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
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.
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.
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.
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