Making and remaking Tristram Shandy

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
Selected editions of Tristram Shandy feature marbled pages. Dr. Helen Williams (left), Louise Brockman (right) demonstrates marbling techniques. Photo (c) John Cairns

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.

photo (c) John Cairns

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.

Marbled page in Lawrence Sterne, ‘The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman’, volume 3., London: Printed for C. Cooke, 1793, Bodleian Library, Dunston B 1628 (v. 3).
Hand-drawn ‘marbled’ page in Laurence Sterne, ‘The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman’, Dublin: printed for H. Saunders, 1761, Bodleian Library, Harding M 245.

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.

photo (c) John Cairns
Peter Lawrence, Wood Engraver
Peter Lawrence, demonstrating wood engraving to students at the workshop. Photo (c) John Cairns

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.

photo (c) John Cairns

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.

photo (c) John Cairns

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.

Plotlines in Laurence Sterne, ‘The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman’, Third Edition, Dublin: printed for D. Chamberlaine, and S. Smith, 1760, Bodleian Library, Vet. A5 f.2902-2903.
Richard Lawrence, Letterpress Printer
Richard Lawrence showing students how to use the letterpress. Photo (c) John Cairns

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.

photo (c) John Cairns

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.

Finished ‘lines’ in concertina publication, created by workshop leaders and participants.


For more information about courses and workshops in the Bibliographical Press, please contact

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.