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James Mosley

APHA presented its 2003 Individual Award to James Mosley, retired Librarian at St Bride Printing Library, London, and Visiting Professor in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading. These acceptance remarks were delivered at APHA’s annual meeting held at the New York Public Library on January 25, 2003, and have been slightly revised for presentation on the web.

Acceptance Remarks of James Mosley
Members of APHA, thank you very much. As some of you may recall, I’ve been here before. In 1989, one of the first Institutional awards of the American Printing History Society went to the St Bride Printing Library, and I came to New York as its librarian to receive it.

I retired from that library nearly three years ago now, so I hope that in kindly inviting me back, you are making a distinction between the institution and the person, though it’s a distinction that I still have some difficulty in making myself. I took up a job at the St Bride Printing Library in June 1956. The librarian, W. Turner Berry, having worked there more or less continuously since 1913 was understandably ready to hand it over, which he did in 1958. So between us we presided over it for eighty-seven years.

This is an awful example to set before a younger generation and I don’t recommend it on principle. But in practice it seemed to work out quite well. In any case, when I joined it nobody ever expected even the library to last that long, let alone the librarian. For one thing, one of the new roads planned for the City of London after the Second World War was due to be cut right through the building within the next few years, so beyond the patching up of superficial war damage – Berry and his colleagues had put out the fire bombs with a water hose as they came through the roof – no money was ever spent on its maintenance, so the building was shabby and the roof leaked. And then there were the financial crises. They came regularly – one every decade throughout my time there. However both the library and its librarian are still around: not quite the same as they were, perhaps, but in many ways working better than ever – or so it seems to me, but I am prejudiced in their favour.

Looking at the APHA web page to see the distinguished roll call of those who have received my award, I see that in return they are encouraged to offer an “important statement of philosophy or accomplishment about the importance of printing history and the book arts”. It’s not for me to offer an opinion on the accomplishment or the importance, but I think I can do a bit of philosophy, so here it is.

When I began to work in Bride Lane I used to think how different its part of London must have been when Berry was a boy in 1900. He was born in 1888 and his father had been a saddler in Lower Thames Street, not so very far from the address of the library in Bride Lane. At that time all the heavy goods were still carried around very slowly on carts hauled by huge gentle horses – which was a reason why the saddler’s trade was important – saddlers made harness for carthorses. But in some ways it had not changed so very much. At the beginning of the 20th century the district to the north and south of Fleet Street contained the greatest concentration in the world – even if we take cities like Leipzig and Chicago into account – of publishers and printers and their suppliers – lithographers, blockmakers, papermakers, inkmakers and typefounders. There were rather fewer publishers there in the 1950s than there had been in 1900, since some had moved to another part of London or out of London altogether, and many of their offices and warehouses had been destroyed by the fire-bombs of 1940 when millions of books were destroyed in a single night, and half-burnt pages floated to the ground several miles away. But several of the old-established printers and publishers rebuilt their offices after the war, and others had survived intact, unchanged for centuries.

One survival was Taylor & Francis in Red Lion Court, specialist scientific printers and publishers who are still in business and flourishing. They had been in their building in Red Lion court – a splendid merchant’s house of the late-17th-century with fine decorated plaster ceilings and a noble staircase – since the 1790s. But in 1969 it was discovered that the effect of the weight of accumulated metal in the old structure was making it imperative for the firm to quit the building fast, and they moved to a part of South London where they still operate. Happily the library in Bride Lane was able to step in to offer a home for their papers, a massive and important archive which includes correspondence of about 1810 with one Friedrich König: Richard Taylor, founder of the firm, was one of the consortium that invested in his steam printing machine.

Fleet Street of course was still the home of the newspapers. Every night, until the middle of the 1980s, millions of newspapers were printed within a radius of less than half a mile, including, at its peak in the late 1950s, eight million copies of one title alone, the Sunday paper called The News of the World. Even in the 1970s, on hot summer nights in Red Lion Court, after workers in the surrounding offices had gone home, when the windows of the composing room of the Daily Telegraph were wide open, you could hear the musical tinkle of the Linotype mats as they were recycled in the magazine, and every so often, in quiet streets, the familiar clack of the Monotype caster came from the trade typesetters.

