eye, and avoid­ing awk­ward word and line breaks in the text. In the print­ing of news­pa­pers, each stick was tra­di­tion­ally equal to ap­prox­i­mately two col­umn inches or 100-150 words. Once each stick has been filled, it is placed in an ob­long frame called a gal­ley, and when that is full, ev­ery­thing is locked into place ready for print­ing the page. Hand set­ting is al­most ex­clu­sively re­served for short runs of items, such as posters, where a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent types and type sizes may be needed. Most of the in­di­vid­ual pieces of type are made of metal, but above 72 point, over 25mm, wooden type is used. Point size is the mea­sure of the height of the metal body onto which the char­ac­ter is cast. In the past it var­ied, but is now de­fined as 1 point

equals 1/72in: a 72 point char­ac­ter would there­fore have a 1in (2.5cm) high base.

Mono­type ma­chin­ery

For larger jobs, the bulk of page com­po­si­tion now takes place on a Mono­type ma­chine, which is op­er­ated by com­pos­i­tor Neil Win­ter. He worked his ap­pren­tice­ship at a print­works in Winch­ester, sup­ple­mented by night school. Although it is pos­si­ble to set type by hand more quickly than by ma­chine, the Mono­type method can be kept go­ing with­out stop­ping, ex­plains Neil. The Mono­type has an­other ad­van­tage. Over time, the type used in hand set­ting be­gins to loses its crisp­ness. “You can see that the edges have be­come worn and rounded,” adds John, tak­ing a piece of type from a case and plac­ing it un­der a mag­ni­fy­ing glass. “It’s not go­ing to give a per­fect im­pres­sion. With the Mono­type ma­chine, each in­di­vid­ual let­ter is newly cast and per­fectly sharp.” There are two stages in com­pos­ing with Mono­type. In the first, the com­pos­i­tor works at a key­board re­sem­bling the fa­mil­iar QWERTY com­puter key­board, but ap­prox­i­mately five times big­ger, with dif­fer­ent keys for up­per- and lower-case Ro­man and up­per- and lower-case italic, as well as other keys for num­bers and punc­tu­a­tion marks. The com­pos­i­tor types out char­ac­ters and spac­ing, but when a key is de­pressed, in­stead of a let­ter ap­pear­ing on a page or a screen, a hole is punched into a roll of pa­per tape. This car­ries the in­for­ma­tion re­quired for the next stage of the op­er­a­tion: cast­ing the type; much as a punched roll dic­tates which notes are played on a pi­anola. The cast­ing is done on a sep­a­rate ma­chine. The ma­trix case is a metal plate con­sist­ing of a grid of 15 by 15 char­ac­ters; 225 in all. This is placed in the caster, which is fed by molten lead. The punched tape feeds the cor­rect char­ac­ter from the ma­trix over the mould, the lead is poured and the piece of type is formed. Grad­u­ally, a line of shiny, sil­very type ap­pears, and a mech­a­nism en­ables the ma­chine to make the fine ad­just­ments to jus­tify the mar­gins. It is fas­ci­nat­ing to watch this ma­chine in op­er­a­tion as the glis­ten­ing type be­gins to ap­pear one char­ac­ter at a time. When the Ox­ford Univer­sity Press aban­doned let­ter­press print­ing in 1989, John ac­quired its com­plete set of ma­tri­ces, now housed in row upon row of boxes. This en­ables him to work with all kinds of type­faces and to print books in any­thing from Gaelic to An­cient Greek. The move to elec­tron­ics had other ad­van­tages: “All the big prin­ters were throw­ing out their old presses, and this meant it was pos­si­ble to pick up a per­fectly good ma­chine for no more than its scrap value,” says John. The days of la­bo­ri­ously print­ing ev­ery sheet by hand were over. There are a va­ri­ety of presses at the works, all of which use rollers to ink the type and are pow­ered by elec­tric­ity rather than mus­cle power.

Print­ing run

The first proofs are printed us­ing small proof presses on a long sheet of pa­per, based on a gal­ley; hence, they are known as gal­ley proofs. Cor­rec­tions are then made where nec­es­sary. The print­ing of a book is car­ried out on the big beast of the works, the Hei­del­berg press. It also op­er­ates by us­ing a roller, but this one weighs ap­prox­i­mately 1 ton. De­spite this, it can be ad­justed with great pre­ci­sion to print on thick pa­per sheets or even frag­ile tis­sue pa­per. This is a more mod­ern ma­chine, al­beit one which is more than half a cen­tury old. It turns out 16

“Oh! what a fund of ge­nius, pent In nar­row space is here! This vol­ume’s method and in­tent How lu­mi­nous and clear!” Wil­liam Cow­per, ‘A Man­ual, More An­cient Than The Art Of Print­ing, And Not To Be Found In Any Cat­a­logue’

pages at a time, eight on each side of the pa­per. With il­lus­trated books, print­ing has to be di­vided into two batches, one for words, one for pic­tures. One of these books is a his­tory of St Bartholome­w’s church in Whit­ting­ton, with wood­cuts by Miriam Mac­gre­gor. The text is care­fully set, us­ing pre­cisely de­lin­eated spa­ces for the il­lus­tra­tions, which is then run through the press. A sec­ond print­ing then fol­lows, with the wood­cut blocks in po­si­tion. The op­er­a­tion is split in two be­cause the text and block re­quire dif­fer­ent ink­ing, so the roller has to be ad­justed to fit each par­tic­u­lar run. When the print run is com­pleted, the folded sheets are sent to the binders in Northamp­ton­shire, where the sheets will be cut, sewn and cov­ers added. When the book comes back, the care­ful at­ten­tion to de­tail is ev­i­dent. The com­bi­na­tion of expert let­ter­press print­ing, beau­ti­ful il­lus­tra­tions and qual­ity pa­per, all held to­gether in a fine bind­ing, have pro­duced some­thing that is more than just a book. It is a thing of beauty.

Caslon type­face was used ex­ten­sively in the early 18th cen­tury. This is a serif font, mean­ing each char­ac­ter has a small line at­tached to the end of a stroke.

Type is mea­sured in pi­cas; each one the equiv­a­lent of ₁⁄₆in. A pica is fur­ther di­vided into 12 points.

The Mono­type key­board has a QWERTY ar­range­ment, as on a type­writer, but re­peated mul­ti­ple times.

The com­pleted en­grav­ing of Whit­ting­ton church, which Miriam has carved in re­verse, and her de­tailed il­lus­tra­tions in print.

Adapted from CrAfted in Bri­tAin: the Sur­vivAl of Bri­tAin’S trA­di­tionAl in­duS­trieS By An­thony Bur­ton And roB SCott Pub­lished by Ad­lard Coles, £25

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