The Bodleian Libraries are home to a letterpress workshop for teaching and experiments, and a place for drop-in printing throughout the year at the printing press in the public foyer of the Weston Library. These activities are integrated with teaching at the University of Oxford, outreach to higher education, schools, and the public, and with the library’s continuing interest in creativity in the book arts.
This is a chance to compare script, print, and electronic text encoding side-by-side, in real time. The text will be written in manuscript, printed in movable type, and encoded by three teams, starting at 1pm.
In this blogpost we’ll report on the progress and the thoughts of the scribes, printers and encoders as they work through the same text, a portion of Psalm 107 (‘… They that go down to the sea in ships …’), to create a published version, in one or many copies.
Onlookers are welcome in Blackwell Hall, the main public foyer of the Weston Library on Broad Street, Oxford.
Ana Paula Cordeiro’s work, Body of Evidence, is one of the artist’s books that inspires contemporary letterpress printers. A recent conversation linked the Bodleian Bibliographical Press with the Center for Book Arts in New York City, where Cordeiro made that work.
The workshop in the Old Bodleian Library is a place for artistic experimentation as well as teaching about historical printing.
The Printer in Residence programme has hosted creative printers who use the letterpress craft within the tradition of artist book-making.
Printers in residence, 2017-2020
The printer-in-residence programme, funded by a generous donation, invites a working printer or book artist to put their own stamp on the Bibliographical Press programme, and to share their individual artistic visions with students, local printers, and the public.
While he was in residence at the Bodleian during November 2017, Russell Maret was developing the typeface ‘Hungry Dutch’, a project begun in 2016. During his visit to Oxford, New York-based Maret shared his inventive approach to typography with a practical workshop exercise in printing a passage of King Lear with fallen type. Podcast of Russel Maret’s lecture
In 2018, Emily Martin visited from Iowa, focussing on the genre of movable books, a subject of collecting interest for the Bodleian, with the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera holding early examples. Martin’s publication in residence, Order of Appearance / Disorder of Disappearance, is a ‘slice book’ printed with the P22Blox modular printing blocks created by Richard Kegler. Podcast of Emily Martin’s lecture.
David Armes (Red Plate Press, Yorkshire) was the most recent Printer in Residence to visit, in November-December 2019. The residency resulted in an addition to his series of site-specific prints, with Between Sun Turns. This year (2021) Mr Armes holds a fellowship at the Eccles Centre, British Library. Podcast of David Armes’s lecture
The next Printer in Residence will be Thomas Gravemaker, of LetterpressAmsterdam.
The printer-in-residence programme has broadened the workshop’s remit and established new connections with contemporary book artists. Experience in supporting these artist-printers enabled the workshop to welcome eight Fine Arts students in Trinity Term 2021, under the guidance of Ruskin School tutor of printing, Graeme Hughes.
2021: Updating the discovery of detachable woodblock hats in Bodleian broadside ballads, we’ve had a printing block made with the detachable hat, and a matching hat for the woman pictured on the same ballad sheet, ‘Unconstant Phillis’.
The idea of applying image-matching software to the illustrations within the broadside ballad collection occurred to Giles Bergel in 2011. Under a John Fell Foundation-funded pilot project in that year Dr Bergel, in partnership with the Bodleian Library, asked Professor Andrew Zisserman of the Visual Geometry Group at Oxford to test their pioneering technology on a sample of broadside ballads.
The hat — in “Unconstant Phillis”
The hat — in “The Noble Gallant”
The first step was to obtain high-quality images. A sample of 800 ballads dating from the seventeenth century was chosen: this was the period when ballads were most typically illustrated, with a combination of commissioned and stock images. Photography, carried-out by the Bodleian’s Imaging Services studio, was funded with a grant from the John Fell Fund. High-quality colour images (600 DPI, 24-bit) were the result: these are now mounted within the current Ballads database and replace some of the older, lower-quality bitonal images which the Bodleian is hoping to fully replace.
