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At Butler, Tanner & Dennis in Frome

October 6, 2013
by the gentle author

Book Designer, David Pearson, with pages of The Gentle Author’s London Album

Everyone that loves books knows the name of Butler & Tanner, Britain’s oldest and foremost colour printer – established in Frome in 1845 and nowadays known as Butler, Tanner & Dennis. This was the printer that Allen Lane went to in 1935 to print Ariel, the first Penguin Book, and so it was my great delight to go down to Somerset with Book Designer, David Pearson, and Contributing Photographer, Patricia Niven, to see the pages of The Gentle Author’s London Album roll off the presses at the same print works.

We met at Paddington Station before dawn and the sun was just rising as the train sped through the West Country to deliver us to Frome, where we walked from the station to our destination in the aptly-named Caxton Rd. Upon arrival at the unexpectedly quiet print works, we were ushered into a waiting room and told that the first page would be ready shortly. Once we were led through into the factory we encountered the clamour of the machines, where vast presses – each one the size of whale – were spewing forth huge pages of print.

Here we met printers Paul Wrintmore and Clive Acres, and I saw pages of the Album for the first time, laid upon a brightly-lit table that simulated daylight. To my right, the great machine sat humming to itself with impatience as it waited to run off thousands of copies. But first we had to give our approval and I had to sign off the sheet. Each sheet contains twenty-four pages and here, in these unfamiliar surroundings, I was delighted to find my old friends The Dogs of Old London, The Pointe Shoe Makers, The Car Crashes of Clerkenwell and The Spitalfields Nippers. This was one of those moments when you confront something entirely familiar as if you are seeing it for the first time. It all looked well to me, with sharp details and good definition even within the darker areas of the pictures and, where there were flat areas of colour, the tones were even. I could find no flaw.

Yet I stood back, deferring to David Pearson as the design professional, and he leaned over close, casting his critical gaze upon his beautiful pages. The printers stood behind us, exchanging expectant glaces in silence. This was not a moment to discover a mistake and thankfully we did not find any. Most importantly, we were both satisfied with the quality of the printing and I signed the sheet, setting the great press in motion. After a tour of the factory, we came back to see the second sheet and were satisfied again and I signed it off too, content now to leave the rest of the book in the safe hands of the printers.

The early start and the emotionalism of the occasion caught up with us, and we were happy to climb back onto a train and, feeling relieved, we dozed all the way back to Paddington. Yet I took copies of each of the sheets of the Album with me as souvenirs and I have been examining them for errors ever since. I have not found any yet – but I am still looking.

W.T.Butler’s Steam Printing works in Frome, 1857

W.T. Butler, 1850

Early print specimen from Butler & Tanner

Joseph Tanner went into partnership with W.T. Butler in 1863

Early print specimen by Butler & Tanner

Butler & Tanner Print Works, 1905

Paper to print The Gentle Author’s London Album

Setting up the type, 1920

A special colour of ink mixed for The Gentle Author’s London Album

Adjusting the press, 1930

Pumping the ink to print The Gentle Author’s London Album

Typesetting, 1950

David Pearson inspects one of the plates to print The Gentle Author’s London Album

Printing machine, 1935

Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 162 printing press, standing by

Printing Works Beano, 1950

Paul Wrintmore, one of the printers of The Gentle Author’s London Album, with the first page

Plate making, 1950

Clive Acres, one of the printers of The Gentle Author’s London Album

Printing press, 1950

The first page of the Album to come off the press

Digital typesetting, 1970

David Pearson scrutinises the first page

Printing press, 1978

Sewn-together copies heading for the bindery

Digital printing, 1988

In the bindery

1912, Sherlock Holmes

1935, Ariel – the first Penguin Book

1950, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe

1965, James Bond

2013, The Gentle Author’s London Album

Colour photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

Archive images courtesy of Butler, Tanner & Dennis

You may also like to read about

David Pearson, Book Designer

One Hundred Penguin Books

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Deby, in Canada permalink
    October 6, 2013

    That must have been amazing to see the printing. Congratulations!
    Can’t wait to see the book in a few weeks.
    Cheers
    Deby

  2. October 6, 2013

    exciting…
    n♥

  3. October 6, 2013

    Really looking forward to selling this in the shop, guaranteed to be a Christmas bestseller.

  4. October 6, 2013

    This must have been almost like watching the birth of a new baby. Congratulations! Valerie

  5. SBW permalink
    October 6, 2013

    How exciting, I am so thrilled for you. We’ll done. s

  6. Philip Marriage permalink
    October 6, 2013

    There’s nothing quite like the excitement of seeing the result of all your labours spread out before you, anxious eyes seeking your approval as the realisation that for good or bad, in a few hours huge pallets of finished books will be piled high in the warehouse awaiting distribution. There’s no going back – good luck with the launch.

  7. October 6, 2013

    I am now so excited about your book. Can’t wait for the launch!

  8. Gary permalink
    October 6, 2013

    It was interesting for me to see the machine minder checking the forme on the bed of the old Quad Crown Mhelie (might be spelt wrong!) press in 1930. They were still around when I was taught on one at the London School of Printing in Stamford Street in 1946
    Gary

  9. Ruth Barker permalink
    July 17, 2016

    I have in my possession a book and on the front it says 1902 Hand and Heart Illustrated Tales. This copy was presented to a Mrs A Green in remembrance of 19 years membership of the Mayfield Total Abstinence Society – March 29th 1904.

    The fly sheet says Butler & Tanner, The Selwood Printing Works, Frome and London.

    Is this a valuable item?

  10. Patsy Light permalink
    August 15, 2017

    Please tell me how I may acquire permission to use a photo from Linda Farrar’s book, Ancient Roman Gardens. It is on page 100 and is Plan and view of garden sculpture at the House of the Golden Cupids, Pompeii. We would like to get a copy at 300 dpi, at not less than 8″. Could you assist us? Our book, about cement artisans in the US in the 1920s and 30s will be published by Texas A&M University Press.” thank you very much,
    Patsy Light
    author/historian

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