Those of us who visited newspapers at this period remember the sight of a news page of solid Linotype and Ludlow slugs being made up on the stone with astounding speed and skill, and then, the curved stereo plates having been locked to the massive cylinders, seeing them turning slowly at first, then faster and faster, until that endless stream of paper flowed between them with a deafening roar. Things are of course quieter, safer and duller now: the presses are boxed in and controlled by cool, efficient electronics. Those compositors and press operators had the heroic quality of engineers on the footplate of a great steam locomotive. Curiously enough, last October, when I was waiting to catch a train at the Gare du Nord in Paris, where the sleek electric Eurostar trains arrive from London, I found a train at one track which was made up of old-fashioned sleeping and dining cars, all of them museum-pieces. They were hitched to a huge black live steam locomotive. Just as I reached it, it belched an enormous cloud of steam, gave the high-pitched shriek that was typical of French locomotives, and the pistons slowly began to drive its vast steel wheels. What excitement to see all that heavy hot metal in motion once again!

I mention this because early last year the London Science Museum unveiled its latest prize: a single unit from one of the Goss presses that printed the Daily Mail in Fleet Street, extracted from the basement level where it had been entombed since 1986, when Rupert Murdoch changed the technology of the British newspaper industry. It was taken to the Museum’s storage area on an airfield ninety miles from London where it was painstakingly restored. As a piece of industrial archaeology it deserves respect. But it is only a single unit from a press that was once a hundred feet long, and it will never print again. It is a sad sight. One might as well exhibit a caged eagle – or a steam locomotive with its firebox cold.

Mention of this press is a reminder that the technology of printing did change, even in Fleet Street. For us in London the date when it became obvious that the change was not only inevitable but would now happen at an increasing pace was 1963, when the machinery manufacturers sponsored a historical exhibition in the middle of the chief British printing trade show known as IPEX.

‘Printing and the mind of man’ aimed to show ‘what Western Civilization owes to print’. It was proof, among other things, of Stanley Morison’s remarkable ability to charm money out of practical men for causes be believed to be worthwhile. The idea of the exhibition went back to 1940, when it had been decided to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of printing by showing what impact the printed word had had on ideas. What was new in 1963 was that the books containing the Great Thoughts of Western Man (woman, western or otherwise, hardly came into it) were set in the middle of a loan collection of objects showing the development of the technology that had got the words onto the paper – presses, machines, type, punches and matrices. It was suddenly clear that the gap between printing as we had known it and the hardware down on the floor of the trade exhibition was wider than we had realised, and was widening very fast.

I was as one of the team who had found the machines and other things, and written descriptions of them and the processes that they used. We discovered that far too little had been written about either the processes or the machines. Surviving examples were already vanishing fast, and so too were those who could tell us at first hand how they were used.

What was to be done? One of the members of our team was a printing journalist called James Moran, and he thought there should be a society to promote the study of printing history – something with a more hands-on sense of the realities of the printing trade than you could find among the bibliographical societies, which appeared to be more concerned with antiquarian books and libraries than with the realities of the shop floor. (This was not altogether fair, at any rate to the British Bibliographical Society, which had published such works as Ellic Howe’s The London compositor.). There was a certain amount of scepticism about the idea – Moran’s own personality and his record as a historian were responsible for that. But he founded his society anyway, in the Reading Room of the St Bride Printing Library, inviting anyone who might be interested to join him. So the sceptics conceded that there might be something in his project and that if it was going to happen anyway, they might as well be part of it.

That is how the Printing Historical Society happened. I mention it now, because after a few years some of the Society’s American members decided to form themselves into an American Chapter. This began to ring alarm bells. What if the Chapter on the other side of the Atlantic acted independently of the mother institution, or even told it what to do? With masterly diplomacy, drawing on well-remembered precedent, the British society decided that it was wisest to encourage the North American chapter to assert its independence, and so the American Printing History Association was more or less nudged into existence. I don’t know how this episode is dealt with in APHA’S official history, if such a thing exists, but that is how it looked to us.

