Printing Blake in Houston

April 23, 2024

Trustee of the Blake Society John Riordan writes  about his experience printing with the replica Blake  press at Rice University, Houston.

Earlier this month I had the great privilege of heading to Houston (my first time in Texas) and spending two days printing on the replica Blake press at the Fondren Library, Rice University.

The printing press is a modern replica of the 18th century rolling press that Blake would have used, originally created by the Blake scholar and master printer Michael Phillips for his 2014 Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean. The press lived in Oxford for a few years but by a somewhat strange series of events has ended up in Houston, where, by an even stranger quirk of fate (and generosity) I was allowed not only to ogle it but to use it to print replica Blake prints and my own work!

Along with the press, Rice have a set of replica copper plates, reverse engineered by Michael Phillips from Blake’s prints (apart from one fragment in the Library of Congress, Washington, all of Blake’s plates were melted down hundreds of years ago). I started off printing a not so successful frontispiece from Songs of Innocence, before a much better pull (I think that’s the right term!) of my favourite of Blake’s Songs, ‘London’. As it happened a few weeks earlier I had persuaded Michael himself to come to London to give a printing demonstration and workshop for the Blake Society, so this was my second go at printing ‘London’, but my, erm, ‘Houston London’, was definitely a step up from the ‘London London’.

Having had this earlier session with Michael, I at least I had a bit of an idea of what to do (and what not to do!) and Amanda Focke, the Head of Special Collections at the Fondren, was on hand with guidance and and advice. First, you have to make your ink, mixing powdered pigment (including punk rock Gamboge) and linseed oil according to the amounts in Michael’s recipe book, then slowly apply the tacky ink to the plate with a leather ‘dobber’. This is a slow, painstaking business, (although not unenjoyable in a repetitive, meditative fashion), attempting to ink the raised ‘relief’ parts of the plate while leaving the shallows (ie. the blank parts of the image) clean. There are accounts that Blake would spend longer removing ink from the parts of the plate he didn’t want to print than applying it those he did, something I can now well believe. Please also take a moment to consider that our William drew and wrote backwards on to these copper plates, which are barely bigger than my iPhone, with stop-out varnish and a fine brush or quill! 🤯

Opposite is an incredibly geeky video, courtesy of Amanda, showing the moment of revelation with my ‘London’ print.

When I first had the idea of asking Alexander Regier, Chair of English Dept at Rice, if I could come and have a go on the press (thanks to the Arts Council, England by the way!) I was ‘merely’ intending to print Blake prints, to help me better understand Blake’s processes, and boy, did it do that! But then my good friend Jennie pointed out that if I was going to go all the way to Houston I might as well try to print some of my own artwork, at which point I came up with the idea of printing my chapter titles on the Blake press. I’m currently working on a graphic novel based on Blake’s life, the style of which references Blake’s techniques in certain ways but is not printed on a rolling printing press (because comics already take forever!), but then it occurred to me that perhaps I could do my chapter title pages this way, giving a more overt nod to Blake’s style and ‘illuminated printing’ process. I had no idea whether I would be allowed to do this sort of thing at Rice (I’m not sure I’d let some stranger come and do their weird shit on my replica 18th century printing press!) but to my surprise and delight Alexander insisted that this was very much the kind of thing he wanted the press to be used for.

So, a little late in the day, I worked up 8 chapter title designs (i’ve only written three and a half of them!) and the good folk at Artichoke Print Workshop in Camberwell photo-etched them on to copper plates by a method I don’t entirely understand.

So, having got my ‘Houston London’ in the bag, I somewhat reluctantly moved on to my own plates. I could have happily carried on printing Blake plates all week but by now I had an idea of how long it took to ink and print a plate. Roughly speaking, I could ink and print one plate an hour (and that’s probably going too fast to take sufficient care really), for which I’d get two prints, the second one paler, by putting the still inked plate straight back through the press. So to get all 8 chapter plates done I had to get a move on. (As you can see below Blake’s penury in old age was actually caused by his excessive use of post-it notes to mask off sections of his plates.)

On the early prints (eg. Chapter One and Chapter Three) I had a problem with ‘slippage’ where the plate would shift and ‘reprint’ parts of the design (I had the same problem with the first print I tried, the Songs of Innocence frontispiece). As you can perhaps see in the video opposite you have to to push the bed with your hip as well as turn the star wheel, until a point when you have to start pushing the bed with your hand instead. I found this changeover quite tricky and I think this may have been when the plate was slipping, and/or I may not have been applying enough pressure to the plate.

On other prints (eg. LOS, a VISION… and Chapter Two) you can see that I’d left the paper too damp and parts of the print have blurred. It’s fascinating but also quite frustrating to have spent an hour inking up your plate and then have a ‘problem’ like this, something else that gives you quite an insight into what Blake’s professional and artistic life must have actually been like! From Plate five (Chapter Four) I hit my stride. Unlike later models of printing press there are no gears or bolts to tighten – the only way to increase or decrease the pressure applied to the plate is to vary the number of blankets you put between the plate and the roller. Amanda and I figured out that my plates printed much better with an extra blanket and also if we adopted a two person approach (with Amanda generously taking time out from her actual job to turn the wheel while I pushed the bed).

It was tempting to go back and get prints of the early chapter designs, but time was short and I decided it was better to use the remaining time to get something half decent of all 8 designs than perfect prints of just a few. Because I got two versions of each design I can do a certain amount of digital ‘remixing’ when it comes to the final versions that will appear in my book. I’m fairly sure that Blake, who was, after all, working in unusual ways with the cutting edge technology of his day, would approve.

Well, what an experience. Genuinely one of the most creatively fulfilling and fascinating things I’ve done, and I was overwhelmed by the generosity of my hosts at Rice, who provided ink, paper, copper plates and erm, a replica 18th century printing press, not to mention their time, expertise and enthusiasm. Thanks in particular to Alexander Regier and Amanda Focke, as well as Michael Phillips, and Colin Gale at Artichoke. Thanks also to Roger Whitson and Raquel Martisa for putting me in touch with Rice and Artichoke respectively, and to Jennie for pushing me to come up with this slightly mad idea. I hope I’ll get to return to Rice and have another go. Perhaps I can do the chapter title pages for Book Two in the same way. Just got to write and draw the rest of a graphic novel first!