Handpress Library 2 - Lewis Allen


Lewis Allen's Printing With the Handpress may be the most widely known of 20th century books on the subject. He, along with his wife Dorothy, spent 50 years designing and printing books that took the fullest possible advantage of the techniques and freedoms offered by the handpress, such as printing multiple colors with a single impression and using wonderful handmade papers (which, of course, had to be printed damp to realize their fullest potential). By the mid-1960s Lewis Allen had become recognized as one of the few practising experts on handpress printing, and he spent many hours replying by mail to inquiries about technique, materials, etc. To avoid answering the same questions repeatedly, he and his wife decided to print a manual describing the equipment, materials and techniques used at the Allen Press to publish a book.

The book is illustrated with many drawings (line engravings) by Victor Seward, plus some decorations by Mallette Dean. It is narrower in scope and shallower in depth than Rummonds' book, but these features may make it a  less daunting introduction to the craft. It covers all the same bases, but in less detail.

As a manual, Allen's book has never been used very much at HM. His method for dampening paper is more laborious and less reliable than Rummonds'; his mention of adding formaldehyde to the water has led subsequent generations to live in fear of carcinogens and mould (it's really not an issue); the humidors he describes for keeping paper damp are baroque. The book's real value lies in its production, using all of the techniques and materials described: you can examine each page to see the results of what Allen is describing. Which is why the subsequent facsimile editions are poor seconds. They contain the information only. This is the problem with all books about printing techniques that do not employ the actual technique(s) being discussed: you are left looking at a reproduction of the thing, which is never the same.

Nonetheless, the original edition of Allen's book (limited to 140 copies, the usual run for Allen Press titles) is not often encountered now, and never inexpensively, so most people have to make do with a copy of the facsimile. The drawings are excellent references, the book is beautifully designed and printed. Its concise description of the process for designing, setting and printing a book is an excellent primer for anyone wanting to develop a knowledgeable appreciation of fine printing. Despite our niggling disagreements over technique, HM holds the Allens' work in high regard - aspirational even - and will always credit them with opening our eyes to the potential of the handpress.


Uncommon Deities Portfolio Released

The ten copies of David Sylvian's broadside "Uncommon Deities" which have been put into a special triptych portfolio case were received from Claudia Cohen's bindery this week. The case is covered in a black Japanese book cloth, with a printed label set on the front board and spine. For these portfolio copies (numbers 1 - 10 from the edition of 30), the broadside was trimmed in thirds. Closed, the portfolio measures approximately 6.5 by 12.5 inches; when opened, it measures approximately 19.5 by 12.5 inches.  Just four of the ten portfolio copies are being offered for sale; the other six are for the publisher, author and artist.


Naughty Flowers

David Clifford's been getting naughty over at Black Stone Press. After many years of thinking and planning, he's finally published a new edition of the "pièces condamnées" from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, featuring multi-color illustrations by Charlie Mayrs. Very, shall we say, sophisticated illustrations, appropriately stylized and explicit for poems that deal with decadence and eroticism. So sophisticated that we are showing just details from a few here, lest we need to add some "18+ content" warnings to this blog's header.

These six poems, which were considered to cross France's obscenity laws, were censored from the collections first (1857) and second 1861 editions of Les Fleurs du Mal. (Not until the 1940s could they legally be printed in that country; a history of the poems' publication can be found here.) David's interest in the poems was sparked in the 1960s, while living and working in France, where he would listen to an LP recording of the complete poems. The challenge - beyond finding time for a personal project amidst Black Stone's ongoing commercial work - was connecting with an artist who had the right style and sensibility for the project.

Charlie Mayrs was a student at the Vancouver Art School in the 1960s (one of Robert R. Reid's many students) with a passion for painting. But his subsequent career took him into advertising, and it was not till this past decade, after retiring, that he returned his full attention to art. He has created and published a number of artist's books, printed on commission at Black Stone Press, featuring his art as well as his own prose and poetry. Having gotten to know Charlie and his work during these projects, David invited him to create the sexytime illustrations - one for each poem - for Les Fleurs du Mal.

