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Letterpress course attracts keen novice printers

Friday, 7 February 2014 8:07am

Course leader Dr John Holmes assists Judith Dawson with printing a proof of her sonnet on an Adana letterpress. Judith says she was attracted to the course for many reasons, “It’s to do with words and art, and it’s a physical thing – all the things that interest me.”

Seven students have been given a rare opportunity to discover the technique and artistic possibilities of letterpress printing work during Otago Summer School’s inaugural ‘Letterpress printing by hand’ course.

Dr John Holmes, who runs his own ‘Frayed Frisket Press’ in St Leonards, led last week’s intensive, five-day course from the University’s Otakou Press Room on the first floor of the Central Library.

His students eagerly absorbed his introduction to letterpress and the fundamentals of working with lead type. Dr Holmes was assisted by Special Collections Librarian Dr Donald Kerr and English lecturer Dr Shef Rogers.

Dr Kerr says, “The course sprang from an approach by Summer School Director Elaine Webster to see if there was anything we could do as part of this year’s Summer School. A trial one-day course had already been run, which was useful as it gave us some ideas on what we could do over a week.”

Dr Kerr says 70 people applied to the limited entry course. Its popularity means that future courses are contemplated.

Student Kathryn Madill says she enjoys the contemplative quality of the work involved in letterpress.

“We hope to make people confident and competent in their printing skills. Those who are skilled in this art now are getting older. It is important to pass the knowledge and skills on to younger, keener folk.”

Initially working with three small Adana press machines, some of last week’s students managed to progress onto the more complex Vandercook proofing press. Each student produced a personal business card, a letterhead, and laid out, letter by letter, a sonnet of 14 lines.

Two field trips were undertaken. The first to the Heritage Collection, Dunedin Public Library, to view among others a leaf from a 1450s Gutenburg Bible, the first major book printed with movable type in the West. They then examined different examples of printing from the University’s own Special Collections.

Several of the students said this course offered them their first opportunity to act upon a long interest in Letterpress. Work on the many practical projects was interspersed with tidbits of printing history from Dr Holmes, but intense, almost meditative, absorption was also a feature of the course, they said.

Course student Ngaire Gardner added: “It gets really quiet in here sometimes. Everyone is concentrating so hard. You just hear the clicking of the tiles and letters.”

Here the typesetting efforts and first proof of one student who chose “a bit of a sad” sonnet by Christina Rossetti.