Tia Blassingame will be printer in residence at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press from 9 October to 9 November 2023. During this time she will develop existing work (Black: A Handbook), make new work, research with Bodleian Special Collections, and share her practice with Bodleian staff and meet local groups, students, and the public.
Blassingame is a book artist, a printer, publisher (Primrose Press), a curator and an educator. She uses book arts and printmaking (letterpress, pressure printing, digital printing) to create racially-charged images that seduce the reader into nuanced discussions on issues of race and racism.
Tia Blassingame is an Associate Professor of Art at Scripps College, where she teaches Book Arts and Letterpress Printing, and serves as the Director of Scripps College Press. Her artist’s books and prints can be found in library and museum collections across the world. In 2019, Blassingame founded the Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective, a group that brings Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) book artists, papermakers, curators, letterpress printers, printmakers into conversation and collaboration with scholars of Book History and Print Culture to build community support systems. Most recently, Blassingame has co-curated, with writer, book artist, publisher Stephanie Sauer, the NEA and Center for Craft grants-awarded exhibition, Paper Is People: Decolonizing Global Paper Cultures, held at Minnesota Center for Book Arts, (April 14- August 12, 2023) and San Francisco Center for the Book (October 22 -December 22, 2023).
During the period of her residency, Blassingame’s book ‘Mourning/Warning’ will be on display in the Alphabets Alive! exhibition in the Weston Library. As part of this exhibition, on Saturday 14 October, Blassingame will participate in a public engagement event, The ABC of Bodleya bookbinding workshop with Bodleian Conservator Andrew Honey.
Conserving a Mughal Album from the Shahjahan period (MS. Douce Or. a. 1.) by Julia Bearman, Senior Paper Conservator, Bodleian Library.
Bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in 1834 by antiquary and bibliophile Francis Douce, MS. Douce Or. a. 1 is the earliest album within the Libraries’ Mughal collection. The album was assembled in the 17th century for a member of the Mughal Imperial family and contains 41 pictures and 53 calligraphic panels within decorated lacquered boards.
MS. Douce Or. a. 1 has been the recent focus of treatment in the Bodleian Libraries conservation studio. Fragilities to the painted images became evident in 2019 during an assessment of its condition to determine whether it could be lent for an exhibition abroad. Thanks to the generous support from a group of donors the conservation treatment went ahead and is due for completion in 2023.
Each folio is made from several sheets of paper pasted together to form a thick sheet and burnished to create a smooth surface. The corners were found to be fragile where they had been touched repeatedly over the centuries causing them to break and delaminate. The conservation treatment included stabilizing these areas by adhering a very thin (3.5g/m2) Japanese paper to them.
The condition of the paint layer on both the paintings and calligraphies was examined under a stereo microscope at magnifications of up to 40x. This revealed not only paint loss but also actively unstable miniscule flakes of paint beginning to lift away from the paper beneath. The securing of these unstable flakes to prevent further losses was of primary importance.
To stabilize the paint, a liquid adhesive was introduced under the edges of each unstable flake using an exceptionally fine tipped brush and a steady hand, whilst viewing the manuscript through the microscope. Within the field of conservation there are a number of adhesives suitable for the consolidation of painted media and the one chosen for this project was the polysaccharide JunFunori®, which is the purified form of Funori, a Japanese adhesive made from the red algae genus Gloiopeltis furcate.
The microscope was also a useful tool to view the boards, and revealed layers of paper, gesso, paint, gold and lacquer. The lacquered boards require further study in order to understand how they were produced and to understand their ageing process and their conservation issues.
The materials and techniques of traditional Persian lacquered bookbinding will be explored with Prof. Dr. Mandana Barkeshli, a conservation scientist and academic, and her colleague Dr. Hamid Malekian, during a forthcoming workshop for conservators and a public lecture.*
*Persian lacquered bookbinding: A journey through its layers and conservation challenges, by Prof. Dr. Mandana Barkeshli takes place on Tuesday 27 June 11-12pm at Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries. Book your place here.
The Bodleian Libraries gratefully acknowledge support from these donors for the conservation of this album:
Lady McNeice Charitable Foundation
Davidson Family Charitable Trust
Rafaël Biosse Duplan
Clive C R Bannister
Guest blog article by Eleanor Clark, winner of the Colin Franklin Prize for Book-Collecting 2023.
I first encountered Winifred Holtby’s South Riding in Exeter’s Oxfam shop, in a worn Virago reprint. I was twelve and didn’t yet know to hold out for the darker green originals. The novel is nearly 600 pages long, including maps and character lists. Exactly the kind of tome that a bookish twelve-year-old can devour in a week, moving only to dodge footballs in the playground. I think if I came across it now, I’d find it harder to commit to. There’s a voraciousness to being twelve which I doubt I’ll ever see again. It’s fortuitous, then, that books, like people, sometimes come along at precisely the right moment in our lives.
