Letterpress: Art or Craft?

Anyone who has spent much time in the world of visual and material culture will be familiar with the so-called “art vs. craft debate”.  Rooted in early modern and modern western European distinctions between (fine) “art”, e.g., Michelangelo’s David, and (not so fine) “craft”, e.g., a Toby jug, this perceived duality continues to echo through the contemporary art world despite repeated attempts to destabilise it, recalibrate it, or simply ignore it altogether [1].

As a printer, I only began to think about where letterpress might fit into all of this last year when a glass maker of my acquaintance asked me, did I think of myself as an artist or a craftsman?  At the time I off-handedly said “craftsman”, but in reality I don’t think the answer can be quite so simple.

The problem is that both “art” and “craft” come with their own cultural baggage.  When we think of the “artist” (or, perhaps, the artiste) we imagine a very different figure from the “craftsperson”.  One connotes genius, high culture, and the creation of prestige objects; the other, skill, low culture, and the creation of well-made but essentially ordinary objects.  If we think in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories, the artist possesses cultural capital in a way the craftsperson does not.


Art or Craft?

But it doesn’t take much effort to begin poking holes in this dichotomy.  Indeed, this seems to be yet another case where humans’ inherent love of binaries gets in the way of understanding what is actually happening.  Yet we cannot ignore the binary either, because – like it or not – it defines how much of our culture perceives the skilled production of material objects.

So where does letterpress fit into this?  The traditional letterpress printing of a pre-1970s print shop would seem to fit solidly within the remit of “craft”: its skills replicated through apprenticeship, its function as a relatively low social status paid job, and its mass-production of what were, from the eighteenth-century if not earlier, incredibly widely consumed material goods (i.e., books).  But it’s also easy to recall cases where such a definition seems questionable, if not absurd.  How many people would pigeon-hole the Doves Press Bible as “craft” rather than “art”?  How many more would object to either term as insufficient to describe what they see on the page?

Doves Bible

Craft or Art?  The Doves Press Bible (1902-1904).

Whether we define the letterpress productions of a jobbing print shop as either “craft” or “art” is less relevant to the present day, however.  Printing with lead type is no longer a mainstream profession or an essential means for the dissemination of knowledge.  Instead we are all collectively reinventing ourselves as something different, something possibly more like “artists” than “craftspeople”.  Certainly the small print runs, careful attention to aesthetic appearance, and high brow subjects of much modern letterpress seem to place it squarely in the art world even as the proliferation of small businesses selling personalised letterpress wedding stationery or party invitations would seem to suggest a revival of letterpress as “craft”.

For me, I increasingly define what I do as “art” for pragmatic reasons.  Most people, when they see a sheet coming off the press, exclaim, “oh!  That’s easier than I thought!” and most academics and other professionals tend to treat a letterpress workshop as a fancy version of a photocopier (“could you run off a hundred of these tomorrow?  They’ll look so good for the conference”).  Defining letterpress as “art” pushes against these assumptions and returns the very real mental and physical labour of producing handprinted objects to centre stage.


The artist at work?

And that seems to me to be the most important thing.  If, as the entire art vs. craft debate seems to suggest, both terms are now so baggy and almost meaningless that most creators could happily define their work as one or the other, I choose “art” as a way of emphasising the challenges of creation and the value of the object created.  Whether the larger world will agree with that remains to be seen.


Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams


[1] Some examples of manifestations of the debate from recent years can be read here, here, and here.

Post-Book Pleasures

One of the nicest things about having submitted my book manuscript has been the suddenly-restored space in which to simply read, think, and tentatively write about new ideas.  I’m already working on my latest research project – a study of carved stones in Scotland – but that’s both long-term and expansive in its remit, so there’s been plenty of space in which to explore.

At the moment that’s taking the form of some research and the beginnings of writing on a monument I’ve been fascinated by for a number of years: the towering baroque tomb of the Marquess and Marchioness of Atholl in Dunkeld Cathedral.


The Atholl Monument (1704-05), Dunkeld Cathedral.

The monument commemorates the first marquess of Atholl, a nobleman in the characteristic Restoration mould, and his half-English, half-French wife.  Its designer, however, was none other than Alexander Edward, the prolific and polymathic Jacobite, Episcopal minister, and architect who was an associate of William Bruce and a client of the Maules of Panmure.  Remarkably, Edward’s original plans for the monument survive and lately I’ve been exploring what this can tell us about its purpose and its larger architectural and art historical context.

It’s an exciting project, but mostly I’m just pleased to be working on something other than the book!