Relja Arandjelovic at the Visual Geometry Group processed the new images and built a test site to demonstrate the image matching. The results were impressive: the pilot proved that software can match woodcut images on multiple printings, in varying conditions. The software, still under development, will be migrated to a new Bodleian Broadside Ballads interface under the current JISC-funded project.
What does “image match” offer to researchers?
Researchers working with ballads quickly notice that the same or similar woodblock-printed illustrations appear on multiple broadsides. The same hand-holding couple appears time and again on ballads of love; the same ships decorate songs of naval battles; the same cityscape appears, surprisingly, in ballads about London and Troy. And sometimes the same illustrations appeared in early modern English books and pamphlets, too. (See A guide to English illustrated books, 1536-1603, by Ruth Samson Luborsky and Elizabeth Ingram).
The repetition of generic illustrations in this way is often derided as evidence of ballads’ lowly status, but (as well as providing evidence for popular iconography), for early-modern bibliographic detectives, the re-use of woodblocks provides evidence for the date of a ballad’s printing: deterioration of a woodblock might be a way to establish a timeline of broadsides that share the same illustration.
But there are other questions to be answered, sometimes questions we didn’t even know we needed to ask, which could be answered by selection portions of woodcut printed images: like, ‘Where DID you get that hat?’
A ballad sheet in the image matching test site
Selection of a portion of the image to match in the test site
The result of matches across 800 digital images of ballad sheets in Bodleian collections
Different men, same hat, even the same wormholes: evidently the HAT is a woodblock with a life of its own
Elisa Cozzi, The Queen’s College, Oxford
DPhil student in English Language and Literature
shortlisted for the Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting, 2021
Irish gothic novels were among the first examples of the genre and greatly influenced later authors who played a key role in the development of the novel as a literary form, including Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Walter Scott. Unlike Ann Radcliffe’s popular gothic romances, set in a vague medieval past in faraway southern Italy or France, Irish gothic novels such as Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of The Abbey (1796) and Clermont (1798), Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806), and Charles Maturin’s The Milesian Chief (1812) and Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) share Irish settings, characters, and themes. They deal, directly or indirectly, with Irish history and politics and were influential in the development of Irish literary nationalism.
Roche’s The Children of the Abbey, once among the top bestsellers of the Romantic Age, has had a lasting impact on my studies. While researching material for my undergraduate dissertation I purchased a mid-nineteenth century illustrated edition of The Children of the Abbey from an independent Irish bookshop (John’s Bookshop in Athlone, Co. Westmeath). Printed by William Lane and A.K. Newman’s infamous London-based Minerva Press, which specialised in gothic novels and became the most prolific popular press of the age, my copy is a small one-volume edition, measuring 3x5x1.5 inches and bound in rib grain book-cloth with faint remnants of gilt ornaments on the spine. Although it is undated, the title page of the volume is signed “Elizabeth Jessop, 1859” in faded black ink, while the front free endpaper displays a handwritten place name, “Doory Hall, Co. Longford”.
Intrigued by these allusive traces of past readers, I discovered that the Jessops were an Anglo-Irish family of the landed gentry, with their seat in Doory Hall, near Longford. I also found (in Burke’s Peerage) that Frederick Thomas Jessop, Esq. had a child called Elizabeth, born between 1839 and the early 1840s. Thus, she would have been around fifteen or twenty years old when she put her signature in this copy in 1859: the perfect age to enjoy what was, by then, a good gothic classic. I find it fascinating that although the Jessops’ extensive library was sold upon the family’s demise, and their big house fell into ruin in the 1920s, a few of their books, like my own copy, survived to tell the forgotten tale of their past owners. This exciting discovery initiated me to the study of the book as material culture and inspired me to research the history of the Minerva Press and its gothic output. During my postgraduate course at Oxford I turned this research into a paper on Bibliography and Book History and included a bibliographical analysis of my own copy of The Children of the Abbey.
