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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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

The Pathfoot Press: Six Months In

When I came to my job interview at Stirling, I was full of big ideas, not all of them very practical.  One particularly far-fetched scheme I had was to propose developing a bibliography course at postgraduate level and equipping a print room for use by the students.  I laid this out in my job talk, emphasising the expense and long-term nature of the project, while also saying that I thought it had the potential to be a tremendous asset.  In the questions that followed someone – I can no longer remember who – piped up and said, “you know, I think we might have one of these hand press things somewhere”.  Twenty minutes later, thoroughly convinced I hadn’t gotten the job, one of the senior administrators was showing me into an out-of-the-way computer lab.  There, squeezed into the far end of the room, was a Columbian Press, an absolute beauty, surrounded by type cases, cabinets, ink stones, and even an Adana 8×5 to boot.

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Our Columbian Press (watercolour by Kenneth Williams).

And so one thing led to another.  I got the job (most surprising of all), I met Sarah Bromage – one of the curators of Stirling’s fantastic art collection – who also had plans for the press, we had a workshop or two, I pulled together what I could remember of my letterpress printing skills, and in March 2017 the newly-founded Pathfoot Press produced its first work: a large bifolium of Scots poetry celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the university.

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Our first pamphlet locked up and ready to roll, March 2017.

To find myself suddenly the head printer and designer of a university hand press was unexpected enough.  What I couldn’t have expected even six months ago, though, was just how much and how quickly the press and its activities would snowball.  As the only folk involved with the press who had prior letterpress experience, The Historian and I led the way on the publication front, squeezing in odd hours, evenings, and weekends to produce five broadsides and pamphlets to date, but we were hardly alone.  Together, the two of us and Sarah have given printing displays and practical sessions to the public, been filmed for university promotional purposes, printed limited edition broadsides of poetry written by Stirling’s Charles Wallace Fellow, been commissioned to do a series of typographical facsimiles by Innerpeffray Library, and even found ourselves with our very own intern busy cataloguing and organising our chaotic printshop.

In the Prayse of Writing Small

A seventeenth-century encomium on writing, June 2017.  Copies of this broadside can be purchased from the Innerpeffray Library!

What I had originally imagined as a tool for training future bibliographers has taken on a life of its own, sweeping me along with it, and I have to say that I’m tremendously pleased by everything that’s happened.  As a new and busy semester looms its head (our teaching starts on Monday), it’s proving difficult to give as much time as I’d like to the press, but we already have plans in place to continue growing its staff, its productions, and its reach.  If you haven’t come across the Pathfoot Press as yet, visitors are always very welcome or you can follow us on Twitter @PathfootPress.  At this rate, who can say what we’ll be printing and designing in another six month’s time?

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The Poet in the Print Shop

A couple of years ago I was reading the account book of Robert Freebairn’s print shop in Edinburgh (because what could be more thrilling?) and came across some unusual entries.  In amongst the regular business of the shop – “for a new barr-shaft to the press”, “for ten fathom of cords for hanging books”, “for carrying paper”, “for Drink & Bread this Week to encourage [the apprentices] to work” – were several entries relating to the physician, heterodox thinker, and poet Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713).

On 28 March 1713, Thomas Ruddiman – who moonlighted as Freebairn’s clerk when he wasn’t busy being librarian to the Faculty of Advocates – noted “Poem for Dr Pitcairn” and immediately below it, “press thrice wrought”.  On 16 May he recorded a “Poem of Dr Pitcairn’s on my Lord Drummond’s Son 4 times wrought” and on 3 October two more “Poem[s] of Dr Pitcairn”.  Pitcairne is known for his habit of publishing poems as single broadside sheets, but I was intrigued by this suggestion that they had gone through the press multiple times (a suggestion confirmed by the relatively high costs of these impressions, 1s. 6d. for the printing of the 28 March poem and 2s. for that of 16 May, compared, say, to the 3s. weekly wage of Freebairn’s journeymen).  Why was Freebairn taking so much trouble over these jobs?

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Pitcairne’s final job at Freebairn’s press before his death later in October 1713 (NLS MS 763, fol. 47v).

The answer may lie with the state of Edinburgh printing at the beginning of the eighteenth century.  That state was pretty poor.  The average was bare competence and many printers couldn’t manage even that.  Freebairn was, on the whole, one of the more accomplished pressmen of his generation, but even his work tends to have only a workmanlike mise-en-page combined with frequent uneven inking, overprinting, crooked pages, etc.  The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if Pitcairne was himself overseeing the printing of his poems and demanding a higher standard of quality than was usually brought to the Edinburgh print trade?

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An example of Edinburgh printing from this period.  Not exactly the Doves Press.

Those of Pitcairne’s broadsides which survive seem to confirm this idea.  While their quality varies, overall they strike me as being both artistically and typographically superior to the ordinary printing of their day.  Some, in particular, aim for a very pleasing epigraphic effect, a bit like John Sparrow’s Lapidaria series in the twentieth century.

So far I’ve only consulted digitised copies of the broadsides – which are notoriously useless for saying much about the letterpress behind a text – but I’m planning an expedition to the National Library to look at several in more detail and I hope that will be able to tell me a bit more about Pitcairne’s “thrice wrought” poems.  It may be that we’re looking at a forgotten moment in the history of printing-as-art and will need to adjust our understandings of Pitcairne in light of it.

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A slight overprint and some inking problems on the ‘B’ in ‘Britannam’, but possibly something new on the Edinburgh stage?

I should also say – just to blow a small blast on my own trumpet – that I’ll be talking in more detail about Pitcairne, his broadsides, and the printers behind them at the “Using Letterpress” workshop being held in Dublin’s National Print Museum on 17 November.  It’ll be a blast, at least, that is, if you like bibliographical minutiae!

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams