The St Bride Institute print room should be a must-see on your list of events during Open House London.
I was lucky enough to have a private tour recently with other members of the Bookmachine publishing group. The smell of the printer ink took me back to my student days, and most of the exhibits were in use even longer ago than that!
Mick, our guide, used to work for the newspapers as a compositor in the days of hot metal printing. When he demonstrated how compositors used to set type, it really brought home how labour-intensive the whole process used to be and how skilled the workers were. Each individual metal character was picked out from a type case and put into a composing stick, upside down and right to left. Metal spacers were inserted between words, and leading (literally pieces of lead of varying depth) was inserted between lines. Once a page was set, all the elements were bound together into a’ form’, put on a press and inked up ready to make an impression.
Letterpress is making a comeback – not hot metal printing, but as an art form with large wooden letters. Courses are run by the Institute, and most of the vintage presses are still in use. Surprisingly, the machinery has kept its value, even though parts must be hard to come by. St Bride also offer courses in bookbinding, wood engraving and printing on a wooden hand press – great therapy after a hard day at the office.
The St Bride Institute library is open on the first and third Wednesday of each month to the public – not just for the Open House weekend. There are 2000 books available (on a rotating basis) to browse on typography, graphic design and print, along with periodicals and objects. This is just the tip if the iceberg – the librarian estimates that to be about 5% of the total. The catalogue is available online, and if you would like to see a particular item, just email them a day or two before your visit and they will have it ready for you. There is a cost involved – the princely sum if £1 per item. A view of Eric Gill’s original working drawings of Gill Sans for £1? I don’t mind if I do.
The reading room is open from 12.00–9.00pm. As space is limited, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are so lucky to have great resources like this on our doorstep in London; let’s make the most of it.