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Week -4: The Book is Finished!

. . . and it’s away!  Shortly before midnight last night I hit send on the e-mail which delivered a full manuscript of The First Scottish Enlightenment to my editor at OUP.  Alert readers may have noticed that my actual submission deadline was the end of July rather than the end of August.  They may also have noticed my over-enthusiastic conference attendance for much of the summer.  The two combined to put me behind schedule, but after a punishing few weeks I’ve nonetheless succeeded in sending the manuscript off before teaching begins.

In the spirit of this series of blog posts – which were, at least notionally, intended to be about the process of completing a book project – I thought I’d share the academic life-lessons I’ve learnt over the last couple of weeks.  They’re all extremely obvious, especially in hindsight, but maybe that’s also why they’re worth talking about.


VI. Never underestimate the importance of having a dedicated research assistant.

V. You don’t need to chase that citation.  Much of my time over the last few weeks has been spent in university libraries trying to chase up obscure books I thought I should probably look at and cite (anyone familiar with Aristide Joly’s 1934 Université de Paris doctoral thesis on the Duke of Perth?).  But very few of these have had any material impact on the book as a whole.  Many more or less frustrating hours could have been saved by simply accepting that it’s impossible to ever be completely exhaustive in your research.

IV. Don’t think about publication.  I’m bad about keeping my head in the present at the best of times, but I’ve been finding myself particularly side-tracked worrying about reviews, about what colleagues will think, and about what the overall reception of the book will be.  The rational part of me knows, though, that such thoughts were less than helpful in bringing this project to its conclusion.

III. Obtain image permissions well ahead of submission.  I really wish I’d done this.

II. Read your publisher’s style guide.  This is something I actually did do, but even so I found myself having to make last-minute changes due to not having read it with sufficient care.

And crucially . . .

I. Use bibliographical software and/or maintain a running bibliography.  I wrote my bibliography from scratch between Tuesday and last night – it was absolute hell.  Next time I think I’ll have a go at using EndNote or Zotero or something similar.

Despite my questionable life choices, the book is still finished!  Now time to prepare for the new semester’s teaching and begin thinking about what comes next (the answer, of course, is lots of carved stones) . . . .

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Conference Season

It’s the middle of conference season, at least for me.  While the book continues to occupy most of my time, I’ve also been busy with a few papers which I hope might be interesting and indicative of some of the new directions in which my research has been moving.  If you’re there anyway, you might enjoy:

Towards a Theoretical Model of the Epigraphic Landscape

XI James Lumsden 1

Thursday, 12 July, 9-9.50am, 11th Celtic Conference in Classics, University of St Andrews.

This will be my first attempt to fully explain some of the methodological and theoretical approaches I’ve been developing for the study of early modern carved stones and I’ll be using the wonderful (bizarre?) object in the picture above as a case study.  If you feel strangely exhilarated by post-processual archaeology, then this will be a paper not to be missed.

The Origins of Engraving in Scotland

Stewart Bookplate Image

Wednesday, 18 July, 11-12.30am, Eighteenth-Century Scottish Studies Society Conference, University of Glasgow.

In retrospect, I should probably have gone with a paper that spoke more directly to my new book, but I couldn’t resist talking a little about the sudden and unexplained flowering of the art of engraving in Scotland around the year 1700.  Later that day I’ll also be at the Stirling Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies gin tasting (!) in Glasgow University Library, for which I would heartily encourage you to reserve a ticket if you’ve not yet done so.  Nothing says “eighteenth century” like gin . . . .

New Light on Old Stones: Reassessing the Post-Reformation Funeral Monuments in St Andrews Cathedral

Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 16.38.05

Saturday, 18 August, 3-4pm (tentatively), Medieval and Early Modern St Andrews: A One-Day Conference, University of St Andrews.

I’m extremely pleased to be consulting for Historic Environment Scotland on the post-Reformation carved stones in St Andrews Cathedral and as part of that larger project I’ll be talking about my initial findings at this conference.  The corpus of carved stones in the cathedral is outstanding and reveals some exciting connections between the East of Fife and the wider world.

If you happen to be at any of these, please do say hello!  Only ask me about the book at the last one, though . . . .

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Week 8: A Complete Draft

I began the research project which ultimately led to this book in the summer of 2014 and had been thinking about it for a year or more before that, so it’s almost hard to believe that last week saw me write the final chapter (an unexpected addition which I only realised I needed quite late in the day) and find myself in the possession of a complete draft of The First Scottish Enlightenment.