The edition is printed in an edition of 40 press-numbered copies (28 pp, 6.5 x 9.5 inches), signed by Charlie Mayrs. The text (in French only) was set in Arepo and printed (in a total of eight colors) on Rives BFK paper. It is sewn and bound into a printed, heavy case of handmade paper by David's daughter and partner at Black Stone, Yasmine Franchi. The price is $300, available directly from David (see link along right side of this page; no kids or prudes).


Handpress Library 1 - Gabriel Rummonds

When looking at your own printing for eight hours every day, one can quickly lose perspective on issues like color, impression and consistency. While slogging through printing the text pages for Oddballs, we often turn to our small collection of handpress books for inspiration, confirmation, and solace. Eric Gill provided one of our favorite quotes about the challenges of inking and printing entirely by hand:

"The press and method of inking, and sometimes the paper, which the craftsman uses are such that the colour of his work, at its best, is balanced on the very razor edge of accuracy. On either side his tools force on him a very slight margin, so that he is a tight-rope walker whose deliberate balance gives a different delight from that of the mechanical gyroscope."
Eric Gill, An Essay on Typography (p. 103)

And so, we thought we might share a few images and notes about the books that constitute our core reference library for printing with a handpress. First is Gabriel Rummonds' Printing On the Iron Handpress (Oak Knoll Press, 1998) which should be required reading for anyone interested in letterpress printing, including collectors. We know of no more comprehensive single resource for information about all stages of printing, from press set-up through design, paper selection, inking, right through to binding. While the detailed technical directions are based on using a handpress, much of the book's content is applicable no matter what kind of letterpress is being used. The book is broken into 33 chapters, essentially breaking down the printing of a book to the sequential steps; and each chapter then provides detailed directions, in addition to historical contexts and comparisons, and Rummonds' own comments and asides based on his decades of experience. Any beginning printer should gladly pay the book's price just for the chapter on recognizing (and thus diagnosing) the many different kinds of printing flaws one will encounter, each one illustrated with a photograph.

For gearheads who really want to delve into the arcana of handpress printing, Rummonds followed this work up with the two-volume Nineteenth Century Printing Practices & the Iron Handpress (Oak Knoll Press, 2004), which essentially compares, contrasts and explores details included in the major printing manuals upon which printers had relied at that time. But for most people - anyone interested in any aspect of the book arts - Printing On the Iron Handpress should be a standard reference. And don't just buy it; read it. Or at least skim through, which will inevitably lead you to drill down in the areas of most pertinence and interest. Be warned, however, that this could lead to an overwhelming desire to begin collecting Gabriel's own works from the Plain Wrapper Press and Ex Ophidia.

Next installment: Lewis Allen's Printing With the Handpress (& a discussion of why facsimiles just don't cut it for this kind of thing)


Lawrence, Lowell, Letterpress...

A great new comprehensive site dedicated to T.E. Lawrence and journalist Lowell Thomas can be found at Clio ("dedicated to developing innovative American history projects that are designed to engage students, inform educators and researchers, and appeal to a wide public audience"). The collection of images and photos is very cool.

Anyone interested in fine printing & publishing should take at least a passing interest in TEL, since he was responsible for what may be the most elaborate bit of self-publishing in the English language during the 20th century. His original edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom was a gargantuan undertaking, beyond just the writing (or reading...) of it. Some info about, & images of the book can be found at the E.J. Pratt Library site. A brief but insightful account of its production can also be found in the memoirs of Herbert Hodgson (Fleece Press, 1989), who printed it. He was initially presented with a treadle platen press to do the work, which he had to trick out with a motor to get through the project. Simon Lawrence's Fleece Press also published a brief account by Vyvyan Ryder of the plans he and TEL had discussed to start their own private press, modelled after Kelmscott (how dull that would have been). Although none of these fascinating bibliofacts were included in David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," the movie's still worth seeing, preferably in a theater, or at least on the biggest screen in your neighborhood. For anyone wanting to really dig into TEL's writings (such as his original, 1922 version of Seven Pillars, which was even longer than the version he eventually published!), check out the Castle Hill Press.