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Alan Cox, Master Printer

March 24, 2014
by the gentle author

Alan works at his flatbed offsetting proofing press in Charlotte Rd, Shoreditch

When Master Printer Alan Cox came to Shoreditch more than thirty years ago, he was surrounded by other print trades and furniture manufacturing workshops, but today he is the last artisan still in business on Charlotte Rd. So – before Alan closes up his shop for good at the end of the summer – I took the opportunity of accompanying Adam Dant on a visit to watch him at work, printing the limited edition of Adam’s Map of the Coffee Houses.

You enter a small door in an unmarked shop front and walk into a huge room with a magnificent old worn brick floor and an elaborate wooden roof that has not been painted in a generation. Two tall Brunswick green doors open onto the street, where the cart once came in with deliveries of timber for the furniture factory and then carried the finished items off to showrooms in the West End.

In the centre of the studio sits Alan’s flatbed offsetting proofing press where he produces limited editions of prints for artists. It is a painstaking manual process as Alan rolls the machine back and forth, positioning each sheet carefully and then removing it to place upon a slowly-growing stack. Adam’s prints had already been through the press once to acquire the coffee-brown background tone and we came to witness the second plate which would apply the black lines of his drawing to complete the work.

With relaxed concentration, Alan rolled the press slowly back and forth, producing the last few prints as Adam watched. Then we convened around the stack and, once Adam had given his approval, we settled down in a quiet corner of the print shop upon a couple of bar stools from the Bricklayers Arms for a celebratory cuppa, as Alan told me his story.

“I came here in 1979. One day, I walked past and I saw this guy moving all this machinery out of here. He was selling up after fifty years, so I asked him to give me ring. It’s a strange triangular building, filling the corner space where Charlotte Rd meets Great Eastern St. Across the road was the National Front headquarters, and there was a lot of shouting and bottle smashing in those days. There were no bars, only the Barley Mow and the Bricklayers Arms which closed at the weekends, so it was pretty dire for night life.

I’ve been printing by lithography since the sixties. At first, I had a little print shop in Jubilee St, Whitechapel, and next door was a kosher chicken shop. We got woken to the sound of them slitting the chickens’ throats, but it was a friendly Jewish community even if the neighbourhood was run down. I moved to London in 1961 to study at Central School of Art and was only just setting up after leaving college in 1963. I taught at various colleges, but having a print shop was a way to do my own work and making a living, without getting drawn into the politics.

The print shop got me involved with lots of other artists. It’s interesting to work with other people, because you never work for them – they always ask your opinion as a printmaker and you work together. If John Hoyland asked my opinion, I used to say, ‘Cover it in black’ - I remember once he did that, and it looked fantastic because it wasn’t solid black and all the colours underneath came through in a subtle way. But some artists are very prima-donna-ish and can be bloody awkward.

I started doing lithography because I like working with colour and brushes in a painterly kind of way, and I found etching a little reductive. At Central, I did some screen-printing but everyone else wanted to do it too, so the studio was always busy whereas hardly anyone used the lithography studio – and it was always possible to get on a press and print my own work.

By the mid-seventies, I had moved down to Butler’s Wharf and was getting a lot of recognition, and I had four people working with me on five presses, so I invited different artists to do monotypes. Nobody did it then but now everybody does it! Degas had done small ones in brown but I encouraged artists to do large ones in colour – I worked with Stephen Buckley, John Hoyland and Jim Dine among others. Howard Hodgkin came and did some small ones and then some very big ones.

You can run off four hundred prints in a good hard day’s work on my flatbed offset proofing press but I’d rather do two hundred. I am on the cusp of closing up. It’s quite physically and mentally demanding, because you have to pay attention to every detail. It’s been interesting, but I’m going to to shut the studio down at the end of the summer. I’ll still continue to make work, I won’t be hibernating in the loft!”

Alan Cox & Adam Dant

Damping the plate

Placing the print with the brown tone awaiting the second plate with the black lines

Alan & Adam scrutinise the finished prints

Click on the map to enlarge and read the stories of the Coffee Houses

Copies of Adam Dant’s Limited Edition of his MAP OF THE COFFEE HOUSES printed by Alan Cox can be obtained direct from adamdant@gmail.com

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Adam Dant’s Map of the Coffee Houses

8 Responses leave one →
  1. March 24, 2014

    Gentle Author you have the knack of finding truly wonderful characters and Spitafields Life is an absolute gem. This article is beautiful. Keeping bringing in more of this amazing facet of life and its wonderful people.

  2. March 24, 2014

    Alan is a very talented craftsman, and it is a shame that he is shutting down his shop. Valerie

  3. March 24, 2014

    Love these photographs and the whole feel of that great print shop. I can feel being in it.

    I like imagining being his apprentice … Just taking care of the coffee, sorting proofs, cleaning the press or picking up the floor after work. It would all be good and most honorable. I can feel the perfectionistic eye of a master printer in the way he holds the proof. As a monotype artist, I can say the sight of that press is also very charismatic. One could learn so much from being in the presence of such a master artist/artisan.

  4. P OLIVER permalink
    March 24, 2014

    I am forwarding this to my ex husband, who at 84yrs still drives into London every day from St Albans, to work … He has been in the print all his working life and loves anything to do with the “old way” and the machines etc, so he will be fascinated with this article , Thankyou.

  5. March 24, 2014

    Two professionals at work — another grand story from London’s East End!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  6. March 24, 2014

    Fantastic as usual, hidden gems to make us think of all the old trades slowly drifting away from the East End at least Adam Dants great maps will live on….

  7. March 24, 2014

    Another lovely profile of a craftsman. It’s a shame Alan is shutting up shop. It would be lovely if someone else could take over the business. Spitalfields is changing, I suppose, so that won’t be possible.

  8. July 7, 2017

    I would love to get in touch with Alan if possibloe sinc eI am coming to London in September & havent seem him since he first moved to Charlotte Rd. Hope he remembers me! I did a litho with him befor ehe moved & wished I had done more! Please ask him to get in touch if he cares to!
    Best
    Vernita Nemec

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