Maybe I ought to add a word on how I got into printing. I went to school in Twickenham, now a south-western suburb of London, which was the home of Adana, the British equivalent of the Kelsey company, which made presses and sold small founts of type. Like John Baskerville I got passionately interested for letters and bought myself a little fount of Times Roman. I did my first printing with a press made out of a tobacco tin. I arrived as a student at Cambridge ready to put this infantile craze behind me, but as fate stepped in. In my first term I found that Philip Gaskell, fellow of King’s College, had set up a Press to provide graduate students of English with a little printing office that would enable scholars to solve the textual puzzles due to accidents of the press, following the model recommended by English bibliographers like R. B. McKerrow.

The Water Lane Press, called after a street in medieval Cambridge that ran through the site, was in a vaulted cellar of the splendid Gibbs building of about 1720 that flanks the college chapel. There was a marvellous scent of ink and paper. The University Press lent a press – a cast-iron Stanhope made by Robert Walker, with the serial number 108, and they cast some founts of Garamond and Bembo for it on their Monotype machines. In the event, the graduate students did not take much notice of it but it attracted a small flock of undergraduates who really had no business there. I was one of them.

Fate having stepped in so helpfully, I should have been ungrateful to resist it, so I spent much of my time at Cambridge setting type and printing. Gaskell wanted to do serious work, and his major project was to print an edition in octavo. The apprentices were allowed to set long takes of copy, which Gaskell put through the stick again to bring them up to his standard of setting.

I came back to Cambridge during a vacation to act as puller to his beater (Gaskell didn’t trust anyone else to do the inking, but the pressman could provide muscle and could do relatively little damage). We printed on reams of paper that had been properly damped in the traditional way. There were a thousand sheets to print – so two thousand impressions to make. It would have been a day’s work in the 18th century, but it took us three days, painfully acquiring the technique of printing a full octavo forme and backing it up. It was only on the third day that the job quite suddenly began to acquire its own natural rhythm. We found that we were co-ordinating the two tasks of pulling and beating more easily. I was no longer pulling the bar of the press like a rower but letting my body-weight do the work. (Just how effective this technique was I found out when, becoming just a bit too relaxed, I failed to grab the bar in time and shot myself backwards across the pressroom.)

If I tell this story it is not to boast of anything particularly special. Plenty of people have worked at the hand press and some still do. Williamsburg has the most perfect and accurate working reconstruction of an 18th-century office that I have ever seen. But for me it was a revelation to cross the barrier – however briefly and partially – between slow and painstaking reconstruction and reliving the experience. The difference between an edition of a few hundred impressions and two thousand were decisive. And I never did it again because Gaskell realistically cut the number of the next sheet to five hundred. And in the event, for various reasons, the third sheet was machined by the University Press.

So am I claiming a special, private insight into aspects of printing from which library-bound scholars are excluded? Only partially, and I hope modestly. I ought to say that among writers on type and printing I have always had a special regard – and I am not the only one – is Harry Carter. This is partly because his writing has exceptional clarity and brevity. But chiefly because he had special qualifications for writing about punchcutting and typefounding and printing at the hand press. I have done a few of these things. Unlike either Updike or Morison, Carter had done them all.

Which brings me to some concluding thoughts. As I speak the last professional punchcutters in the world, who work in the Cabinet des poinçons at the Imprimerie nationale in Paris, are working out the last few months of their tenure: by next year the Cabinet des poinçons will no longer exist in the form that it has maintained since 1948, with links to a tradition that goes back to Garamond.

Type now exists almost wholly – though thank goodness not entirely – in digital form. I don’t deplore that change. I think in many ways it has done more to raise the standard of the typography of books and journals than any event in my lifetime. And it has democratised type. I have had some experience of reviving historical models in digital form and trying to make them work by aligning and spacing them myself, and I have found it a rewarding and exciting experience. I still have hopes that imaging software will fulfil a promise that I remember being made decades ago, namely to take the images of type on paper, distorted as they are by wear and variations of inking and impression, and to recognize those that are derived from the same punches, rejecting the others that are only copies or look-alikes. In the past we have been far too dependent on the eye of the bibliographer, and while Updike and Carter, and Proctor and Morison too, were pretty good at spotting identities, I could – but won’t – give you a great many examples of their fallibility.

