23 May 2015

Victorian Connections

The Grolier Club, at 47 East 60th Street, is a bibliophile's dream. The book-lined walls and the  dark-wood rooms may seem like an exclusive retreat for literary elites, but in fact, exhibitons here are open to the public 9-5 Monday through Saturday.

The lucky New York public had the chance this month to catch the radiant "Victorian Connections" exhibition co-curated by Natasha Moore and Mark Samuels Lasner, located discreetly on the second floor of the Grolier Club. Here one found an exuberant collection of rare artefacts from a broad swath of Victorian cultural life. From a presentation copy of William Morris's Volsunga Saga, to letters, inscribed books, and portraits of other giants such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, there was much to marvel over. 

The sheer breadth of an exhibition devoted to a minor poet, William Allingham (1824–1889),  and his artist wife Helen (née Paterson, 1848–1926),  seemed out of place only until the nature of this extrovert couple became more  clear. A famous diarist, William Allingham recorded some of the most personal and human anecdotes that survive about Tennyson, Carslyle, Morris, and other Victorian greats. As Mark Samuels Lasner put it in his talk about the exhibition on May 6th, the Allinghams were friends with simply everybody. This exhibition is a testament to the many, many deep connections they made among the literary and artistic circles of London and elsewhere during their lifetimes.

At the exhibition, Pre-Raphaelite fans were delighted with a caricature of love-lorn Dante Gabriel Rossetti following close behind Jane Morris with an armful of cushions for her comfort and his watercolor for the cover of Allingham's book Day and Night Songs, along with an early self-portrait by Edward Burne-Jones and a sketch of Elizabeth Siddal by Anna Mary Howitt.  Victorianists and book lovers of all stripes found something to moon over at this pretty little exhibition; watch the Grolier Club's website for delights to come.

Sadly, the show ended today. For those who missed it, there is a detailed, illustrated catalogue, $35, available from Oak Knoll Books in New Castle, Del.

(Image: Helen Peterson Allingham. 1840-1926. Study of a Cottage Window, watercolor on paper. From the Baskin Collection.)

10 May 2015

Part III, Printing on the Press: Steven Lee-Davis

This is part three of a three part conversation series on the Kelmscott/Goudy Press and the original William Morris broadside we commissioned to be printed on that press. Today, the artist Steven Lee-Davis joins us to talk about his inspirations and creative process.

Do you feel that Morris has influenced your art at all?

I attended art school in the 80's and at that time painting was largely within the realm of expressiveness. DeKooning and Kandinsky were still the exemplars. So, I was a bit of an oddball as I sought out the Pre-Raphaelites, Nazarenes, and Neo-Classical painters. Even as far back as high-school I would study paintings executed by the Pre-Raphaelites reproduced in fairytale books -- of course, I had no idea what I was looking at, but it fit well with my passion for fantasy illustration. It wasn't until much later that I really began to pull out the different artistic personalities of the Victorian age and dive into the writing of Ruskin, Rossetti, and Morris. Fast forward two decades and I find myself a Roycroft Renaissance Artist working among artists and craftsmen that very much uphold the ideals espoused by William Morris. I guess Morris has been part of my artistic growth since I was a kid.

Can you tell us a little about the printing process?

Printing on an iron hand press is deceptively difficult. I regularly use an Albion "foolscap", which is a tabletop model issued by Hopkinson & Cope and so I knew a thing or two about the process when I approached the Kelmscott housed at the Cary Collection at RIT. Since the press is so large and has such an historic presence, I was glad to be assisted by Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, the Associate Curator of the Cary Collection and the woman who restored the press over the past year. Together, we spent hours wrapping the tympan, adjusting the micro-settings on the bed of the press, measuring the exact height of the carved block, setting the position on the bed, setting the stop point, and cutting the frisket to make a perfect mask for the image. We spent more time practicing the hand-rolling of the ink and making sure it was the right viscosity. Actually, that ink is not straight black, but has reflex blue cut into it to contrast the yellow tint of the paper. Oh, it was a huge process, but we just had to glance the book display case to our left to see the Kelmscott Chaucer and we knew that we had to make Morris proud. I think we did.

How did it feel to use the Kelmscott Press?

Printing on the Kelmscott Press was the highlight of my printing career. Really, when I am hanging out with other printers and we are exchanging print stories over a beer, my story wins every time!

How did you approach the design of this broadside?

The design of this broadside was created in collaboration with the Board of the William Morris Society, U.S. Jack Walsdorf, the President, was a tireless communicator who made sure that this project came to fruition. I really think it is an amazing thing to have a limited edition portrait of William Morris printed on the Kelmscott Press. I hope that the proceeds benefit the Society and that members enjoy the print. It was a pleasure to work with everyone involved.

