Monday 13 August 2007

Ampersands &c

Looking at that photo of the bookshelf with the sea-junk on it yesterday reminded me how much I love ampersands. As you may have noticed, I have a couple of nice old wooden ampersand printing blocks. If one sniffs them very carefully, behind the beeswax polish, one can still smell the printer's ink.

The ampersand has a venerable history. Marcus Tullius Tiro, who was Cicero’s slave and then, as a freed man, his secretary, is credited with having invented it around 63 BC.

And the phrase 'et cetera' was expressed in written and printed form as '&c' long before it was abbreviated to 'etc'.

There's an interesting potted history of the ampersand here, including an illustration of part of a page from a Venetian book of 1600, in which 14 ampersands of five different designs are liberally inserted into the text. And the Adobe site gives more examples of the huge variety of ampersands, old and new, which are still available to typesetters and designers. I've set some of my own favourites here (click to enlarge) - as you will see, the best and most intricate ampersands are usually the italicised versions.

I find the whole world of letterpress printing completely intoxicating. As a child, I played around with my father's Adana printing machine, which was brought out with great ceremony four or five times a year in order to print invitations (on strange deckle-edged cards tinged with pink or green, which seemed outdated even in 1966), headed notepaper, and on a few occasions, Christmas cards.
At school I went to Printing Club in the art room at lunchtimes, and learned to 'compose' - drop metal type into place with tweezers, backwards, on a metal 'composing stick' and then wedge lines of type into a block for printing, hammering it all in with a little wooden mallet to get it nice and tight. And the the ink . . . . ahhhhhh, the ink. That smell is so deeply ingrained it has quite possibly worked its way into my DNA. Why on earth did I give it all up? Must have been the distractions of O-levels or A-levels or boys or something, probably. I don't really remember. Now I'm merely an observer - an occasional collector of books from the likes of the Jardine Press - and a sniffer-out of all things inky.

I discovered this enchanting blog recently, and on it, amongst other delights, a link to this excellent short film about letterpress printing, which celebrates the sheer physicality of the impressing of paper with ink by metal, the glorious machinery involved and the human endeavour of it all.

Comparing it with what I do - sitting here, 'typesetting' books on a screen and turning them into pdf files which get sent over the internet to be digitally 'printed' somewhere far away - brought to mind the difference between train travel today and the days of the great steam locomotives: the blandly efficient and the gloriously 'alive'; the noise, the smell, the human pride in powerful machinery, properly mastered and achieving its purpose perfectly. Ooooh, it's easy to get quite carried away!

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