But so it is.  Not only do I have a complete draft, but most chapters are ready to go, with only two or three needing any substantial revision and the rest just awaiting polishing, cross-referencing and general putting in order.  I’m still a bit behind schedule – all of this was meant to happen last week – but it feels like a huge achievement nonetheless.  Now I’ve begun the penultimate end-to-end read, ferreting out sections where I’ve repeated myself, or changed my mind, or thought I made sense but actually didn’t.  While I’m finding plenty to tweak, so far nothing truly awful has reared its head and occasionally I can even tolerate my prose.

Reflexive back-patting out of the way, though, I wanted to continue in the spirit of this series of posts by talking a little more about how I’ve been approaching revisions to the manuscript.  I’ve been taking it chapter by chapter, beginning with a paper copy (in which I find it far easier to catch grammatical and typographical errors).  I mark up the paper copy with any minor changes – typos, punctuation, an additional clause, etc. – and make notes of any more substantial additions in an Evernote file to return to later.  At the same time, I’ve been creating an index of where I mention key individuals, books, manuscripts, and events to avoid duplication and make sure I introduce them properly when they first appear.  Finally, I take note again of the sub-sections within the chapter and ask myself if they make sense, flow well, or need to be renamed or shuffled about.

That’s the first step – working with paper copy in hand.  Then I copy over all of my handwritten changes into the relevant Word file before working through my notes for more extensive additions or revisions, taking these one at a time, usually while ensconced in the St Andrews university library (the closest research library to home), where I can easily check references.  At this stage, I’ll also make any revisions or cutting and pasting which the index reveals to be necessary.

Once these two stages are done, each chapter is ready to be sent off to my kind and extremely patient readers.  At the same time, however, I’ve also been taking a separate set of notes on anything which may need to be returned to once the whole book has been gone through in this way: mostly cross-references, occasionally lists or tables dependent upon other chapters, and similar material.  I’ll attend to that at the end.

And that’s where I stand.  Eight weeks from my submission deadline – the end of July – and, I think, in pretty decent shape.  I like this stage of the process, the conscientous and meticulous working out of small issues, tidying of prose, and all the other things that go with revision, and look forward to seeing it through over the next couple of weeks.

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Week 13: The Best-Laid Schemes . . .

Burns’s “To a Mouse” (1785) is one of those poems so culturally ubiquitous – in Scotland anyway – that its lines have become verbal tics or pieces of linguistic shorthand like Chinese Chengyu.  I was reflecting on this while mentally composing the present blog post.  A little less than a month ago The Historian and I moved into a new (or, rather, old) house with all the predictable chaos that involves, not least of which has been the collapse of my existing schedule for book completion.  The phrase which naturally came to mind was that most famous of distychs from “To a Mouse”: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men | Gang aft agley”.

In context that was pretty disastrous (for the mouse, at least), as the subsequent lines – “An’ lea’e us nought but grief and pain, | For promis’d joy!” – make clear.  In the case of the book project, it’s perhaps not so bad as all that.  Agley (or aglee) simply means asquint or awry or somewhat oblique in Scots, though with the figurative meaning of something in error or off the mark, and comes from the verb gley, to squint, but also to look with one eye, to take aim.  While the house move has, indeed, meant that my book completion plans have gone agley, I think I’ve managed to nonetheless gley once again at the target of manuscript submission and come up with a revised schedule that’s still workable (more workable than my attempts at linguistic punning, to be sure).

An adjustment of plans was needed in any case as earlier in the year I’d become aware that I probably didn’t need a separate chapter on one topic (Roman antiquities, which have ended up being discussed in the context of various other chapters), but did most definitely need a chapter I hadn’t originally intended (one specifically on the work of Thomas Innes).  So the next three weeks will see me writing this latter chapter.  It shouldn’t be too hard, given that Innes has figured largely in my research for a number of years now, and when it’s finished only the introduction and conclusion will remain to be written.

In other words, if at first you go agley, gley, gley again!

The header image is a photograph of Kenny Hunter’s seven foot tall bronze mouse statue at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Week 17: Provenance and the Individual Book in the Digital Age

Another chapter down.  This one was on reception and readership and – combined with some very exciting plans for a new project which I’ve been cooking up with a friend down south – it’s been making me think about provenance and book ownership even more than usual.

