Hand & Eye Letterpress occupies one of the arches under a Victorian railway viaduct in Pinchin Street, London, just a few blocks east of the gleaming City of London. A cobbled road runs between the viaduct and the brick-built council flats opposite. With the London skyline hidden by trees and buildings, you could just as easily be in Newcastle or Nottingham, but despite its unremarkable surroundings, Hand & Eye is that rarest of things: a working, commercial letterpress printing shop. I arrived on a mild October day last year to find Nick Gill, H&E’s resident Monotype operator, sitting outside with a cup of tea. He pointed me inside to find proprietor Phil Abel, with whom I had an appointment. I was there to learn about the press’s most unusual — and, by some measures, most important — device.
Last weekend I took the bus from Edinburgh to Innerleithen, a small town in the Scottish Borders, for a one-day letterpress workshop at Smail’s Printing Works. The more I appreciate the impact that printing has had on the marks examined here, the more I want to try my hand at printing itself: it seems disingenuous to discuss the death of the pilcrow at the hands of Gutenberg’s press, or to explore the epic struggle to automatically hyphenate and justify text, without ever having lifted a piece of type in anger.
It is a cliché to say so, but the prim façade of suburbia hides some remarkable secrets. A month or two back I was researching the hyphenation practices of the closing years of the Victorian era, a period when printing was in the midst of a change from manual to automated composition courtesy of new-fangled machines such as the “Monotype” and “Linotype” systems. In doing so I came across the website of the Chepman & Myllar Press of Edinburgh,1 which claimed ownership of the last working Monotype caster in Scotland. I had never seen a Linotype or Monotype system in person before and I couldn’t resist emailing Harry McIntosh, the proprietor, on the off chance that I might be able to inveigle my way into a visit. He agreed, much to my surprise, and so it was a few weeks later that I made my way out to Edinburgh’s leafy western suburbs to meet Mr McIntosh at his home.