Keeping alive the 15th century printing technology that changed the world.
“All of these books in the past, the very heart of Western civilization, is based on these books being hand set and printed on these presses.” Richard Jermyn
He works by natural light, in a quiet meditative rhythm, with just the sounds of the wet slap of ink being rolled onto trays of type, the crinkle of paper being positioned, the frame sliding to and from the platen, and the metallic clunk of the counterweight.
“From the days of Gutenberg all the way through to what you can call the mechanization of printing, it was all hand work,” Mr Jermyn said. “The paper was made by hand, the type was cast by hand and set by hand. And finally the paper, the ink, and the type were brought together in the press and the press was worked by hand.”
Viewed from our digital age of instant global communication, it looks like a primitive process, but it is one that many say generated an information revolution far more profound than the internet. Before Gutenberg’s invention, books were written by hand, in limited numbers, and were affordable for very few. His hand letterpress, based on centuries-old Chinese wooden block techniques and incorporating the principle of a wine press, meant that instead of producing a few dozen pages in a day’s work, a printing house could produce thousands.
“All of these books in the past, the very heart of Western civilisation, is based on these books being hand set and printed on these presses,” Mr Jermyn said.
Big undertaking to set up page of type
His latest acquisition is a Columbian press, a rare 19th century press that was designed for newspaper and book production. As well as the presses, Mr Jermyn also has all the other necessary equipment, including about eight tonnes of metal type. You immerse yourself totally and you are not distracted by external noise. One of the things I like about this is you are working in silence — it’s almost a monastic existence. Richard Jermyn Every page must be prepared by positioning individual metal letters, one by one and line by line, into a frame.
“It’s such a humungous undertaking,” Mr Jermyn said. “Type must be set upside down and back to front.
“You can imagine how much work there is in setting just one page of type. Imagine setting a book. It’s an incredible piece of work.
“Some large pieces of printing would have required, I’m guessing, 50 to 100 tonnes of type, all laid out in galleys, all proofed, all imposed in pages.”
Preparing a page is meditative work
It is a peaceful process as Mr Jermyn chooses and carries an obviously heavy tray of type to a metal bench and begins to compose a page, carefully picking out and placing each letter.
“It’s printing before mechanisation. It’s something that has almost spiritual qualities,” he said.
“You immerse yourself totally and you are not distracted by external noise. One of the things I like about this is you are working in silence — it’s almost a monastic existence.
“When you are setting type you get into a routine, your hands know where to go, you don’t have to think too much, you have a direct contact between your hand, your eye, and your brain. This kind of activity is a form of meditation.”
Mr Jermyn said he had been thinking for some time about how to get the equipment to somewhere it could be displayed, and also put to work.
“It’s a particular combination of material that I have here that is, I think, very unusual. There’d be some places in the world that would have similar presses, but … this is a collection of most unusual material that all works and is capable of printing.”
“I’ve been looking for a place to set this up as a working printing museum.”