The forgotten fine art of the printing press

Connecting with the words

“Perfect typography is certainly the most elusive of all arts. Sculpture in stone alone comes near it in obstinacy.”

Jan Tschichold
- Homage to the Book, 1968

Journalism is a fast paced industry. Stories are rolling in incessantly, deadlines are always looming, and by the time your editor has finished saying ‘jump’, you should already be landing back on the floor with a solid excuse as to why you didn’t jump sooner.

Not to say that I don’t love the rapid nature of journalism, but somewhere in between churning out my sixth story of the week and my 10th coffee of the day, I find I’ve lost touch with the words I’m writing. When I came across the Eastern Star Gallery last year, I discovered a different time in journalism, where the deadlines were just as severe, but a writer’s relationship with his or her words was far more personal.

Half way up Grahamstown’s Anglo-African street, housed in high stone walls sits the Eastern Star Gallery. I had gone in to report on Trading Live for Nelson Mandela Day. A few primary school pupils were being shown by curator Richard Burmeister how to manually compose and print a short sentence.

“Now does anybody know what they used to type with before computers?” he asks them. “A typewriter!” one pupil proudly answers. “Nope. They used something else before typewriters were invented,” he says before moving a heavy roller print press over a sheet of paper and some inked type, producing a beautiful, blue paragraph. The action prompted a resounding chorus of oohs, aahs and utter disbelief from the crowd of children. I must admit, I was equally amazed, but kept my cool for the kids.

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Working as a designer and as part of the education and outreach programme at the National English Literary Museum (NELM), Richard often leads local school children on historical tours of the printing press gallery. “The kids are great.” He tells me. “They come in and see they type all set and laid out and think nothing of it until they see it go into the printing press and come out as print and they all say ‘wow!’ it’s great seeing the expressions on their faces when they see this place come alive.”

The gallery itself has an incredible calming effect to it. Yellowing copies of the Eastern Star newspaper hang above you, folded over strings from wall to wall, a small wooden swivel chair sits facing a rich, wooden editor’s desk with old articles, front pages, and enthusiastic advertisements plastered to the wall behind it. ‘Welcome to the Bathurst Fair!’ one ad shouts out in bold Franklin Gothic style font, ‘The printing press- A wonderful invention!’ proclaims another. Surrounding the room are wooden trays and cases housing individual letters, countless typefaces, and punctuation points whilst the various printing press machines and equipment take up the majority of the space.

Of course it wasn’t always like this. When Richard was asked to become curator in the late 90s, the Eastern Star Gallery was more like a mouldy old storage facility than the homage to the craft of journalism that it is now.
“When I came in? Oh my word you really don’t want to know. Everything was a mess, really,” explains Richard. “There were huge apple boxes just full to the brim with loose type and they were all mixed up. So what I had to do is clear the metal top table, take them out and clean all the dust and grime off, and sort them into sizes, fonts, and typefaces and place them in their individual cases.”

It’s a bizarre experience having all of that type laid out in front of you. It’s as if someone has somehow reverse engineered an entire newspaper article and you were tasked with putting it back together. To compose an entire newspaper in this manner you’d need a number of things- a composing stick, a quoin, chases, loose type, leading and more. I was not putting an entire paper together though. I was there to print a letter for someone and all I needed was a composing stick, loose type, a bit of leading, and a lot of room for trial and error.

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“You can choose whichever type you like. All of them give a very different look to the printed type, it’s beautiful.” he says before warning me, “Because all of the type has to go in upside down and backwards, you better mind your ‘p’s and ‘q’s.” Which is where we get the popular term from. A lot of everyday phrases come from the days of the manual printing press in fact. Upper and lower case refers to the literal upper and lower wooden cases the type was stored in, and ‘being out of sorts’ comes from the disastrous event of running out of individual type called ‘sorts’ and being unable to complete your article. I suddenly had a whole new appreciation for my laptop and laserjet.

His father being the prolific Eastern Cape novelist Jon Burmesiter, Richard grew up in a world of literature, and with his gentle, patient nature it’s hard to picture him anywhere else but in the Eastern Star Gallery, living amongst the words. “I grew up being told that books are friends and for me they really are,” he says brushing the dust from an old composing frame. “For me, being here is a job, a hobby, and a passion. It’s a fine art, the art of setting the type and going through the whole process, staying with your words until they’re printed.”

When you’re placing each individual letter into the composing stick, feeling the different weights of the types, and regarding your words gently so as not to spill your letters all over the place, it’s an almost meditative process that gives you a new appreciation for the art of writing. You start to think more critically about the words you’re using, how they’ll show up on the page, how they’ll look next to one another when they’re finally printed. Each word becomes incredibly personal.

In the end it took me three days of quiet two hour sessions to compose and print my piece of just under 100 words. This piece then, would have taken me around 60 hours to create and if I had the time, I would certainly have done it. However, deadlines still loom and you can’t hyperlink metal type so I head back out into the busy streets to resume my position in front of the computer screen. I doubt it will be long before I’m back at the Eastern Star Gallery.

All images courtesy of Jane Berg.

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