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Friday 18 October 2019 1:07am

One of the University's two 2019 Printer in Residence, John Holmes, tears paper into its correct size for printing.

If you wander down to the far end of the 1st floor of the Central Library during the next few weeks you’ll get a glimpse of history in action through the glass walls of the Otakou Press Room.

This year’s University of Otago Library Printers in Residence Dr John Holmes and Marion Wassenaar are in the process of hand-printing 100 copies of a book of letters by Charles Brasch.

The press room is a treasure trove of historical printing equipment, including an Albion handpress built in London in 1845, a handsome 1860 Columbian ‘Eagle’ handpress from Edinburgh and a 1950s Vandercook proofing press which was rescued from scrap, where it was being eyed up for use as a ship’s anchor. The room is lined with cabinets of narrow drawers holding sets of lead type.

This is the fifth time Dr Holmes has been Printer in Residence at Otago, but it’s the first time for Ms Wassenaar, an artist and lecturer in the Print Studio, Dunedin School of Art at Otago Polytechnic.

Trained in the 1970s as a prepress photolithographer, Ms Wassenaar took the Letterpress Printing By Hand course run by Dr Holmes in March.

“When I saw a letterpress workshop advertised, I had no hesitation enrolling in the course. From my early days involved in the commercial print trade, I have always had a fascination with letterpress and was keen to learn more about the process,” says Ms Wassenaar.

She had been aware of Otakou Press and its publications for some time and had made a number of visits with students from the Dunedin School of Art Print Studio.

“The workshop, run over a couple of weekends, gave me an opportunity to engage in the hands-on experience. “

Dr Holmes knew of Ms Wassenaar’s artwork and while on the workshop mentioned the upcoming publication. This led to an invitation by Otago’s Special Collections Librarian Dr Donald Kerr to be the artist in residence and produce a series of printed illustrations responding to Brasch’s letters.

“Three images are in production using linocut and solar plate relief processes that, for me, convey a ‘retro’ look in keeping with the dates of the letters as produced in the Otago Daily Times,” she says.

During the next couple of months, the pair will prepare and print a selection of 16 letters by Charles Brasch dating from 1950 to 1972. The letters were selected by Dr Lynn Jenner, author of the recently published Peat, a work that creatively matches Brasch to the Kapiti highway.

One of the illustrations being used in the book.

Over a period of around 20 years, Brasch wrote a number of “concerned citizen” letters to the Editor of the Otago Daily Times, on topics ranging from the Art Gallery Site and University Architecture to Logan Park Poplars and Vietnam.

Dr Jenner has provided an introduction for the book, which is entitled Charles Brasch - Letters to the Otago Daily Times and the text will be illustrated with Ms Wassenaar’s images.

“In this year of the 150th celebrations of the University, it is fitting to focus on Brasch, who was a strong advocate of the University, and of course Dunedin,” says Dr Kerr.

The lengthy process of producing the hand-printed book begins with folding acid-free cotton paper sourced from Germany, then splitting it in half with a long knife.

Then the lead monotype will be painstakingly handset into frames, hand-inked and the pages run through either the Vandercook press or Dr Holmes’ own 1957 Korrex Stuttgart Press. The books will be bound with a hard cover in a traditional process at the University bindery.

“It can take an hour and a half to set the type for a page,” says Dr Holmes. “This is how books were all made until the mid-19th century.”

Dr Holmes began printing almost 60 years ago, when he was given a small printing press while a student in Edinburgh. Entirely self-taught, he learnt much of his craft by reading John Ryder’s book Printing for Pleasure.

“When I started off I was given advice by a commercial printer – if you want to print something make sure it’s worth printing because it’s so time consuming,” he says.

“You really get into the basics [of printing] when you are having to put down every letter to make up a word. You don’t want to be verbose.”

For the last five years Dr Holmes has also taught printing workshops as part of Summer School and the press room is also used for a fourth-year English paper, where students learn to set up a page for printing.

“The thing I like about teaching is you see students set up the page for the first time and put ink on and the words appear – and you see their surprise and satisfaction at having seen it through to the end.

“There’s just something about starting off with a blank piece of paper.”

In his other life, Dr Holmes teaches fourth-year students at the Dunedin Medical School and was Otago-Southland Medical Officer of Health until retiring in 2012.

The two Printers in Residence Marion Wassenaar (left) and Dr John Holmes beside the 1860 Columbian ‘Eagle’ handpress from Edinburgh.

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