When the gods give you what you are asking for, they have a habit of doing so in a way that can take you aback. A couple of years ago I was present at the computer-generated typographical firework display mounted in London by Paul Needham and Blaise Agüera y Arcas, which was repeated not long afterwards here in New York. It had something to do with Gutenberg’s type. I am still not quite sure what I saw and what it meant and I look forward to reading about it and finding out. But at any rate it was clear that Dr Needham was once again stirring conventional thinking about early type out of the complacent consensus in which it had rested during recent decades.

You may know Pope’s epitaph on Sir Isaac Newton, celebrating the new cosmic certainties of the enlightenment :

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night.
God said, Let Newton be ! and all was light.

Sir John Squire’s reply, written in the 1920s, is rather less familiar:

It did not last. The Devil howling, Ho,
Let Einstein be! restored the status quo.

Carter brought a kind of Newtonian certainty to his subject. I’m not sure if Dr Needham would claim the status of Einstein, but printing history is none the worse for receiving the kind of jolts that are his speciality, and it seems to me that for a few years historians of early printing had better fasten their seat belts : it may be a bumpy flight.

A last word about New York, where I am delighted to find myself again. I first came here thirty-five years ago as a kind of afterthought to the series of lectures called ‘The Heritage of the Graphic Arts’, which were promoted by the legendary Doc Leslie. His payment was to send me my air ticket from London – a fabulous fee in those days. Other friends who I had got to know during their visits to Britain, added locations that turned my trip into a lecture tour, and so began a whole new way of life, following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde. These friends were people like Mike Parker, who followed Jackson Burke as director type development at Mergenthaler Linotype, and the book-filled lower floor of his house in Brooklyn was my base as long as I cared to stay. There was Rollo Silver in Boston, who opened the doors of the New England libraries for me. Jim Wells at the Newberry Library. And Carolyn Hammer in Kentucky, whose King Library printing office in Lexington used the beautiful wooden press made in Florence for Victor Hammer’s Stamperia del Santuccio. I remember that, meeting my plane at Lexington, she took me straight to that extraordinary and splendid research library at Keeneland which is wholly devoted to horses as St Bride and its peers are to typography. And although I know nothing about horses, I felt instantly at home.

And began my alternative career as a wandering lecturer, which made a wonderful change from the librarian’s life. My impresario on the second trip was Terry Belanger, lecturer in the School of Library Service at Columbia, and the hospitable apartment of Allen and Edith Hazen on Riverside Drive became my base in New York. I said I claimed Dickens and Wilde as role models, but in reality they are Mark Twain’s King and Duke. You arrive, perform once, perhaps twice, but then, if you know what is good for you, you leave town fast. But those visits to major libraries were incredibly useful opportunities for gaining access to original materials that I should never have seen in any other way.

For Terry Belanger’s birthday party here in New York City a couple of years ago, I wrote a piece that reminded him of our first encounter. Not many of you will have seen it, so perhaps I can repeat it by way of conclusion. Before I met him I got to New York and was in my mid-town hotel, still operating on London time. By 8.30 am it seemed to me that it was a quite reasonable time to call anyone. But it did not go down well. There was an inarticulate groan at the other end of the line. ‘I’m sorry – did I wake you?’ I said – ‘Had to happen some time I suppose’, he said unconvincingly.

When I am at Rare Book School, now exiled from the calm and quiet of Broadway to the rush and hurly-burly of Charlottesville, Virginia, we teachers and our victims gather together at dawn for coffee, bleary-eyed and hardly awake. Professor Belanger strikes his gong. (In fact it’s quite a melodious xylophone but none the more welcome for that). And he sends us brutally off to start our day’s work. It is exactly 8.30 am.

The life of a wandering professor is full of such trials, but it has its compensations. And many of them – you that is – are present here this afternoon. Thank you all very much.

James Mosley
22 January 2003

Posted with the author’s permission. Copyright remains with the author.