On dust jacket of the first edition of South Riding, Jonathan Cape describes it as ‘unquestionably the greatest novel we have been privileged to publish’. Not even Virago would write that about Holtby today. Until I held this copy of South Riding in my hands – the first edition I’ve been privileged to be able to buy for the Library as part of the Colin Franklin Prize – I had no idea that Cape had written this endorsement. The ‘middlebrow’ label has not only completely swamped many interwar women writers’ works, but swallowed what they once meant to readers. I think the familiar generic forms of these fictions veil a quiet radicalism that allows readers, especially women, to envisage a life beyond social prescription, a life on the fringes of the possible. And in many cases, the radicalism isn’t even particularly quiet.
My collection began with a dust jacket-less first edition of Vera Brittain’s Humiliation with Honour, for £2.50. The Prologue is an epistle to Brittain’s son, with whom she had a complex relationship. The letter might read as a mother who prioritised political and literary life belatedly acknowledging her child. But my copy denies that reading. A child’s heavy scribbles cover the title page and prologue, over a scrawled inscription from 1943. I like to imagine it plucked from a busy mother’s handbag and defaced before she notices. A male dominated market desires purity, but real life is more truly captured when high textual ideas and messy material reality incorporate each other.
My copy of Thrice a Stranger extends this principle from feminism to socialism. This is a scarce title and, as a Gollancz publication, scarcer still with dust jacket. My copy is signed but bears three Manchester Public Library stamps. The co-existence of value-augmenting signature and value-diminishing stamps fascinates me. It’s possible that Brittain, a committed socialist, chose to sign a library copy to which working people had access.
This is why I collect books: the physical object is where we see readers interacting with texts. Rare book markets stigmatise marks left by readers, unless they are the ‘right’ kind of reader: the illustrious kind. I find this completely nonsensical. How can evidence that a book has been read, listened to, and loved, by the audience for whom it was written possibly diminish its value? Only if our notions of the value of stories are themselves warped.
I am proud that my collection includes damaged books. I can’t pretend I intended it to be so: I began collecting both cluelessly and pennilessly. But now I find that collecting books whose market value is derided is part of the work of revalorising texts whose critical fortunes have also fallen. I value the ‘middlebrow’, and I value its readers.
When I survey my collection, I feel the tenacity of these writers. Women like Holtby, Brittain, Spark and Bowen were not always brave and bold, but they wrote women who are. They write us all how we would like ourselves to be – a little bit more self-confident. Copies of their books that embody that self-confidence, that defiance of odds and social standards; copies that make testaments to the youth that grew up with them – those are the copies I want on my bookshelf.
It’s a nesting doll about ageing and decay, and the publisher, the artist, and the writer really worked together … to express all these ideas throughout the materiality of every component of the artists’ book
The release of this episode of BOOKNESS on 9th December 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the publishing of this work. Happy birthday Agrippa!
Useful links for this episode:
Watch William Gibson’s poem Agrippa: A Book of the Dead
running in emulation on a 1992-era Mac computer here
In the third podcast in the series, BOOKNESS talks to poet and artist Stephen Emmerson about his work Translation of Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, a paperback novel ‘translated’ into mushrooms.
It’s a book as much as it is an art object … as a book, read it, interact with it, touch its pages, infuse its pages with your warmth … from the art experience, I guess it’s more about the audiences way of how they want to interact with it …
I’ve always been interested in interactive books since I was little, I am neurodiverse myself so it’s easier for me … to engage with books that … use different senses because they would capture my entire focus.
It is an artwork that is supposed to be touched and it’s supposed to wear and tear … as you start to expose and touch … as you’re reading the content, it becomes more familiar with you …
This is already basically a book … these things look like pages, they’re kind of packed together, there’s an order, all I really did was bind those together and give them the cover. I thought it was interesting how it just becomes a book through that process
This image of the Bodleian’s “pristine” copy of 20 Slices was taken by the Conservation team in May 2021 as part of the documentation of the object to record its condition.
I think of it as a book. But I also have a very broad definition of a book
The prize will be of two parts: a payment of £600 to the winner, and an allowance of £300 for a book to be purchased for the Bodleian Library’s collections, selected by the winner in co-operation with the Bodleian’s Curator of Rare Books.
How does it change our understanding of a book when we come physically close to the materials it was created from? How does it change your perception to reflect not just on the words but the skills, processes, individuals, practices and modes of production that are enfolded into how a book was written, created, published, circulated and collected?
Courses and workshops in the Bibliographical Press at the Bodleian bring to life the technical and material history of books. A course on fiction or literature can, for example, be brought together with an opportunity to learn about the mechanical and material processes. This can be way to place historical, theoretical, structural reflections in a material-based physical and social reality. One example of this combined historical and material-based approach to learning are recent events on Tristram Shandy.