Although technically belonging to the genre of the ‘national tale’, Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl contains strong gothic elements and themes, including a ruined castle on a cliff, a sensitive female protagonist, an ancient crime, and a nocturnal, blood-chilling plot twist. What most struck me upon a first reading was the presence of constant comparisons between Ireland and Italy throughout the novel. Irish places, traditions, landscapes, literature, and art are continually juxtaposed with their Italian equivalents. While the evocation of Italy and things Italian in gothic novels was mainstream, as Italy had been shaped as ‘quintessentially gothic’ since Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), I soon realised that, in the Irish context, the Irish-Italian comparisons served a political purpose. In the early 1800s, when The Wild Irish Girl was published, both Ireland and Italy were grappling with foreign domination, fighting to gain independence from England and Austria, respectively. Thus, by bringing Italy and Ireland together, the radical Owenson (one of the founders of Irish cultural nationalism) framed Italy as a compelling mirror-image of Ireland, the epitome of a ‘nation’ oppressed by foreign powers, a politically subversive ‘double’ of Ireland. After all, ‘doublings’ and ‘mirrorings’ are classic features of gothic narratives.
The Wild Irish Girl alerted me to a previously unappreciated wealth of Irish-Italian literary connections in the Romantic period, and has directly inspired my doctoral thesis topic. In the case of Irish gothic novels especially, Ireland and Italy are often brought together and personified in overtly political romance plots. A good example is Charles Robert Maturin’s The Milesian Chief, which tells the story of an Irish-Italian girl called Armida Fitzalban who, although promised to an Englishman, travels to Ireland and falls in love with the Irish Connal O’Morven, the descendant of a dispossessed Gaelic prince, and fights alongside him in a rebellion against the English. A similar politicised Irish-Italian plot is at the centre of Bianca: A Tale of Erin and Italy (1852), another forgotten gothic tale by Maturin’s son Edward. These avenues of research brought me to my current doctoral project, which looks at the literary connections between Italy and Ireland in 1798-1848, with a particular focus on the literary production of Irish exiles and expatriates in the Italian peninsula.
No Irish gothic collection would be complete without the Victorian classics Carmilla (1872) and Uncle Silas (1864) by Sheridan Le Fanu, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The last notable Irish-Italian novel in my collection is a second edition of Luttrell of Arran (1863) by Charles Lever (1806-1872). My 1866 edition is enriched by 44 illustrations by H.K. Brown and has an emerald binding embossed with Celtic patterns. Partly set in Italy and containing humorous-gothic tropes, Luttrell was written in Trieste (about an hour away from my hometown) where Lever, predating James Joyce, spent the last years of his life.
Despite their critical neglect, the enduring appeal of Irish gothic classics is reflected in contemporary publications. For example, Sarah Perry’s Melmoth (2018) reimagines Maturin’s masterpiece in a feminist key, while Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Deathless Girls (2019) tells the untold story of Dracula’s three vampire brides.
 John Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland (London: Colburn, 1847): 649.
Libraries and literary institutions around the world in 2019 marked 200 years since Herman Melville’s birth with readings and conferences appreciating his work. At Bodleian Special Collections we took the opportunity to call again on letterpress printers around the world, who provided Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 2016, to celebrate Melville in similar fashion.
The text was a section of Moby-Dick often overlooked by readers, part of the preliminaries in which Melville introduces the multifarious themes of the work. Eighty extracts are arranged approximately chronologically. Melville writes of his fictional sub-sub-librarian: ‘this mere painstaking burrower and grubworm … appears to have gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book.’ And yet, stealthily, these extracts of everything from the Bible to ‘Nantucket songs’ build a dramatic foreshadowing of the destiny of Ishmael and his shipmates.
They bear testimony to the value of collections encompassing a wide variety of texts — devotional works, learned legal treatises, great literature and sea shanties. To join its copy of the first (London) edition published under the title The Whale, the Bodleian now holds a new, collective, version of this section of Melville’s famous novel.
