Archives for category: Letterpress

Memento mori.

Do we really need reminding that we are all going to die? Apparently we once thought we did. The dance of death/dance macabre category of book enjoyed strong sales back in the fifteenth century. I guess if you’ve got to go you may as well exit having a good time dancing your way off stage. Or is it more that by dancing you’ll take your mind off the real issue: dance your way to the head of the set and just vanish? The Princeton University Library’s exhibition Gutenberg & After includes one of the two known surviving copies of La grant danse macabre des hommes et des femmes. As a note in the front of Princeton’s copy of this 1499 book tells us the only other known copy is in the British Museum. (You can leaf through a digitized version here.)

In this Lyons edition a few new woodcuts were added. One is this depiction of death coming to get book trade workers. This illustration is frequently reproduced — it’s the only contemporary illustration of a fifteenth century print works that we have.

On the left we see the compositor at work sitting at his typecase, following the copy which is propped up in front of him, adding sort after sort to his composing stick. Behind him the pressman is being relieved of the task of pulling on that lever every time a new sheet of paper was put into the press. (A relief since this was quite hard work.) The apprentice in the background, brandishing his ink ball, seems not yet to be getting a dance ticket.

After a line of Latin which I can’t make out, the text below the illustration reads

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Venez danser vng tourdion
Imprimeurs sus legierement
Venez tost/ pour conclusion
Mourir vous fault certainement
Faictes vng sault habillement
Presses/ & capses vous fault laisser
Reculer ny fault nullement
A louurage on congnoist louurier.

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Sus auant vous ires apres
Maistre libraire marchez auant
Vous me regardez de bien pres
Laissez voz liures maintenant
Danser vous fault/ a quel galant
Mettez icy vostre pensee
Comment vous reculez marchant
Commencement nest pas fusee

      ¶ Les imprimeurs

Helas ou aurons nous recours
Puis que la mort nous espie
Imprime auons tous les cours
De la saincte theologie
Loix/ decret/ & poeterie/
Par nostre art plusieurs sont grans clers
Releuee en est clergie
Les vouloirs des gens sont diuers

      ¶ Le libraire

Me fault il maulgre moy danser
Ie croy que ouy/ mort me presse
Et me contrainct de me auancer
Nesse pas dure destresse
Mes liures il fault que ie laisse
Et ma boutique desormais
Dont ie pers toute lyesse
Tel est blece qui nen peult mais.

Death addresses the printers: “Come you printers and whirl in a dance with us, come all, come quietly, because in the end it’s beyond doubt that you’re all going to die”. The printers react: “Alas, where will we find refuge now that death has got its eye on us? We have printed the entire corpus of holy theology, laws, decrees, and poetry”. On the right hand side of the woodcut a bookseller also gets his comeuppance. He seems rather resigned: “If, despite whatever I might wish, I’ve got to join the dance, I say OK”.

Danse macabre books had been being printed in Paris in the years before 1499. Matthias Huss, a Lyons printer copied these Paris editions, presumably recutting the woodcut illustrations, the originals of which were apparently made by Pierre le Rouge. It is noticeable how superior in quality the woodcuts based on le Rouge’s originals are.

Here the Pope and the Emperor get the bad news

Still we see few reproductions of these other illustrations: that all walks of life end in death is understandably a less excitiing bit of news to us than what an early print works looked like.

A woodcut will be printed by letterpress, a relief process, an engraving by an intaglio process. In relief printing the white needs to be cut away; in intaglio it’s the black which is cut away.

The Collation has a useful post telling you what to look for in that old book. The key is to study the detail: this example shows why.

You can engrave a clean sharp intersection between two black lines: it’s much harder to carve out a sharp white angle consistently to make the grid as sharp and regular in a woodcut.

Don’t be confused by the fact that a wood engraving carries the word engraving in its name. A wood engraving is basically just a wood cut executed on the grain end of bit of wood, usually boxwood, rather than on the side. A wood engraving will be printed letterpress just like a woodcut. See Printing methods for video demonstrations of the difference between relief and intaglio printing.