On 27 May, in The Making of Tristram Shandy, Dr. Helen Williams, Associate Professor of English Literature and a British Academy Innovation Fellow, Northumbria University and Dr.Elizabeth Savage, Senior Lecturer in Book History and Communications, Institute of English Studies, University of London gave a lecture (in person and online) on the visual, physical and conceptual features of this unique book.
The following day in the Bibliographical Press a workshop took place with three specialists, Louise Brockman (paper marbler), Peter Lawrence (wood engraver) and Richard Lawrence (letterpress). Students were introduced to some of the skills and techniques that went into the making of the Tristram Shandy and working collectively, with the eighteenth century book as the historic starting point, the group created a concertina publication.
Both events were organised by Centre of the Study of the Book and Novel Impressions, a project run by Helen Williams (Northumbria University) and funded by the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Awards, which provides a series of research- and practice-led events that aim to create a network of early career researchers, printers, and curators producing print workshops for public audiences inspired by eighteenth-century literature. This particular event was supported by the Institute of English Studies, the Bodleian Library, and Book and Print Initiative.
During the workshop, we spoke to Richard, Louise and Peter about the skills they use in marbling, engraving and letterpress, and how they approached devising the workshop. Highlights from our conversation are shared below.
MeEt the practitioners
Louise Brockman, Paper Marbler
Can you talk us through the process of creating a marbled page for a publication? What materials do you use?
I use gouache paints, as I like the bright opaque colours. These paints are floated on a tank containing a ‘seaweed size’, a powder that has been blended with hot water to make a slightly gelatinous liquid. The paints are then manipulated into patterns using a stylus or comb to make a pattern and picked up on a sheet of paper that has been pre-treated with a mordant (a substance that allows dyes or paints to stick to paper or fabric).
For a specific publication I would discuss the requirements with the customer and come up with a selection of designs based on their pattern and colour preferences.
In Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne commissioned marbled pages, these appear in different ways in different editions [see below]. What did you notice about the marbling in these publications?
In the copies that I have seen I have noticed that patterns are quite simple. This makes commercial sense if you are producing many pages, as to make a complicated design would entail more time and effort with more possibility of wastage.
How did you develop an approach to marbling for this workshop based on Tristram Shandy?
If you observe the pages in Tristram Shandy you can see the fold lines. This is vey unusual, so rather than marbling the whole page, which is what paper marblers do on the whole, only the middle section of the page has been marbled. The folding was a way to keep the rest of the page away from the tank and remain blank. I did quite a few tests on the best way to carry this out and found that the marbling was more successful with the sheet folded out of the way completely. I tried pressing a sheet after marbling and drying and the fold lines were still visible, I suspect this was probably how the pages were folded and marbled in Tristram Shandy, as the lines around the marbling are pretty crisp on the copies I have seen and, as mentioned previously, the folds are still visible.
Because of this the workshop attendees had the experience of their first ever marbled sheet being carried out in a slightly more complicated way than it would normally be. They all managed very well and we produced some lovely papers during the session.
Peter Lawrence, Wood Engraver
Can you tell us about the sorts of wood that would have been used for engraving in the eighteenth century?
Traditionally, the wood of choice has always been boxwood. Thomas Bewick, at the end of the 18th century, pioneered working on the cross-section of boxwood blocks which being so slow growing and therefore with its rings so tightly packed together, could replicate the hardness of metal. This meant he could engrave in all directions across the grain and produce fine marks not possible with woodcuts that are cut with broader tools on softer, long-grained wood.
Boxwood ‘rounds’, cut across the trunk, are not large. That means a rectangular block cut from the centre will only be a few centimetres across. To make a larger print, blocks are glued together, which is therefore more costly. Many current engravers work on lemonwood blocks, which has a slightly more open grain. Lemonwood blocks are generally larger, and so cheaper to make into larger composite blocks.
All blocks are made ‘type-high’ to sit on the press and be printed in the same pass as metal type. Apart from the fact that boxwood was cheaper than metal to use, it was the fact that text and images could be printed together in publications in the 19th century, without the expense of tipping-in separate intaglio printed images, that made wood engraving so attractive.
What kind of tools would be needed?
There are five basic wood engraving tools – spitstickers, gravers, tint tools, round and square scorpers. Each has a particular use, or more than one use, in producing lines and stipples. They have different shaped pointed ends and each come in a series of sizes… To print by hand we just need, in addition, a small roller, a thick book, some talc, a spoon and some Japanese paper.
There are what could be wood engravings in ‘Thomas Shandy’. What did you notice about them?