The bulk of the prints received are reproduced here. It is impossible to convey in digital images the quality of the craft and the satisfying variety of the physical items received. One detail must stand for the excellence of these pieces; it is from Richard Kegler’s Extract 13.
In addition to printing using various methods (see No. 49) and materials (see No. 13), the printers have incorporated into their works (sometimes literally, see No. 63) the publishing history of Moby-Dick, the ecological crisis of the oceans, awareness of historical racism and the dangerous pace of human exploitation of natural resources on land and in the oceans. Melville’s choice of sources did not go beyond the publication year of the novel in 1851, but many of the themes remain current. To update the ‘Extracts,’ the Bodleian gladly accepted an offer from the volunteers of The National Museum of Computing, to print additional ‘Extracts’ about whales, using their collection of 20th-century printers.
The first extract, from the St James Park Press, begins the series with the title, ‘Moby Dick Extracts’.
Students from the University of Arkansas answered the ‘Extracts’ call as a class project at the Underground Ink Press, the letterpress and book arts workshop at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.
57. ‘The papers were brought in, and we saw in the Berlin Gazette that whales had been introduced on the stage there.’ – Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe. // Patrick Goossens, Letter-kunde , Antwerp.
Post-1851 ‘Extracts’ An exciting offer came from the volunteers at the National Museum of Computing, offering prints from a variety of newer machines: a 1940s German Lorenz teleprinter, a 1980s ICL computer line printer, and a Braille printer. This offer inspired the library to bring the extracts up to date in 2019, with additional quotations from Rachel Carson’s book, The Sea Around Us (1951), and from M.P. Simmonds, “Evaluating the Welfare Implications of Climate Change for Cetaceans,” in A. Butterworth (ed.), 2017, Marine Mammal Welfare (17th edition).
Film of Vtek MBoss-1 Braille Printer/Embosser, from The National Museum of Computing.
A Braille whale – or Whaille.
Film of the 1980s ICL Line Printer, from The National Museum of Computing
A display at the Bodleian’s Weston Library for Special Collections in November 2019 marked the arrival of this new collection to the Bodleian.
The Victorians used a technique called ‘nature printing’ to reproduce the details of leaves, plants, and other flat things like lace. This relies on pressing the specimen into soft metal (lead) to make an impression like a footprint of the item, and then making an electrotype of that impression in a harder metal, such as copper. The prints are produced with the intaglio method, in which the ink sits in the impressed areas and is forced into contact with the paper by the high pressure of the rolling press. This contrasts with relief printing, in which ink sits on top of raised lines. Here we have printed directly from the soft lead plate into which the leaf was impressed; the fine details on this lead plate will only last for a couple of impressions, though, before becoming smoothed down by the pressure as it goes through the press.
In 1919, the Bodleian Quarterly Record printed the following notice on the death of Charles Henry Olive Daniel, Provost of Worcester College, Oxford:
‘We regret most deeply the loss of Dr. Daniel, as a good friend of the Library. For many years (though not lately) he occupied his leisure with printing as a fine art, and the beautiful productions of the Daniel Press are well known to all lovers of books. Mrs. Daniel recently offered to present to the Library the hand-press and type used by him, and the offer was very gratefully accepted. Through the kindness of the Controller, the press has now been set up by experts from the Clarendon Press, at the farther end of the Picture Gallery, with the chase, containing the last pages set up, still in place. A small collection of some of the more interesting books printed on it has been arranged on an adjacent table. Though we have plenty of books to show, this is the first time we have been able to exhibit to visitors the means whereby they are produced.’
