How letterpress printing made an impression on women writers

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When Claire Battershill took part in the Printing Fellowship program at Massey College in 2009, she discovered that her cast iron printing presses were more than just relics of a bygone era.

For many women writers and printers – from Virginia Woolf to Anaïs Nin – letterpress printing embodied a liberating spirit, as well as the freedom of artistic control that still attracts and inspires artists and writers today.

“There’s definitely a romance about it,” says Battershill, a joint-appointed assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts and Science’s English department and the Faculty of Information. His book, Women and Typographic Printing 1920-2020: Gendered Impressions, will be released in July. It explores the relationship between genre and literary typographic printing from the early 20th century to the early 21st, as well as the continued presence – and even revival – of typography in the age of iPhones, emails and mobile devices. 3D printers.

Letterpress printing involves taking blocks of text or images and placing them on a raised surface, similar to a rubber stamp. Ink is applied to the raised surface, then paper is pressed directly against it to transfer the text or image.

Invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century, letterpress printing was the standard form of printing for hundreds of years, although it remained widely used for books until the 20th century, when new printing methods More modern printing has taken over for books and newspapers.

“It was quite a laborious process,” says Battershill, adding that the two stages of typesetting and then printing took countless hours. “I saw how slow and hard it was to do,” she says of her own typography experience. “As a hobby printer, it would take me at least two working days to compose and print a small run of a single poem.”

Battershill is fascinated by women writers who used letterpress printing to take full control of their writing and the production of their work – including Woolf (1882-1941), who, with her husband Leonard, founded The Hogarth Press in 1917.

“Woolf said, ‘The publishers told me to write what they liked. And I said, no, I’ll publish myself and write what I like,” Battershill says.

Nin (1903-1977), French-born American columnist, essayist, novelist and author of short stories and erotica, founded Gemor Press in New York in 1942 in response to World War II disrupting the distribution of her books by major publishing houses. .

“She came to the conclusion that it allowed her to think more precisely about what she called ‘essential words’,” says Battershill.

Surrealist writer, poet and political activist Nancy Cunard (1896-1965) was a self-taught printer who wrote a memoir about the experience of running her own printing company called These were the hours: memories of my hours Press, Réanville and Paris, 1928-1931.

Battershill was intrigued by the way letterpress printing forced writers to stop and reflect on their poetry and prose, as well as giving them complete artistic control.

“A lot of writers say it really slows you down,” says Battershill. “It focuses you on one letter at a time. So this idea of ​​breaking language down into tiny little units seems to change the way they think about the words they write.

Anaïs Nin operating a typography with her Gemor
Press in New York in the 1940s.

Would Battershill ever want to publish her own book using letterpress printing?

“Yes, I would, although I’ve been hesitant to do so in the past, partly because as a writer I find it painful to imagine spending so much time with my own work,” she says. .

Battershill’s book also explores why typography still holds so much appeal, and how its role has evolved over time from being the dominant commercial printing technology to being a favorite tool of artists, writers and poets.

She thinks the use of typography is part of a resurgence in manual arts such as knitting or calligraphy.

“We don’t have to do these things manually, but there is a hobby community that connects around manual practice and manual labor,” she says. “Similarly, contemporary typographic communities are at the intersection of fine art, literature, and craft.”

Additionally, Battershill comments on the continued appeal of typography to women and activists – reflecting the ability to print and deliver a message authentically and uncensored. She notes that several Black Lives Matter posters were created by letterpress printing.

And typography continues to be a vehicle for artistic expression.

In her book, Battershill mentions Ladies of Letterpress, an international trade organization for letterpress printers and print enthusiasts that promotes the art of letterpress printing and encourages the voice and vision of women printers.

It also highlights the work of Norwegian artist and graphic designer Ane Thon Knutsen, whose art comes from her personal typography studio.

“Her work consists of typographic interpretations of Virginia Woolf,” says Battershill. “She creates room-sized installations of her stories where she prints one or two words per page and then you walk across the room. It’s like walking through history.

Battershill hopes readers of her next book will enjoy walking through history and be inspired to create something of their own, in their own way.

“The printing press may seem like an archaic technology that belongs to an earlier era, but there is something in the contemporary world that we can learn from these older technologies,” she says.

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