We are so used to clip art nowadays that we still call it that even though there’s no longer any need to get out your scissors and clip anything at all. You just copy and paste clip art on your computer now. Clip art itself was anyway just part of an interim phase in print reproduction when people could get a little print job done on an offset press at their corner printshop. Before that there was an extra step in the process of reproducing a little picture.

With letterpress everything has to print from a raised surface, usually metal but also potentially wood, some synthetic substances and even rubber — think of that John Bull printing kit you had as a child or the date stamper in the office. Or notice next time you step in a puddle . . . the next step you take on the dry street will leave a letterpress impression: a rather evanescent one it’s true — for a more lasting impression stir up some mud while you’re in the puddle.

So, when almost everything had to be printed by letterpress, you needed to have access to a raised reversed image to receive the ink and transfer it to the paper. In order to be able to print a little picture you had to go to an engraver and create a block* (called a cut in USA). To get a block engraved cost money, so unless it was totally specific to a particular print job which was never going to reprint, you would carefully wrap each one in paper, label it carefully, ideally with a pull (proof) of the engraving on the outside, and put it into storage in case you ever needed something like that again.

Here’s a piece showing part of one printer’s collection. It is shown in two separate photos, though it is just one 12⅝” x 17¾” sheet. It was printed by The Quarto Press in Coupar Angus in Scotland. You can enlarge the pictures a bit by clicking on them.

I suspect that the main sheet is actually a reprint by offset from an earlier version which was done by letterpress from the original blocks. At the bottom of the main sheet you can see the claim that it was printed in an edition of 75 copies on a Vandercook press by John B. Easson at The Quarto Press in Feltham, quite a long way from Coupar Angus. At the top we are informed to job was done in October 1998. Their website tells us that Mr Easson returned his press from Middlesex to Scotland in 2004.

Behind the main sheet in the cellophane envelope holding it is this insert telling us about the job. Their first line is a little misleading, as it describes the original piece, not the version the purchaser is holding. The 75 copies of the original were apparently mostly supplied to The British Printing History Society,  so in order to be selling copies nowadays in Coupar Angus, Quarto (not the publisher of that name of course) would have had to have reprinted the piece. And I bet they did this by photographing the original piece and printing it by offset lithography.

Some of these ornaments are a bit odd: those aggressive policemen near the top are a bit worrying, though the ballroom dancers to their right seem to be quite unconcerned as do the three kids hiding among the flowers between them. The kid in the middle does appear to be toting a gun and this may be what’s upsetting the cops. And what are those teddy bears up to? The rugby players in the lower portion are rather good, as is the cow being milked with the real business tastefully masked by a milk bottle. And you’ve got to love the pig. Hard to imagine circumstances demanding the reuse of many of these: still some printer had paid for them and thought there might be another use for these each of these blocks, even if some may never have been unwrapped again.

The sheet draws the distinction between borders and ornaments. This seems relatively straightforward to my mind: a border would be available as a font for output by your typesetting machine along with the text, whereas an ornament would have to be created separately from artwork sent to the engraver, and integrated into the typeset page in the composing room. But Mr Easson is the printer and knows better than me.

I have discussed the flag blocks at the bottom right hand corner in a previous post.


* The note at the top tells us that some of these type ornaments precede photo-engraving which is what is shown in the second of these videos. Die sinker describes the process of engraving a block by hand, though the photo-engraving video does show a lot of hand correction work.