The author of a recent book on Daniel and his printing, Martyn Ould, offers this assessment of his printing origins and experience:
‘Charles Daniel learned to print in the family home in Frome, Somerset, where his father Henry was perpetual curate of Holy Trinity. All the family were involved in printing a vast number of ephemeral items: bookplates, printed items for the church, tickets for tea parties, tiny books, programmes for plays, . . . – items that his bibliographer Falconer Madan referred to as ‘minima’. [He added, “Unfortunately there seems to be no dignified and yet suitable term for these waifs and strays, here termed minor pieces. They are what remains when the majestic car of the professional cataloguer has passed by and left them strewn on the wayside. The occupant of the car calls them succinctly and comprehensively trash.”]
‘They printed on a ‘Ruthven’, a parlour press ideal for a Victorian family, but a press that could manage only small items (many of which are pasted into three volumes in the Bodleian: MSS Don. d.94 and d.95 and MS Don. e.227). Nevertheless when Charles left Frome to go up to Oxford the press went with him and it was on that press that he printed one of his rarest items, The Garland of Rachel, in just thirty-six copies. Difficulties with the printing of The Garland led him to replace the Ruthven with the Albion; this had a much larger platen which would have made it very much easier to manage the larger books and pamphlets that were to come from the Daniel Press in Oxford.
‘Daniel was not a great technical printer, but his books have great charm. He printed on hand-made papers, setting his texts – mostly poetry – from founts of some of the famous seventeenth-century ‘Fell types’ which he persuaded Press Controller Horace Hart at the University Press to sell him. He first used Fell type in A New Sermon of the Newest Fashion (1876), the second book he printed at Oxford. He also used a black letter, of which the first example entirely in black letter is The Growth of Love (1890) by his friend Robert Bridges.’
This large Albion was the printing press which was given to the Bodleian. As reported by Philip Gaskell in the Journal of the Printing Historical Society no. 1, 1965, it is an ‘Albion (demy), serial number 539, (1835)’. The maker’s names, Jonathan and Jeremiah Barrett, executors of R.W. Cope, are cast into the staple. Cope was the originator of the Albion press in the 1820s. This cast-iron, lever-operated press was praised by commentators of the time as being simple in construction and durable.
Bodley’s Librarian in 1919, Falconer Madan, had visions beyond a static display of the press. ‘[I]t is in contemplation to print on it a Bibliography of the Daniel Press, with a Memoir of its “only begetter”, and some poems by friends. This will be the first book ever printed within the walls of the Bodleian.’ The catalogue record of this work is in the University of Oxford’s online catalogue, SOLO.
Martyn Ould writes:
‘As well as his books – over fifty in total – we’re fortunate in that two collections of proofs survive from his waste bin. Like early versions of a poet’s final polished verse, they tell us something of his printing practice. They are generally on sheets of newsprint – a suitably cheaper alternative to the expensive hand-made paper of the final book.
‘In the proof of a title page shown here he has marked several ‘typos’. The Y for an R in ‘Oxford’ is easily explained: the boxes for those two letters are next to each other in the typecase and no doubt the Y was returned to the wrong box when some other text was distributed. The missing i in ‘Children’ is less easily forgiven.
‘In three further proofs Daniel corrected some errors and toyed with the text; all was well in the published book. The proofs tell us that Daniel did not have a firm habit of reading a completed line in the composing stick before moving on to the next: what must be a first of several proofs of a forme for Three Japanese Plays for Children shows a great many errors, some of which made it through to the final book. Nonetheless, his books are today highly collectable.’
In 1949, library staff and members of the English Faculty established the Bibliography Room in the New Bodleian Library. Practical printing became a regular offering for postgraduate students, just at the time when mechanical processes of type-setting were replacing the hand-composition of type. The enthusiasts from library and faculty supported teaching and demonstration of practical printing, joined by J.R.R. Tolkien and others.
The Bodleian workshop now holds several other hand-operated printing presses, Albions and other makes, acquired from private presses and individuals. Some of the latest acquisitions were an Albion press owned by Leonard Baskin, whose archive came to the Bodleian in 2009, a proofing press owned and used by Vivian Ridler, Printer to the University, and a rolling press for printing intaglio.