The Innocent Printer
Next month Ruskin Arts Publications, supported by The Blake Society, publishes a new visual edition of ‘Auguries of Innocence’. In advance of the launch event on Monday 22 May at Swedenborg House, some reflections by editor and project director Nicholas Jeeves.
On the front cover of our book, titled Auguries of Innocence: First Experiences with Letterpress, a short piece of text sets the scene:
Each year from 2014 to 2018 graphic design students at Cambridge School of Art were assigned a brief: to typeset and print in letterpress a couplet from William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’. None of them had used letterpress before. A selection of their prints is collected in this unique visual edition of ‘Auguries of Innocence’, comprising the poem in its entirety and revealing an intriguing insight into the creative mind as it transitions between innocence and experience.
We are now in 2023, and this means that I have been looking at the prints for almost nine years. Still with every viewing I catch one of these transitional moments anew — a bright conceptual leap here, an effective use of overprinting there, or a word set just so that it brings a delicate tension to the page. Indeed every page of our book contains some wonderful example of a discovery fixed in print, the record of a first tentative interplay between intuition and careful and deliberate experimentation.
As Blake wrote in All Religions are One, ‘As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences.’ Typically the price of experimentation is to experience a measure of failure, and with letterpress a failure can take a frustratingly long time to resolve. It is a fiddly and time-hungry practice: all those little metal letters that need to be individually gathered and aligned, and disassembled and reassembled with every correction; the heavy chases and great steel rollers than need to be hauled about; all those inky, sticky tins and spatulas that need to be cleaned with rags and noxious spirits. Overcoming such material obstacles to progress requires courage and perseverance. This is particularly true in the case of the young novice, who will be more used to the sterility and speed of production that screens, drop-down menus and laser printers can provide.
It is for this reason that I wanted to subtitle the book ‘First Experiences with Letterpress’, obtaining a focus on discovery and process as much as product. There are a great many beautiful books in the world featuring seriously accomplished design work, but their contents are usually curated on the evidence of expertise (experience). But as a teacher what I am most interested in is evidence of learning — those transitional creative artefacts that gather in the spaces between intuition and confirmation, between ambition and correction, between innocence and experience.
This evidence of learning, captured in print, is what our book seeks to celebrate. That’s not to say that the works collected there are to be thought of as unrefined, or unaccomplished. Many of the prints are not just intelligently conceived and deeply imaginative but also amazingly well executed, capable of warming the heart of even the most experienced printer. Those prints that are perhaps less refined remain of deep interest to me, for they are just as telling and therefore just as cherishable. As we often say at the beginning of our graphic design course, we’re much less interested in the destination than the distance travelled, and in some cases the less obviously precise prints may speak of a braver spirit, a deeper learning, a much longer journey.
Our beautiful book correctly honours all of these journeys equally and I am delighted to be able to share it with you now. Please join us at Swedenborg House on 22 May, where many of the printers — now no longer so innocent, and fast gathering experience — will congregate. There we will celebrate Blake, ‘Auguries’ and these enchanting student works, and together bring them properly into the light.
After the launch, copies of the book will be available to order via the print-on-demand service Blurb. We will announce its release to Blake Society members in due course.
Auguries of Innocence: First Experiences with Letterpress. 50 copies will be available at the launch in May: 25 paperbacks (shown above) and 25 hardbacks, featuring a letterpress-printed dust jacket signed and numbered by tutors Nicholas Jeeves and Elizabeth Fraser.
Gita Kowlessur (left) prints a delicate, loosely set italic font in white on a dark blue fabric, first requiring considerable experimentation with type and materials, and later, careful and even inking. Shanan Brown (right) hand-stitches an illustration over her print, bringing an enchanting tactile element to the work: a print to be touched as well as seen.
Natasha Livingstone (left) uses three printings in three typefaces to effect a tangle of lines that somehow retain readability; on the right, an immaculate bit of composition and overprinting by Sophie Potterill. The clever use of colour and tonal values, and the positioning of the printings, ensures that we read the two lines that form the couplet in the correct order.
A page spread from the sequence of prints that make up the poem. Zahra Fontenelle (left) — like Blake, a Londoner — finds her inspiration in London street signs while skilfully avoiding pastiche. It is a beautifully set and grounded bit of type with a bold and bright idea behind it. Gauri Sirure’s design (right) contrasts a refined script face with handmade paper, layered with blades of grass, to lyrical effect.
Jayde Penfold (left) prints over a page from the Gospel of Mark which tells the story of the widow’s offering, drawing a connection and creating an interaction between the texts; Amie Ennew (right) prints on delicate gold paper, and in the arrangement of the type evokes the poem’s symmetries and complementary forces.