“[People] care about what makes a book unique

A year or so ago I was talking to a book collector about the ways in which digitisation had affected collecting.  “People care more about provenance now”, he said, “they care about what makes a book unique“.  That’s very true.  When we can download a PDF of many an early printed book from Google in a matter of minutes, the printed text begins to recede into the background as a collectible object in favour of – to borrow a phrase from the Material Evidence in Incunabula project – the “copy specific, post-production evidence and provenance information”.  This has a knock-on effect for us academics as well; only look at the number of new projects focusing on the study of historic libraries, the investigation and recording of material evidence, and the renewed interest in bindings and other facets of the book as physical artefact.

This is an altogether good thing (as long as we don’t begin to neglect the printed book itself!).  It also represents a larger sea-change in collecting.  While celebrity autograph albums and the like were widely popular in the nineteenth century, there was much less interest in the post-production aspects of most books, even to the extent of incunables and other desirable items being “washed” to remove those untidy humanist scribbles (*weep*).  Now that provenance is such a hot topic, bibliographically speaking, not only are we seeking to understand it more from a scholarly point of view, it’s also changing things as basic as how early printed books are catalogued.

The beauty about provenance from a collector’s standpoint is that it’s a great leveler.  Not every wouldbe book collector can own a shelf of incunables, but anyone with patience and knowledge can find books with wonderful histories inscribed in them.  All of the following were picked up in charity bookshops, library book sales, etc., rarely for more than a tenner at most:


Millar 1

Millar 2

J. H. Millar.  A Literary History of Scotland.  London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903.

This delightful example of early twentieth-century literary criticism contains the stamp and bookplate of one of Fife’s early public libraries, established in Kirkcaldy by the Beveridges – local linoleum magnates – in 1895.  The bookplate, rather forbiddingly, reminds prospective users that “The Librarian is authorised to levy exemplary fines upon readers damaging books”.

Bowra 1

Bowra 2

C. M. Bowra.  Sophoclean Tragedy.  Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1947.

This monograph by the inimitable Maurice Bowra contains extensive annotations on almost every page, apparently by its former owner, Nigerian colonial administrator and poet Charles Ashbee Woodhouse, whose 1948 signature appears on the flyleaf.

Pliny 1

Pliny 2

Pliny the Younger.  Epistularum libri novem . . ., ed. R. C. Kukula.  Leipzig: In aedibus B. G. Teubneri, 1908.

When I was a postgraduate, old Teubner editions of the classics could be found in every Oxford bookshop, but this volume, with its successive Balliol owners is a particularly lovely example of the university book trade.  It has been interleaved to facilitate note-taking, though most of its readers seem to have given up long before the end.

Of its owners, Alexander Wigram Allen Leeper (1887-1935), who probably purchased it new and was responsible for the interleaving, was an Australian civil servant and authority on cuneiform texts.  Bernard Francis (Brian) McGuinness (b. 1927) is a retired philosophy don and authority on Wittgenstein.  Richard Patrick ffrench (1929-2010) was an ornithologist who studied the birds of Trinidad and Tobago.

Lewis & Short 1

Lewis & Short 2

Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short.  A Latin Dictionary.  Oxford: at the Clarendon Press, 1890.

The Historian reminds me that the Oxford Latin Dictionary is better, but I retain a fondness for Lewis and Short, especially this rather touching volume.  Ralph Porter Wade (1883-1939) purchased his dictionary at the precocious age of sixteen before going on to be Gell Hebrew Prizeman at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and a vicar in Lincolnshire, while Edwin Lisle Marsden (1886-1950) was another northern cleric.  From there it went to Eton and finally made its way to the Classics Bookshop in Oxford.

All of which goes to say that provenance research needn’t be limited to scholars of incunables or wealthy industrialists gloating over their Gutenberg Bibles (if this latter, endangered species still exists).  The next time you’re in a charity shop or used bookstore, glance over a flyleaf or two and see what you discover . . . .

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Week 22: Strikes and Snow

This is the first week in which I’ve fallen behind my completion schedule.  It’s all the more strange given that the week which has just gone by, on first glance, would seem to have been the ideal stretch of time in which to plow ahead with the book project.

Why?  Well, I’ve somewhat sophistically convinced myself that I can work on the book during strike days (for the strike and what it involves click here) as that will be working for myself rather than for my institution.  Whether that’s a valid argument or not is another matter, but either way it should have meant that I had three clear days of book time earlier this week.  On top of that, the “Beast fae the East” ensured that classes were cancelled on both Thursday and Friday, meaning two more days at home (in heavily snowed-in Doune – see the picture at the top of this post), which – even allowing for the need to mark student essays – ought to have helped matters along.

But I think in the end that a regular routine is more productive to writing than any number of more or less unexpected bonus days.  Somehow I’ve managed to explore the Leighton Library, sort press furniture for our home press, clean a giant pile of brass rules for the same, write a paper which ended up being canceled by snow, and do pretty much everything conceivable this week except for actually moving forward with the book.


