By Gerald Lange
To my knowledge, the first documented use of a modern flatbed cylinder proof press for editioning a finely printed book was in the early 1950s at the newly formed Thistle Press. This was the Bert Clarke and David Way printing of volumes IV through XII of the Frick Collection catalogue (completed in 1955). John Dreyfus, in his book, Bert Clarke, Typographer, notes the pair abandoned the iron handpresses, used to print the first three volumes of the catalogue (published in 1949), after having “successfully experimented with alternative methods for printing dampened handmade paper on a large Vandercook proof press.”
But it was not until the mid-1960s that the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press began to be viewed by some printers as an ideal press for limited edition production work. The most notable early practitioner in this regard was Claire Van Vliet of the Janus Press. Her earliest work on a Vandercook proof press stems from the period of her apprenticeship (1958-1960) at John Anderson’s The Pickering Press. Probably the most influential advocate of the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press, however, was Walter Hamady of The Perishable Press, Ltd., whose first printed work on a Vandercook appeared in 1966 when he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.1 Both Van Vliet and Hamady were (and are) first and foremost, artists, and practiced the printing arts with a different perspective than their predecessors. Their stylistic approach to personal bookmaking was to have a significant impact on the like-minded fine press “renascence” of the mid-1970s.
As the commercial printing industry completed its shift away from letterpress technology in the late 1960s and early 1970s, flatbed cylinder proof presses and other remnants of the metal type era were flooding into the used printing equipment market. Only a few years after Lewis Allen published his seminal Printing With the Handpress in 1969, the iron handpress, the subject of his study, was already losing its ground as the press of choice for a new generation of fine printers.2 From William Morris to Allen the iron handpress had remained the only machine deemed traditionally appropriate for hand edition work. Allen begrudgingly felt that a cylinder press could only be considered a legitimate handpress if the roller mechanism was removed (and the form inked by hand); his contemporary, Harry Duncan, thought that the addition of a tympan and frisket cage attached to the end of the bed would suffice. This standing defense of tradition was itself, ironically, a bit blind to traditional technique. In 1933, printing historian Paul Johnston lamented that the “modern” mechanical use of rollers to ink a form had irrevocably invalidated the virtue of, and the skills required for, “hand press printing” by dispensing with the difficult, but more touch-sensitive, ink balls.3 Despite the argument, the iron handpress was increasingly forsaken for the very reasons Clarke and Way had abandoned it in the 1950s: efficiency and availability. In 1973, while beginning work on the Greenwood Press Phoedrus, printer Jack Stauffacher chose handset type and the Vandercook proof press as “the simplest and most trustworthy tools” for producing the book. As more and more of the fine printers entering the field took up the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press, resistance fell by the wayside. By 1980, in his lecture “The Technology of the Hand Press,” Duncan referred with shielded optimism to the “upstart” cylinder press as “the new god.”
1. Interestingly, Van Vliet immediately preceded Hamady at Madison, teaching there for a year in 1965. Previous to this, according to the bibliographic evidence, Hamady printed on a clamshell platen press.
2. In this book, Allen has written that Bruce Rogers was an early practitioner of printing on a Vandercook. I have been unable to find any evidence of this except to note that Rogers was associated with the Thistle Press and the Frick Collection catalogue and may have been influential in Clarke and Way’s decision to complete the project with a Vandercook.Further note: In a letter from William J. Murray, dated March 31, 2006, he notes that his acquaintance William G. Haynes worked on the Thistle Press Frick catalog for three years. Murray states “I distinctly remember his talking about the use of the Vandercooks in the printing and that the project was considered by the workmen to have been under the overall supervision of Bruce Rogers, who at his age (early 80s) did not want the day to day burdens of the printing project itself. But Bill Haynes remembered that he did come, but rarely, to the shop to look at the printing in progress. Haynes recalls meeting him there.”
Excerpted from “Edition Printing on the Cylinder Proof Press: A Historical Perspective,” Parenthesis: The Journal of the Fine Press Book Association, Oxford, England. Number 3, May, 1999. Revised, with additional notes not originally included in the article.
© 1999, 2003 by Gerald Lange