Gary Arber, Printer

Fol­low­ing the Gen­tle Author’s foot­steps to Mr Arber’s of East Lon­don

Let­ter­press-only print­ers are becom­ing increas­ingly dif­fi­cult to find.  Where this was once the only way to print and each town could boast of such a works, I have only seen a hand­ful in my let­ter­press adven­tures across the UK.  In York­shire, I saw the final days of Ken McWhan’s in Scar­bor­ough and saw the demise of Paul Mitchell of Fars­ley near Leeds.  The exem­plar blog for me is Spit­al­fields Life, and I was thrilled to see the Gen­tle Author pay a vis­it to Gary Arber on Roman Road in East Lon­don.

I was less pleased when I saw that Mr Arber’s Print­ing Works was near clos­ure, so I took the chance to vis­it him.  I can’t do the same jus­tice as the Gen­tle Author to this won­der­ful sto­ry, fron­ted by Mr Arber, but I can as the ques­tions that I sus­pect print­ers would want me to ask, and also offer my best wish­es for his future.

I spoke to Gary on Wed­nes­day 19 Feb­ru­ary and asked whether I could vis­it.  Some print­ers are almost furt­ive but Gary said he would wel­come a vis­it.  I made the short jour­ney from the bow­els of the City of Lon­don on the Num­ber 8 to this dif­fer­ent world.  The fact that the light above the door states “Print­ing Works” leaves the dis­tinct impres­sion he means busi­ness.

The visitor’s first impres­sion is the wealth of objects — every­where.  Each sur­face is filled with enga­ging and inter­est­ing things.  Sta­tion­ery, eph­em­era, odds-and-sods from the print works itself.  This ground floor is Arber’s shop win­dow and the place to deal with cus­tom­ers.  Gary was help­ful to the trick­le of cus­tom­ers that still attend in hope of solv­ing some com­mu­nic­a­tion need — des­pite the rather dra­conian park­ing restric­tions.

Machine Room

I was escor­ted down the small, steep stairs to the base­ment.  It’s here that the machines live that print­ers will have sal­iv­ated over in the Spit­al­fields Life art­icle.  The usu­al print­ing smells of oil and ink are here, but also the cold slight­ly damp air and qui­et that comes with being below street lev­el.  I could see that work has begun to remove these machines to Nor­folk and the renewed care of the Cat­seye Press, but the bulk of the bat­tery was here.

Work­ing from under the stairs, the room con­tains the now-famous Lagon­da, the Heidel­berg Plat­en, a ‘Superm­atic’, Wharfedale, Mer­cedes Glock­ner, and a small Gold­ing Press.

De­cid­ing on Machines

I asked Gary how he decid­ed on which machine to use for a job and his response was sim­ple: tiny jobs like busi­ness cards would be done on the Gold­ing; lar­ger jobs on the Heidel­berg and the largest jobs on the Wharfedale.

The ‘Lagonda’

The Lagon­da has attrac­ted a lot of atten­tion — it’s one of those machines that few peo­ple have seen and had attained an almost myth­ical sta­tus.  The machine was installed in the 1950s, while Gary was in the Roy­al Air Force, but was nev­er very pop­u­lar.  The feed mech­an­ism is dri­ven by a long, sin­gle bar run­ning from left to right and this was tempre­mental.  An impres­sion of the last job remains on the tym­pan — a bot­tle label for oil — and the machine was last used around 1968.  The Brit­ish Print­er write-up of the Lagon­da sug­ges­ted they could be run side-by-side, but the way the motor hous­ing is posi­tioned leads me to believe that this could nev­er have been done in prac­tice.

The Heidel­berg

With the excep­tion of Steve Fish­er (who raves about the Thomp­son Plat­en), the ranks of com­mer­cial job­bing let­ter­press print­ers fall in love with their Heidel­bergs and Gary is no excep­tion.  This machine is his ‘go to’ machine and has been used until the last two weeks.