Not being familiar with the diagrams in Shandy, I assumed from their date, the mid-18th century, that they would be woodcuts. However, having copied and created a couple of lines myself, I know that with wood engraving those tight curves would certainly have been easier. So the jury is out, but I’d say they are more likely to be wood engravings. They are certainly relief prints, the woodblocks sitting within the page of type.
The printed lines have a varying thickness. The engraver would have copied exactly the drawing supplied by Sterne which, if done with a metal pen nib, would have naturally created a variation in thickness due to varying pressure. Of course a skilled engraver could have ‘corrected’ that variation had he/she been asked to.
How did you develop an approach to wood engraving for the workshop that replicated the process that might have been used at the time?
Each student was supplied with a block, just over the width of one of the plotlines. I showed them two lines that I had cut, copying the originals. The students each drew a line across the width of their block. I supplied a range of tools. The idea was to cut either side of their line, first with a fine tool, then clearing more with a broader tool. We only needed to cut enough wood away to reveal the line, but it became obvious to everyone how much effort there was to clear the backgrounds for the original blocks. The wood around the lines has to be lowered enough not to pick up ink in the printing. With a wooden press, using dampened paper this was probably more more difficult than with later iron presses.
Richard Lawrence, Letterpress Printer
What are some of the unique features of Tristram Shandy, from the perspective of the letterpress?
Most of what appears in Tristram Shandy had been done in other books before, but it was highly unusual to do these things in a ‘novel’. Examples include various small illustrations incorporated in the text. One of the more challenging things is the black page. Laying down that much ink using a wooden handpress is a challenge which explains why it was not very black. Similarly the marbled page is a challenge of logistics to provide that many copies.
What would it take to put together a single sheet in a publication in the eighteenth century ?
What size paper do you have? What size machine do you have? How many pages will the sheet be folded into? These three questions give the basic dimensions of line length etc. Is it possible to print work and turn to reduce the number of impressions? What type do you have enough of for the publication? (Not always anything but Hobson’s choice). Are there any special sorts (accented characters etc.)? And what will you do about them? Are there any illustrations to incorporate? Who will produce them?
What do students learn from setting type?
They perhaps learn what a slow and fiddly business it is and that type is responsible for the look of the page. It also limits how many pages can be printed at any one time. It is also the most expensive part of the equipment of a printer. Students might also learn that compositors (typesetters) do alter small details of the author’s work (spelling, italicization, etc.)in the course of their work. (Sterne may have been an exception in requiring the compositors to adhere to his manuscript more closely.)
Typesetting might also bring home to students that the people printing a book have all sorts of concerns about the process that means they are largely divorced from the content. While there might well be some element of craft pride in doing a good job, printers printed because they got paid, not for the love of the words/text.
Can you tell us about the idea for the concertina publication?
Peter Smith, a wood engraver who works from a studio at St Bride Foundation in London, came up with the idea before the pandemic and was gracious enough to allow it to be used by this group. It is ingenious because it only involves printing one side of a sheet so eliminating the usual drying time required before printing the reverse of a sheet.
For more information about courses and workshops in the Bibliographical Press, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Selected editions of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman are currently of view in Sensational Books, 27 May – 4 December 2022, Weston Library.
In this blogpost, artist Hermeet Gill shares the inspiration behind her work made in response to the major Bodleian exhibition, Melancholy: A New Anatomy. The work is on view during February 2022 at the Weston Library, Oxford
This artwork, created in response to the exhibition Melancholy: A New Anatomy, is inspired by Robert Burton’s interest in astrology. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton writes that “a physician without the knowledge of stars can neither understand the cause or cure of any disease”. Today, astrology is held in opposition to science and evidence-based approaches, nonetheless, it intrigues me – this system built upon scientific observation, geometry, and mathematics, to make sense of human lives.
Astrology claims to predict a person’s character and life path based on the position and alignment of planets at the time and place of their birth. However, the exact time and place of our birth also determines who we are born to and our wider circumstances, earthly constellations of contexts which also predict much about our experience of life, including our mental health. Predict, but not determine.
Three star charts, one actual and two hypothetical, reflect a family history in which three previous generations (in the UK, Uganda and India) in turn designated a different place for my birth. Each unrealised life path left ink-smudge imprints on my life experience: in my genetic makeup, in the consequences of forced migration events, and in cultural legacies.
The tactile qualities of the process of letterpress printmaking inspired this work. Many thanks to Richard Lawrence, Superintendent of the Bodleian Bibliographical Press, where the piece was created.
Hermeet Gill is an Oxford-based artist, inspired by ideas, systems and data and how these can be structured and combined. She has recently completed commissions for the University of Oxford’s Wytham Woods, Arts at the Old Fire Station and Oxford’s Library of Things. Originally trained in engineering, she had a career advising organisations, including on innovation and has worked with the Science Museum, London and TED. Hermeet has been printing at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press since 2016.