To purchase the broadside, visit our online store here. All proceeds benefit the William Morris Society in the United States. 

Part II, Restoring the Press: Amelia Hugill-Fontanel

This is part two of a three part conversation series on the famous Kelmscott/Goudy Press. The K/G was once used by William Morris at his Kelmscott press, and is now found at the Cary Collection at RIT.

Our first guest was Steven Galbraith, Curator of the Cary Collection. Today, we catch up with Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, Associate Curator at the collection, and the person charged with restoring the press. Watch this space for a Q & A with Stephen Lee-Davis, the talented artist who printed a limited-edition broadside on the press.

1. What did you enjoy most about restoring the Kelmscott/Goudy Press? 

As with any of the historic presses in the Cary, I enjoy the process of giving an historic printing press a new useful life. While working on a press I always picture the finished press, how it will be used to teach, and what projects and programming we can design around it.

I admit that the restoration of the K-G was a bit nerve-wracking. I was hyper-aware that many great designers and publishers used it. I recognized that the press was responsible for bringing The Kelmscott Chaucer, one of the most beautiful books in history, to publication. It would be disappointing to many people if the press did not print well after my best effort in repairing it. I am so lucky that these machines are actually quite simple, and that I have a lot of connections with experts who could give me good advice on fixing the press. That the K-G finally prints well is the best reward in being associated with its restoration.

2. How does this press compare to other presses?

The Kelmscott-Goudy Albion iron hand press is the third Albion type model printing press to join the Cary Collection. It is the one with the most illustrious provenance, having been owned by William Morris, Frederic Goudy, Melbert Cary, Jr., and the founder of the American Printing History Association, J. Ben Lieberman. However, one of our other Albions was also in Frederic Goudy’s shop, so the K-G is reuniting with a companion in its history. (Incidentally those two Albions came to the Cary via American wood-engraver, John DePol, so cumulatively these three presses printed some amazing work!)
The K-G is the youngest of the three Albions, having been manufactured in 1891. It is also the most puzzling in terms of its design. The K-G is not as elegant in its engineering and manufacture in a few ways as its older prototypes. For example, the platen-raising spring in the top finial is connected to the main impression piston via two beautifully-engraved, but materially weak, brass plates. The older Albions neatly conceal this connection in the internal housing of the piston, and they use steel-to-steel linkages, which are technically stronger and in theory, superior.

Also, I am curious why the K-G has a rough surface finish when compared to the other Albions, which are smooth cast iron. I believe Hopkinson & Cope, (its manufacturer), did not take the last step to buff out the pocked surface left by sand-casting its iron frame.
Finally, the K-G has two 4-foot-high iron straps along each side of its staple or frame. Supposedly, these were added so the press would not torque under the stress of printing the large engravings in The Kelmscott Chaucer. They make the K-G look a bit cobbled together. I hope to some day address all of these questions through continuing research. But regardless of these minor flaws, it still prints beautifully.

3. Do you have a favorite historical press?

Can I say they are all my favorites? I know that is avoiding the question, but each press in the Cary is there because it represents some milestone in the engineering of how a printing impression was made: from flat-bed hand press to platen press to cylinder press. We can teach the gamut of 500 years of printing history by showing how these mechanisms work.

It would be politic to say that the K-G is my favorite because I took it apart and put it back together, and because I’m linked now to that famous lineage. I am so proud of the work I did on it. However, I am also very interested in platen presswork that succeeded the hand press era. I am even involved right now with a group of RIT engineering students who are designing a 21st century platen press with modern materials. One goal of this work is that enthusiasts would not a have to rely on restoring vintage presses to print letterpress. That opens the field to prospective printers!

4. What is most challenging about assisting artists, such as Lee-Davis, with their projects on the press? Most rewarding?

I have to educate any potential user of the K-G to expect that hand press printing is deliberate and time-consuming. You must be fastidious in how the press is set-up before printing and be aware of such small adjustments in impression, paper dampness, dwell time, and registration in order for the prints to come out perfectly. Sometimes artists prefer immediacy in their creation process—hand press printing does not offer that!
Steven Lee-Davis was already a meticulous wood-engraver before he worked with us, so he knew what to expect in terms of the printing process. I was so pleased with facilitating his vision and making the K-G print a beautiful image worthy of its grand legacy.

Amelia Hugill-Fontanel
Associate Curator
RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection

For more information: See this video, where Hugill-Fontanel walks viewers through the printing process.

Image, Top: Amelia Hugill-Fontanel sets up the Kelmscott-Goudy Press for printing at its dedication. RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection, October 9, 2014. (Image by A. Sue Weisler.)