Gold­ing and Wharfedale

These two machines are fam­ous from their con­nec­tion with the suf­fra­gettes.   It’s these two machines used to print for the cam­paign.  I was espe­cially tak­en with the size of the Wharfedale (Crown sized: 20? x 30?) — such small machines are unusu­al accord­ing to Bri­an Aldred.

Case or Com­pos­ing Room

The stairs adja­cent to the front door lead upstairs to the com­pos­ing room.  Three men worked here at one time: each with his own stand of cas­es.  The room looks slight­ly domes­tic with red and gold wall­pa­per but this is what the comps liked, said Gary.  It looks rather chaot­ic, and I sup­pose that the demands of work over time meant that very lit­tle type seems to have been returned to its case.

Type Selec­tion

Gary told me that his sup­plier of choice was Risca­type, of Mon­mouth­shire.  He con­cen­trated on Gill for the sans face and Times for the ser­iffed face.  A small run of Rock­well and Per­petua sup­ple­ments this.

Gen­eral Lay­out of the Works

The works was at one time all based in the base­ment machine room: with case racks and com­pos­it­ors work­ing along the back wall and machines on the out­side wall.  As the busi­ness expan­ded, the guil­lot­ine and case racks were moved to a shed in the back yard.  From there they were moved to the back of the ‘shop’ area on the ground floor.  Even­tu­ally the case room was moved upstairs in to what was the liv­ing area.  Gary told me that a Factor­ies Inspec­tor in the 1970s had sug­ges­ted the works was not up to stand­ard: includ­ing the need to guard most use­ful ele­ments of the machine, replace the stair­case to the cel­lar and white­wash the case room.  Gary declined and end­ed up let­ting go of his staff to avoid fur­ther enforce­ment by the Inspec­tor.  The case room, by the way, retains the ori­ginal wall­pa­per!

The Future

Gary Arber in the Caseroom
Gary Arber in the Case­room

Gary’s works have been pro­du­cing prin­ted mater­ial since 1897 and the won­der­ful human sto­ry that fol­lows this is best told by the Gen­tle Author.  It was a pleas­ure to meet Mr Arber and to find him so will­ing to indulge my hob­by printer’s curi­os­it­ies.  Gary’s machines each have a new home pen­cilled in, and I wish the chaps at Cat­seye Press the very best with dimant­ling, mov­ing, restor­ing and oper­at­ing these frag­ments of a mosa­ic that cov­er print­ing, the East End, the Suf­fra­gettes and Mr Arber him­self.

I did ask whether I might indulge him with some­thing for his hos­pit­al­ity, but Gary — it seems — has no vices!

Best wish­es, Gary, for the next chap­ter of life away from your Print­ing Works.

Update: April 2014

The nice chaps from the Cat­s­eye Press have been in touch with me –

Once we have it installed and cleaned (quite a lot) We will be more than hap­py for peo­ple with an inter­est to vis­it our Lagon­da Plat­en (as removed from Arber’s in Roman Road) Along with our exten­sive col­lec­tion of oth­er plat­en and cylin­der machines.

The Wipers Times

The BBC will broad­cast a pro­gramme detail­ing the Wipers Times, a trench mag­a­zine made by sol­diers at Ypres in World War I.  I under­stand Tim Hon­nor’s Arab will have star billing!

Artists’ Books and Letterpress: Academic Survey

An aca­d­e­m­ic needs your let­ter­press help!

Angela But­ler from the Uni­ver­sity of the West of Eng­land is work­ing on a PhD look­ing at let­ter­press with­in artists’ books prac­tice.  Please do join the sur­vey below if you can help!

This research intends to exam­ine how we learn to design and cre­ate artists’ books through let­ter­press. To gain an under­stand­ing of how con­tem­por­ary book artists teach­ing let­ter­press has influ­enced what is pro­duced in the field, and how this relates back into stu­dio and pri­vate press prac­tice.

By tak­ing this sur­vey, you are shar­ing inform­a­tion towards my PhD. stud­ies and agree­ing that res­ults may be pub­lished in hard copy or online. There are selec­tion box­es in the sur­vey to choose your pref­er­ence for either being named or remain­ing anonym­ous if quot­ed.