This Vimeo video — a little odd perhaps, but thought-provoking, takes you on a tour through some modern approaches to graphic design. The openness of New York encourages experimentation, the connective thread throughout this international journey from the theory of glitches, via computer aided graphics (“it’s hand drawn by a machine”), to manipulations of the typeface Bembo (“the sort of typeface you’d want to print every f-ing book in”) to printing the output at Kallemeyn Press, a letterpress shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

The concept of typesetting is pretty easily understandable to us, born into an alphabetic culture. There’s such fit between the two that one might almost imagine that the alphabet was invented with hot metal hand setting in mind. But Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet, so you kind of need a bit of type for every word in the dictionary, or at least every word in the work in hand. So you end up with a whole lot of sorts and a terrible navigation task to find the one you need next. As Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China tells us (Vol. 5, Pt.1) “Because a set of metal type might comprise two to four hundred thousand characters, we can readily comprehend the magnitude of the work and cost involved in printing with movable type. Very often two sets of type, large and small, had to be made to print, for example, text and commentaries . . . The tin types of Foushan even included three sets.”  “The principle of assembling individual characters to compose a piece of text can be traced back many centuries before Christ, as inscriptions on bronze vessels, pottery objects and cast metal seals have made evident, but the use of movable type for printing was not begun until the middle of the +11th century.” [NB: Gutenberg “invented” all this in the middle of the +15th century.]

Although typesetting from individual pieces of type was invented in China, woodblock printing remained the commonest method of print reproduction until the introduction of offset lithography in the late 19th century. Chinese script has always been an artistic as well as a communication medium, and the ability simply to photograph a page of handsome brush-drawn characters and print from that, rather than dizzyingly trying to reproduce their sense in individual types, must have seemed like a liberation to Chinese printers. Wikipedia tells us that to typeset his agricultural gazetteers around the turn of the 13th/14th centuries, Wang Zhen “used revolving tables about 2m in diameter in which the [individual wooden] characters were divided according to the five tones and the rhyme sections according to the official book of rhymes. The characters were all numbered and one man holding the list called out the number to another who would fetch the type.”

An improvement on simple chaos perhaps but not exactly a model of efficiency. Another strike against movable Chinese type was that if a reprint was called for the types (often wooden) would have to be reassembled with the same lengthy process, whereas a book printed by woodblocks could be reprinted just by taking out the blocks and mounting them on the press. There’s a Chinese Blockprinting Museum in Yangzhou, where they run demonstrations of woodblock carving and printing.

Here is a video of members of the Wang clan who still use movable wooden types for their genealogy printing. They still use a rhyming chant to select the individual types. This print survival seems in the process of being moved into a museum setting where it will be preserved in some form. Luckily the commentary is supplemented by subtitles.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Here’s a Flickr post with lots of pictures of Rixing Type Foundry in Taipei. (I am, I admit, making an assumption that the pictures all come from the same foundry: I can’t read Chinese.) Atlas ObsuraTyperoom and NeoCha also show some good pictures.

See also Chinese typewriter

 

 

At No. 1 Queenston Street in Queenston, Ontario, just about seven miles downstream from the Niagara Falls stands the house where William Lyon Mackenzie first printed The Colonial Advocate in 1824. Within is a small museum dedicated to printing, The Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum.

They have on show the oldest press in Canada, a wooden Louis Roy press, as well as a bunch of letterpress equipment including a Linotype caster. Examples of The Courier Advocate can be seen, and of course the gift shop offers you facsimiles.

 

 

 

An effigy of Mr Mackenzie greets you as you enter. Perhaps the most fascinating feature of this image is Mr Mackenzie’s beard. Turns out the beard is merely a sort of chin strap to hold on his wig. Now whether this was the case in real life, or as I suspect merely true of this particular manifestation, I cannot confirm. Contemporary portraits and his bust outside the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in Toronto suggest that the actual beard was pretty real. We were told that to emphasize his point Mr Mackenzie would often throw his wig to the ground. He certainly was a turbulent man, starting his newspaper to give vent to his dissatisfaction at the land policies, patronage, and crooked justice of the ruling colonial administration. He was the first mayor of Toronto in 1834. He fled at times to the United States of America, to escape bankruptcy in 1826, and to avoid prosecution for rebellion after The Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern in 1837, when as leader of an armed revolt he had a price, £1,000, on his head. Born in 1795 in Dundee, Scotland, he died of an apoplectic seizure at his home in Toronto in 1861.

