The city remembers printing, but the pressures of success are erasing its past.
This is the introduction to my new book, London Kerning, in which I jaunt around London, visit collections and meet letterpress printers, designers, archivists, historians, and contemporaries — and especially examine and discuss the work of type designer Berthold Wolpe (1905–1989), who helped shape the face of lettering in London.
London was already around 1,500 years old when Englishman William Caxton returned from Bruges, the Netherlands, with the craft of printing. He set up shop in 1476 in Westminster, a city that is part of what is now Greater London. But a printer he brought with him, Wynkyn de Worde, receives due credit for later establishing the heart of the city’s printing industry and much more:
The City’s modern role, at the forefront of a global financial network, derives above all from the traditions of printing, typefounding and publishing which stem back to before 1500, when Wynkyn de Worde, who was buried in St Bride’s Church, brought the printing press to Fleet Street.
— Founder’s London A–Z (1998), Justin Howes & Nigel Roche
In late November 2017, I found myself passing where the Strand turns into the west end of the short length of Fleet Street, a place whose symbolic value has outlasted its concrete meaning. Newspapers and magazines once flourished on Fleet Street, but none remain. Ghosts still linger, like brickwork that promotes the Dundee Evening Telegraph and related publications on the side of a building, plaques in the sidewalk, and an iron hand letterpress in the front window of DC Thomson — obscured by window decals from the animated Dennis the Menace reboot. DC Thomson is a media company that cherishes its letterpress past, a friend who works there informs me, and has printing archives at its Dundee, Scotland, offices.
Heading east towards St Paul’s Cathedral, turn right down Bride Lane, a narrow alley that passes St Bride’s Church. Where it takes a curve to the left, you see a stately tall brick building. It’s the home of the St Bride Foundation, which contains the extraordinary historical printing-related book collection and other archives of St Bride Library, including work by aforementioned Caxton. There I saw remarkable pieces of typographic history in a library that has nearly closed on multiple occasions, and the future of which remains shaky.
Its precarious state isn’t unique. In pre-travel emails, a week of visits with printers, type designers, and historians in London, and email and video calls afterwards, I find that five and a half centuries of printing in London appear balanced on the edge of a precipice.
The work cited above, Founder’s London A–Z, documented what in 1998 was already a distant memory in the city of its printing history, and that was when aspects still flourished in modern forms throughout Greater London. As once-London-now-Cambridge type designer Jeremy Tankard said in a talk in 2012, “Never mind ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’; in London, we can walk in their footsteps, and perhaps even shiver a little.”
While there remain letterpress printers in the metropolitan area, and St Bride lies smack dab in the middle of the City of London, nearly everyone I spoke to who didn’t have the luck or timing to purchase a house or building some years ago is concerned about how long they can keep their shop, studio, or rented flat or house.
One printer, Phil Abel, has moved his Hand & Eye Letterpress twice in the last seven years. Another told me the rent of his former studio went up twentyfold over 20 years, leading him to give it up. The folks who run Counter Press in the East End have a lovely bijou space, but have seen construction and change start to sweep through what was once a distant neighborhood from the center. Yet another co-owns their building, home to many artists, but the noise of construction is nearly deafening at times during the day, making work difficult.
My trip to London was to capture what I fervently hope isn’t the dying breath of the last vestiges of printing history and letterpress shops. Some parts will surely survive in place, or be put in storage and reclaimed in the future, as has happened multiple times in the last several decades. In academic institutions, at St Bride, at The Type Archive, and elsewhere, letterpress shops have been set up anew or refreshed, used for pedagogical purposes. And some printers have decamped with equipment to elsewhere in England, where they keep hot-metal composition and presses active.
Paired with my visit to the St Bride library was one to The Type Archive, founded over 20 years ago through the sheer force of will of Sue Shaw, a long-time book editor and letterpress printer. She had and has the assistance of many others, but it’s her iron spine that has kept the place intact.
The archive has critical portions of equipment from the English Monotype Corporation’s hot-metal composition manufacturing plant. Through a division called Monotype Hot-Metal Ltd, it continues to make fill orders for fresh molds and other material through the assistance of a dogged septuagenarian and a few octogenarians.
Through this book, I hope to bring more attention to what can be preserved and advanced. London’s printing history must abide.
Glenn Fleishman started out as typesetter, trained as a graphic designer, and has spent most of his career mostly writing. He spent 2017 as designer in residence at the School of Visual Concepts, where he letterpress printed a book of his reporting on type, printing, and language. He contributes regularly on technology, science, and business to the Economist, Fast Company, Increment, American History, and Macworld.