Words In Their Hands

Every year we set out to produce a book; a supernumerary book, contrived to fill no long-felt need but simply to give pleasure – to ourselves in the making and to our many friends in the reading. 

This sentence, so full of generosity, opens the preface to Words In Their Hands, a book privately printed at the University Printing House, Cambridge in 1964, “For Friends at Christmas.” This lovely tradition (lost in the commercial publishing world?) continues amongst so-called “private” printers and is, in a way, the mark of such enterprise: the complete freedom of a press of one’s own. 

Grant’s Bookshop is closing and when I saw the sale flag whipping against the front door, I knew I was going to spend money. Years back, my father gave me some type specimen books he’d found at Grant’s; inside, receipts identified them as having belonged to John Gartner, a well-known figure in printing in Melbourne, before his death in 1998. His massive book collection was sold primarily by Kay Craddock, but odds and ends continue to trickle though the secondhand book market. Knowing a little about his interests and travels, I’m sometimes convinced I’m holding a Gartner book when I find something I think fits with what I know about him. Sometimes though, as is the case with Words In Their Hands, I don’t have to guess: his bookplate is pasted inside. 

It’s a beautiful book. The photographs are by Walter Nurnberg, who specialised in industrial photography. The essay is by Beatrice Warde. The book celebrates the printing house’s move to new premises, but rather than showcase new innovations (of which there were many) the photographer has focussed on the expressive actions of skilled hands through every stage of bookmaking. Beatrice Warde, who, one must admit, can get completely swept up in her own exultant rhetoric, writes “But what the living skilled hand represents, in a printing office, what it singularly symbolises in every quick, cautious pounce or prudent grip, is that whole sense of responsibility for something fragile and precious which is the very soul of the House itself.” Reading this book now, and looking at these pictures, I can’t help but wonder about the maddening paradoxes of modern manufacturing, which are not new: they were as present in 1964 as they are now. Perhaps the only difference is that in 1964, at least one commercial operation sought to celebrate the supremacy and necessity of human skill rather than simply manage it. 

Of special note: there’s no girl printer, but there is a girl gatherer, collating signatures with a rubber finger-beak. 

And to end: there’s one place still available in my letterpress workshop next weekend (18 & 19 April.) Details here.


Fabulous images.

I’m so pleased to have found you again! I checked your old blog for about six months and finally gave up, but here you are.

Posted by suse on 19 April 2009 @ 10pm

What a stunning book! I, too, am thrilled to “see” you again, found via bollewangenhaptoet.

Posted by Lynn in Tucson on 17 March 2010 @ 6am

Keen to know dates for October and November courses.
As per phone call!

Posted by Vanessa Ross on 10 September 2010 @ 2pm

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