Letterpress Printing at the Golden Fish
It was 1992; we had been running our
workshops in the grounds of Downside Abbey in Somerset
England for about 8 years. We had established a thriving
bindery and had been marbling our own papers and book
edges for a couple of years.
naturally been very interested in letterpress printing for
as long as I had been a bookbinder, but had never felt the urge
to get seriously involved in it. However events were going to
converge that made it almost inevitable we form our own
Firstly, having had access to the
monastery library I had more than ample examples of early
letterpress printing onto vellum, which became
my chief interest.
we had picked up some letterpress equipment in the form
of a very nice Western cylinder proofing press from a
college of printing, it was a really nice machine from the
1950's and it came with new rollers having been
Third I became
aware of someone who wanted to be rid of more letterpress
equipment, a Ludlow typecaster, complete in every way and
with a great many desirable type faces.
lastly I knew the then abbot of the abbey had a great
interest in letterpress printing.
We had to move quickly as the
person who wanted to be rid of the typecaster badly needed
the floor space.
abbot of the community was a very aristocratic soul; he had an
unapproachable air, though in truth he was very friendly and
kind. I asked him If I might see him about a letterpress craft
explained to him that we had a press and now the once in a life
times opportunity to obtain a letterpress typecaster, I also
told him that it was pre reformation printing techniques that I
wanted to explore.
knew he would be interested, but, I told him, the
problem was that we had no space for
a press and could not afford to rent any.
went like those of a dead fish, trying to get rent free space
out of a catholic abbot is very much like getting blood out of
the proverbial stone.
he was sorry but the abbey had no space available on a free
rent, this was a blow, I felt sure he would want to see a press
of days later the abbot approached me in our workshop and asked
if I would accompany him, he took us around the back of a lot of
dilapidated buildings and finally up some concrete steps
which led to a very wobbly looking wooden door.
inside and turned on the light bulb that hung from the center
of the room, just a bare room with rough plastered walls and no
ceiling, he looked at me and almost whispered, "I can let you
have this room as free space".
says miracles don't happen!
a partition and put an insulated ceiling in, a small
which would house the letterpress and which could be kept
warm if need be.
typecaster and all the other letterpress
equipment plus type cabinets went into the unheated
part of the room.
all done very quickly, and by the time spring 1994 came around
we had been operating the press and typecaster, getting to know
the sort of problems we would be facing.
lucky to be friends with some of the community at Stanbrook
Abbey who helped us to broaden our letterpress printing
while we just practiced, we used the type caster for producing
titles of books to be blocked in gilt.
situation in the grounds of an abbey church meant we had some
visitors with matrimony on their minds, we got asked if we
could print orders of service, this became quite routine
work for the press, sometimes made more interesting by the
incorporation of hand rubricated initials into the
contacted Henk De Groot in Holland and explained I wanted to
print onto vellum; Henk produces an exceptional range of
vellums. He sent me 3 skins of calf vellum.
I had been making my
own ink for some time. Now I swear this is true, you can
put a piece of modern black printing up against a
hand ground ink made from lamp black and you will see
right away just how grey the modern black has
ink by collecting lamp black and grinding it with linseed oil
glass plate, my one concession to modern methods being the use
of a drying agent. I used Hostmann Steinberg Quick Drier
continued to print bespoke orders of service, helped on
occasion by the late Margaret Adams, sometimes printing a one
off copy on vellum as a keepsake.
printed any text onto vellum for framing and
the press for nearly 11 years and in 1998 won an award for its
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