I may not have progressed with the book, but these are now scrubbed, polished, and sorted by size.

And so, I’m now about a week behind.  With luck that will change next week: the strike is due to continue and I’ll be sitting at home with little else to do.  But this time I’ll have to knuckle down and impose a routine on these otherwise all too slippery days of strike and snow . . . .

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Week 25: A Chapter Down

We are currently in week 25.  I used to organise my desk journal and the other paraphernalia of scheduling by weeks of term or semester, but that’s now been supplanted by the overarching countdown of the book manuscript and, by that highly specific calendar, we are twenty-five weeks away from hand-off to OUP.

I’m now four weeks in to the completion schedule I set myself at the beginning of this year and am feeling, on the whole, pleased with its progress.  Teaching has been happening for a little while now, but I’m still managing to balance it and administrative responsibilities with ongoing book work.  Indeed, as I write I have one more chapter in the bag than I did when I began all of this in January.

So, how did that happen?  Last spring I wrote about generative writing and the ways in which I’ve used it during the present book project.  This chapter was no different.  I outlined at progressively detailed levels until I had a paragraph-by-paragraph skeleton of the chapter I wanted to produce (about 3,000 words), then over a couple of days I fleshed that out into a ~9,000 word very rough first draft.  In the subsequent week I added footnotes and tidied the style until it’s now sitting at about 12,000 words and is in a pretty decent state save that I need to check a few sources when I’m next in St Andrews.


John Cockburn’s Bibliotheca Universalis (Edinburgh, 1688), one of the case studies in Scottish intellectual culture discussed in the chapter I’ve just finished.

That probably makes it all sound easy enough, but I’ve actually found this chapter quite hard.  It’s chapter one – I’m writing the book out of order – and contains about half of my attempt to intervene in Enlightenment historiography (the other half will be in the introduction).  I find that sort of heavily referential, positioning activity to be heavy work and am by no means convinced that the current draft does a sufficient job of explaining both where I sit amongst the various Israelite, Robertsonian, Pocockian, etc. interpretations of Enlightenment and how what I’m doing is different.  Mercifully, I’m now turning to chapter four (again, out of order) and what I’ve been calling the “Ancient Monarchy Debate” – the long-running critique of Scotland’s supposedly 2,000-year-old royal dynasty – which is much more comfortably antiquarian ground.

If all goes well, I should be writing another blog post, recording the successful completion of chapter four, somewhere in the last days of February or first days of March . . . .

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Scheduling the Book

I survive in academia with the help of calendars and schedules: the paper diary that used to be enough to keep me organised when I was a student has expanded into a Google calendar, an increasingly complicated desk journal, and multiple tables and Gantt charts, but the principle remains the same.  My latest schedule, though, is particularly terrifying: the schedule of finishing the book.

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 10.34.17

This is the part of my 2018 schedule I’m really looking forward to . . . .


On the surface of it, finishing The Book doesn’t seem too daunting.  My submission date is 31 July, I already have most of it written, and a relatively light teaching semester ahead of me.  But once you begin to break down the twenty-eight weeks between now and the end of July, things start looking tighter.  To stay on schedule I’ll need – for example – to finish the chapter I’m currently working on by 9 February and knock off the next one (which, mercifully, already exists in a partial draft) by 2 March and while four weeks seems like quite a lot, I’ll also be juggling teaching, the press, and all the other administrative and quotidian responsibilities of being a lecturer (not to mention those interfering non-scholarly activities, like buying a house).

So I’m steeling myself for a busy few months.  Packed as they’ll be, I think I’ve worked out a manageable timeline for completion and I’m looking forward, after a semester devoted almost wholly to teaching, to return to this project and see it through its final stages.  Step one: draw up a detailed plan of the chapter I’m about to write.  This is chapter one (because I’m writing out of order), an overview of Scottish intellectual culture at the end of the seventeenth century, and I’m currently putting flesh on the bones of a fairly general outline I made before Christmas.  Once I’ve worked out what I want to say, paragraph by paragraph, then I’ll turn to generative writing to produce a first draft.  Before I can do that, though, I want to reread and refresh my memory of a couple of key texts (the seminal works by Clare Jackson and Hugh Ouston on this period) and review my notes towards the chapter, some of which were taken three or four years ago and almost certainly contain material which has long since escaped my mind.

Evernote and my increasingly well-worn copy of Restoration Scotland beckon . . . .


Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams