Being involved in making the printing press for the recreation of William Blake’s Lambeth studio in the Apprentice and Master exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford was a highlight of nearly twenty years of furniture making. We have been fortunate to have been involved with a number of projects at the Ashmolean since its major refurbishment in 2009. Generally however, ours was a supporting role, making stands and plinths that hold up the objects themselves. With this printing press, our work had the spotlight directly on it.
Prior to our involvement, exhibition curator Dr Michael Phillips had amassed many period drawings and a number of other helpful images, some in the form of cartoons of the time depicting the sweat and grunt of the print room in full roll, others technical drawings and exploded diagrams of great intricacy. In the Science Museum’s vast storehouse in Wiltshire, an original was dusted off, visited, and measured. Discussions were had with curators at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam who have another reproduction wooden roller press.
When we were handed the project, we were also presented with most of the materials for its construction, in the dismantled form of the former bell frame of St Mary’s Church, High Wycombe. This fine resource had coincidentally been collected by the Building Services team at the museum, from our near neighbours Lassco, experts in architectural salvage. Using reclaimed timber is a perilous business which I would only recommend if the material in question has an intrinsic value beyond that of the material itself. Its greatest value is usually that which it gives to the saw-doctor in broken saw-teeth and planer-knives. Having said that, even new planks can hide all manner of metal shrapnel, occasionally literally, but also the odd staple that held the barbed wire that the tree grew round, and not unusually the shotgun pellets that missed the pheasant. Trees have a way of consuming history; our timber merchant claims they once had a trunk that contained an entire bicycle within its knotty entrails.
Having got the wood back at the workshop I began by making an inventory of the pieces I had available and their dimensions. Usually one plans what is to be made, then acquires the wood to suit. In this case, whatever we ended up with would have to have its proportions contained within the limits of the dismantled skeleton of a Wycombe bell-frame. Many of the larger pieces were compromised by fist-sized mortices cut through their length, whilst others were so riven as to be unfit for anything but the firewood bag. Once better acquainted with the wood we could start laying out dimensions. Here we had other guiding lights. Bearing in mind that a key principal of the project was that the press should be fully functional as opposed to merely a representation, it was most important that the bed of the press was at a good working height. One datum set down: Height of the top of the press bed: 900mm, standard kitchen work top height. Another known factor was the size of the plates that Blake would have used. Whilst the Science Museum’s original had a bed width of around twelve inches, Michael was keen to be able to use plates of up to eighteen inches, which gave us our minimum width between the side frames.
When trying to get a proper sense of the scale of a piece like the press, there is no substitute for a full sized working plan, which I drew up next, starting with the known ideals and working outwards. The blanks for making the rollers at the heart of the press had already been laminated up from a bamboo composite, which although not strictly historically accurate, was as dense and hard a wood material as I have seen, short of Lignum Vitae, and unlike the Lignum, was relatively easy to source in the appropriate size. As long as the museum was not infested with pandas, all would be well. Once we knew the height of the press bed and the radius of the upper roller, the length of the arms of the starwheel had to be such that they did not hit the floor beneath the press as they rotated. I chose to align them such that at the bottom of their circumferential arc they skimmed the top of the foot of the press. It was very gratifying when, at a workshop meeting Michael told me that he knew the maximum height of Blake’s press because he had measured from floor to ceiling joists in his home at Felpham, a height of six foot three inches. Immediately I laid the tape measure over the full size plan, complete with cardboard starwheel: Six foot and three inches.
Other details were reviewed; the particular curve of an edge moulding, the degree of the entasis on the turned pillars supporting the table frame, the shape of the bolt heads. Having satisfied ourselves that the proportions were correct to Michael’s vision, I drew up the final version of the plans then began roughing out the components. Again, using reclaimed timbers made this a rather wasteful process as I skirted around the worst of the voids and defects. In the end there was sufficient material to build almost the entire press from the belfry stock. In new timber, along with the bamboo composite rollers, for reasons of stability we made the press bed itself from quarter-sawn English Oak. For the starwheel, we decided to use a couple of boards of particularly straight grained and lovely English Ash, a material frequently used for tool handles and oars, not to mention Windsor chairs and the sub-frames of vintage sports cars, thanks to its combination of resilience and flexibility.
Having checked everything worked in a dry assembly, the side frames of the press were then finally glued together and the joints pegged through their tenons for extra strength. The components that fit between the side frames are held by dry mortice-and-tenon joints which are then fixed from the outside by the large square drive bolts that can be seen on the side faces. This allows the press to be dismantled for transport, as well as allowing for the removal of the rollers. A dovetailed rail at each end of the table is then knocked in to help keep the side frames in alignment.
Once complete, we discussed the finish of the timber; whether or not it should be polished. On the one hand a polished surface would be more resilient to ink and general print room dirt. On the other, this felt more like a piece of engineering than fine furniture, a machine. In the end we decided to leave the wood raw and untreated, to let it be a canvas on which to write the history of its use, taking the impression of its working life as surely as Blake’s prints took the copper plate’s ink. The tree again will swallow history.
Postscript: After exhibition at the Ashmolean, the printing press was dismantled and rebuilt in the Upper Library of Christ Church College, Oxford, where it now resides. Exhibition curator Dr Michael Phillips will be giving private demonstrations of its use and Blake’s methods periodically over the coming two years.
This is an abridged version of an article written for the William Blake: Apprentice and Master exhibition archive in collaboration with curator Dr Michael Phillips.