The highlight of your trip to the museum is the printing of a proclamation of your attendance. You have to typeset your own name by hand from an inevitably sparse collection of sorts in a job case. Word spaces were in notably short supply. The attending apprentice then fits this type into a standing form, locks it up, inks it with a couple of ink balls, and runs off one copy which you take away as a souvenir of your visit. The press used for this is not the Louis Roy, but a sturdier cast-iron Albion press made by Hopkinson & Cope of Finsbury, London.

While you visit the Mackenzie Printery do not fail to visit the many excellent wineries in the region.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, basically the right hand bit of the map above, is also the home of The Shaw Festival.

 

Stanley Morison’s name was always mentioned with reverence in the Pitt Building in the sixties and seventies. He had died in 1967. As typographical advisor to the University Press his name had long been the calling card of all who wished to celebrate and cement Cambridge’s place of preeminence among letterpress printers.

Nicolas Barker, Morison’s biographer, speaks for about ¾ of an hour in this video of a talk at the Cooper Union in New York. (If you don’t see a video above, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.)

Morison became interested in type as a result the purchase of the 10 September 1912 supplement to The Times dealing with printing and its history. He was, apart from his typographical work, notable for two main things. He always wore a black suit of ecclesiastical cut with a black hat, and was a life-time socialist, imprisoned during the First World War for his pacifist beliefs.

Any publisher at all interested in design should read First Principles of Typography, a brief introduction to his style: simplicity, balance, a historical sensitivity and attention to detail.

Many book designers need to see his remarks, near the bottom of this page about ‘bright’ typography. “Even dullness and monotony in the typesetting are far less vicious to a reader than typographical eccentricity or pleasantry.” The designer’s work should ideally remain invisible to the reader’s (conscious) mind. Your job is to ease communication between author and reader; no more and no less.

See also my February post Stanley Morison.

 

To help with your vacation planning, here’s a list of letterpress printing museums around the world supplied by the American Amateur Press Association. The Association of European Printing Museums also has a list, this one with an interactive map. Both sites include links to individual museums’ websites.

Unusual to find a 16th century printed page together with the woodcut responsible for it. This picture of a type of lettuce from Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s Herbal was printed in 1562 and hand colored. Here’s the page, and below it the hand-cut woodblock from which it was printed. The type below would be locked up in the forme along with the woodcut, and the heading type, plus any other pages being printed in the same impression.

These pictures come from the Folger Library’s exhibition Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare, which runs from 24 February to 3 June 2018.

Interpreting the block is one of these duck/rabbit problems. Until you see what’s raised and what’s recessed, your eye insists on seeing it the other way round. Remember the black lines, in order to pick up the ink and transfer it to the paper, have to be higher than the background which has been cut away. Interestingly Folger tells us that after this job was completed the block was reused and has a portrait carved into the other side.

Maybe such woodcut survivals are more common than I had imagined. Here’s another one from an earlier work by Mattioli which appears on his Wikipedia page.

Here’s the trailer for Pressing on: The Letterpress Film, linked to via Medium.

The film was financed with help from a Kickstarter campaign. Here Erin Beckloff, the co-director, talks about the origins of the concept.

If you don’t see any videos here, click on the title of this blog post in order to read it in your browser.

Ulrich Pinder’s 1506 Epiphanie Medicorum, Folger Library

Atlas Obscura shows a sample of what they refer to as early color-printing, though they do eventually admit towards the end that the color wasn’t printed. The original source, the Folger Library where this book is part of an exhibition, “Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare” which will run till June 3rd, is less coy, making clear the color was added by hand after printing in black only, and pointing out that the lack of distinction between the different colors would make the chart less than perfectly useful for urinalysis. That different colorists might use different shades in coloring different copies would also detract from the chart’s value in interpretation.

Printing color as good as is required by this sort of urine comparison chart could not be attempted until the invention of the halftone process in the mid nineteenth century. In theory you could have mixed up twenty different colors of ink and printed each flat color separately — except of course for the fact that this would be hopelessly expensive, thus vanishingly unusual. Only a king among physicians might have a purse large enough.

Diagnosis by urinalysis is of course something we’re all familiar with as customers. It has a long history. Hippocrates believed in its diagnostic power, and we have a text from 100BC in Sanskrit discussing the technique. I had always assumed the analysis was totally chemical but it seems that color charts are still involved. It looks a bit like that old litmus test you remember from school.