Letterpress printing as an art form in itself

The term “to make a good impression” comes from the printing press. In traditional letterpress printing, the text was placed by hand in rows of metal or wooden type – the mirror-image letters – and enclosed in the press bed. The paper was then pressed onto the inked type; when it was peeled off, the text had been transferred to the page. The goal was to get as clear and clean an imprint as possible – to make a good impression.

From the middle of the 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, until the middle of the 20th century, almost all books – and newspapers – were printed by letterpress. Then came offset printing and, in the 1980s and 1990s, digital printing. Now everyone can print at home with their laser or inkjet printer.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the digital revolution, there has been a resurgence of interest in letterpress printing over the past decade. Craft printers have sprung up all over the world, producing everything from wedding stationery to fine press books.

Craft presses are particularly important in the United States and Canada, but a quick browse of briarpress.org, an online community of letterpress printers with over 70,000 members, shows that they thrive in many countries, including Ireland. Old machines are in high demand and are becoming more and more expensive. There is a Fine Press Book Association and book fairs in Oxford, San Francisco and New York.

These books, produced in limited editions, sometimes illustrated in woodcut, linocut or intaglio, are true works of art. They are often printed on handmade paper and hand-bound in fine cloth or leather, with decorative flyleaves and hand-stitched silk bands (the trim at the top of the inside spine that holds the pages stable between covers). They may be accompanied by a colophon, or end page, which details the printers and method of printing, including fonts, paper stock, binding materials, and methods used. It is generally signed by the author, the artist and the printer.

There are many collectors of fine books, whether private or institutional. Prices vary but can reach thousands of dollars per copy.

The classics are popular, as is the Bible, as well as contemporary poetry and, unsurprisingly, books on aspects of printing and typography.

At the National College of Art and Design, Seán Sills, a master printer, runs Distiller’s Press, a typography studio. Distiller’s Press designer-in-residence Jamie Murphy works closely with Sills, assisting students with their print projects.

Murphy’s own Salvage Press does fine work, including a translation by the late Michael Smith of the Anglo-Saxon poem Maldonwith woodcuts by Simon Brett.

He is also a curator of Exquisite editionsan exhibition of the finest small print books, now at the National Print Museum.

Among the highlights are Iskandariyaby Heavenly Monkey printers in Canada, a monochrome edition of a prose poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, with exquisite aquatints of strange creatures by Briony Morrow-Cribbs; angels, “a celebration of angelic appearances in the Bible”, conceived by Rosemary Roberts at Celtic Cross Press in Yorkshire; and Australian poet Alan Loney’s Jenson’s Greekinspired by the will of 15th century printer and engraver Nicholas Jenson, with poems made from the words of Jenson’s will printed on handmade paper.

Curiously, one of the things that makes typographic prints stand out today – the visible imprint of type on paper – was not considered desirable at the time. The goal was to leave a blank imprint of the text, without digging into the paper. The error of one era is the best impression of another.

Exquisite editions is at the National Print Museum, Beggars Bush Barracks, Haddington Road, Dublin 4, until 18 April