Romancing the Press

The following article was first published in the next to last newsletter from CBBAG (Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists’ Guild). I can’t say precisely because I can’t find it amidst my debris! Anyway, I’ve added CBBAG and a couple of other worthies to my blogroll. Part of the reason for this blog is to track the progress and development of Greyweathers Press, and this article will serve as an overview.

 

ROMANCING THE PRESS
A Brief Account of the First Two Years of Greyweathers Press

By Larry Thompson

Greyweathers Press began officially in 2005, however, the gathering of materials, equipment and knowledge stretched back well into the 1990s. In 2005, I began work on a small book featuring Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem, Kubla Khan, so I mark that as year one.

While I am responsible for most of the work done for the press, including setting of type, illustration, printing and binding, I consider it a collaborative effort with my partner, artist and designer Holly Dean. Holly contributes calligraphic embellishments, formidable design advice, proof reading and inspiration.

The press is named after our house located in Merrickville, Ontario, a 19th century village situated along the Rideau Canal about 60 kilometers south of Ottawa. The word ‘Greyweathers’ has a certain overcast tone that suits our romantic inclinations, however, we keep any raging about the moors to a minimum, spending most of our time in the studio at our various labours of love. Holly derived the name from a novel but an internet search revealed that greyweathers is a synonym for sarcen stone, or the stone that the ancients used to construct Stone Henge.

As you may have deduced, Holly and I are romantics by nature, and the goals of the press reflect that inclination. As well, we both love beautifully designed type skillfully arranged on a well-proportioned page. Our original purpose was solely to print books, although that ideal has evolved even over the brief time in operation to include an interest in relief block prints. Initially, I conceived of four areas of interest that might be printed as books in rotation or periodically: the classics, particularly the work of 19th and early 20th century British and American writers and poets; ‘vanity’ works of my own devising; collaborations with Holly that push the bounds of the traditional definition of letterpress and the book in general; and the work of young, unpublished writers.

In retrospect, those lofty goals seem more than a trifle unfocused, but there you have it. I can see other projects taking shape in the future, including collaborations with established contemporary writers or scholars. So far, the emphasis has been on poetry, but there’s no prejudice in this trend. Already we have collaborated on projects with the Ottawa Press Gang.

On the way to becoming a press, I had to acquire an actual printing press, type, furniture (both for the printing press and the studio), ink, solvents and various tools needed for this work. Early on I took the CBBAG course on letterpress and typesetting offered by Margaret Lock of Lock’s Press, Kingston, Ontario. This invaluable introduction provided me with numerous tips and tricks and an insight into the difference between printing generally and fine press printing specifically.

It was at Margaret Lock’s workshop that I met Sue Globensky, proprietor of the newly formed Titania’s Press in Ottawa, and founder of the Ottawa Press Gang. Up until that time, I thought that I would be doing my work in relative isolation – that the letterpress community, if it could be called that, was small and fragmented. Not so. The Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG) championed letterpress, not to mention the Devil’s Artisan, a Canadian periodical dedicated to the book arts. British Columbia, I learned, was home to an established book arts tradition, as well as the Alcuin Society, a group dedicated to the love of books in general.

While I acquired my press elsewhere, almost all the rest of my printing equipment I sourced at Don Black Linecasting in Scarborough. The presence of a letterpress equipment dealer anywhere within a day’s driving distance is something not to be taken for granted. Letterpress is enjoying something of a renaissance, helped no doubt by the ready availability of literature and scholarship, and a flurry of World Wide Web activity.

So early in 1995, with my Vandercook finally in working order, and brand new type in the cases, I was ready to print books. However, I joined a local co-operative store and an artists’ tour, with next to nothing to display. In desperation, I purchased some linoleum and cutters from the art store in Ottawa, dusted off some of my drawings from ages past and began to cut lino prints off the press. Type attracted me first to letterpress, but block printing has become equally as fascinating, if not more satisfying from an artistic viewpoint. Now I can’t imagine printing a book without illustrations.

With a large series of linocut prints behind me, I returned at last to our first book. In my introduction to Kubla Khan, I explained that I chose the poem because I felt it to be a work of flawed beauty, one that reflected the more fantastical ideas of artistic creativity that Holly and I hold to. It took a long time to print, and one section required reprinting. The work spanned more than a year, which presented its own problems. The copyright for Kubla Khan reads 2005, when those sheets were printed. The book did not launch until July of 2006, with, I’m pleased to report, modest success.

As I write, completion of our second book is so close I can almost taste it. Tenebrismo fills the press’ mandate to print work by talented young writers, in this case Kera Willis, who at 18 sold everything, including her beloved horse. She took the money and bought a one-way ticket to Spain. I like to tell people she did Europe on $0 per day, sleeping on beaches and sneaking into museums and cathedrals. Many months later she returned briefly to Merrickville with more wanderlust and a sheaf of poetry and drawings inspired by her adventures. Kera had to wait three years for her book, but it finally launched in July 2007. The setting of type began mere weeks prior, on May 1st. Executing work on Tenebrismo so intensively eliminated many problems that I encountered on Kubla Khan, but, you guessed it, a few new printer’s devils popped up to torment me.

While I’m working, I try to remind myself that I am relatively new to letterpress, and that I have many years to practice this black art. I consider the work I am doing now part of my apprenticeship, reflecting my own climb along the learning curve. I have a sense that I am still ‘thrashing’ – an absence of calm and control in the face of raw experimentation. In the end, and irregardless of its faults, the work must be put before the public and there it will be judged.

The absence of mentors must be made up for in other ways. I have begun to seek out, acquire and carefully study the works of other letterpress printers, particularly those in Canada, as well as fine press works from earlier in the 20th century. I have started doing the book arts shows and in that manner, have met more printers and wood engravers, and have learned from them – amongst other things – the great height at which the standard is held. And I keep printing, because doing so aids learning.

The romantic in me holds letterpress sensuously: the smell of the ink, the landscape of set type or cut blocks, the imprint of type into beautiful papers, and the thrill of pulling that perfect impression. Like so much in life, this fancy, once washed with the solvent of reality, unveils the grinding hours of intensive labour, planning, setting of type, press makeready, diligent cleaning and maintenance and the frustrations and humiliations of one’s own inexperience, in my own case. The uneven impression. The imperfect character. The typographical error. Yes, letterpress can be a sea of woe, but in the end, it’s the romantic in me that emerges on the shore. I don’t know why, but I love this work. And I can’t seem to stop.

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