Graham Bignell, New North Press
There is a certain magnetism about printshops that I cannot resist, so when I visited the New North Press for the first time at the end of last year to meet Richard Ardagh, I was eager to return and have a chat with Graham Bignell who founded the press in 1986 and has amassed a formidable collection of old wooden and metal fonts. “It was a long process,” he said, outlining how he began, “because you have to acquire type. I advertised in print magazines and I bought a whole print workshop from John Wellbourne in Southend – two Heidelberg presses and a fantastic collection of type. It is not easy dealing with old printers,” he explained diplomatically “because they don’t retire, they just carry on…”
Printers, I soon understood, are a breed apart. For Graham Bignell, printing was a passion that became a vocation that became his life. Clearly, the smell of printers’ ink can be as addictive to some as that of greasepaint is to actors. From the gleam in Graham’s eyes as he described the first acquisition of type, initiating a collection which has grown and grown over the past twenty years, I discerned a compulsive side to the pursuit of letterpress printing. “Five years ago, Ron Stamp of Cafe Press in Uxbridge rang me to say - I’ve got some stuff in sheds down the back…” continued Graham enigmatically, with a smile and a pause for dramatic effect, before announcing in triumph,“It was a goldmine of typographical material!”
I know I too am susceptible to this same urge because whenever I come across single blocks of wooden type for sale it irks me to see the letters split up and their function destroyed. I want to buy all the stray type and reconstruct the complete typefaces so they can have a new life. Consequently, it made feel good just to see all the neat trays of old type that Graham has rescued and put back to use, in this loving sanctuary for old and neglected fonts. More than this, I am delighted to report that letterpress printing is enjoying a resurgence and Graham opens his workshop up to students who find they return to their computers with a better understanding of typography once they have actually shuffled blocks of type around.
Graham’s occupation requires a rare combination of both the mental and the physical, the aesthetic and the practical manifested in a flexible mind and a steady hand. As well as being the one who chooses the typeface and decides upon the composition of type upon the page, the letterpress printer needs dexterity to work the printing press and set the type in the frame. It is all part of the same job. Typography for letterpress demands considerable powers of imagination to envisage the design of a page because the actual arrangement of words and white space is only revealed when it is printed on paper. It takes years of experience and a certain unquantifiable knack to master the idiosyncrasies of the press, and judge all the variables that must be controlled to arrive at a perfect print. This is the magic of printing.
While Graham spoke, I cast my eyes around the workshop – the walls decorated with old wood block posters in frames, the ceiling festooned with proofs of new prints drying in a rack, and the space divided by tall cabinets of drawers of type arranged around the fine nineteenth century iron presses that are the central focus of activity. Every spare surface was covered with intriguing paraphernalia, wedding invitations and correspondence cards, rolled posters and discarded pulls of type, wooden cases of intricately arranged tiny lead alloy type shining like fish scales, a recent copy of the British Medical Journal with Graham’s typographic cover design, some of Graham’s beautiful Christmas cards that he printed and never sent, and a stack of lively examples of the classy artists’ books that Graham produces to commission. It is the workplace of a happy man.