I once worked with a printer who still did letterpress printing in the 1980s, and one can only marvel at a technology which has lasted for over 500 years (and still exists for collectors, e.g. think of the Folio Society’s letterpress Shakespeare). Letterpress is painstaking and dexterous work, but for some a labour of love. During the 1980s, when I was working in offset-litho printing, I came across the reclusive Hull poet Ted Tarling, who I think wrote some of his poetry simply to have something that he could print on his Adana press. On one occasion he asked me to print the photograph which appeared on the cover of his collection “The Wild Whistle.” He had already printed the title, etc., using letterpress. Sadly, as I was transporting the half-finished covers to my workshop they fell out of the package on my bike’s carrier – straight into a puddle. All I could do was rescue a copy and reprint the whole lot using offset. When delivered to Ted, he felt the covers and noticed there was no indentation on the back. I feigned ignorance – too embarrassed to explain what had happened. He was too polite to ask.
This exceptional exhibition looks at the book printing triumphs of medieval Bruges, seen largely through the eyes of master printer Colard Mansion, who lived in the city for 30 odd years in the 1400s. No-one knows what his background was before he came to Bruges, and it is suggested that after a very obvious success professionally he eventually ‘fled’ the city – back into obscurity. Books in those days were modelled on manuscripts which I guess were mainly created by monks – nearly every text was religious, although some drew on the classics. So early typescripts relied on typefaces which replicated the elegant Gothic or Italianate styles of handwritten language. One typeface was created in the style of Mansion’s own handwriting.
Looking at the books on display it is hard to believe that they were actually printed, rather than painstakingly transcribed by some monk locked away in a monastery for ten years. But this image of uniqueness is not accidental, since most of the adornment, pictures, illuminations and embellishments were added by hand, or by the insertion of separately printed woodcuts and engravings. Mansion worked with William Caxton for many years (Caxton lived in Bruges between c.1450 and 1476). Both of them also served as translators, producing texts in English and French. No need for that now. Just leave it to Google Translate and stick it on your Kinder.