Meet Anna, She's a Tonne and a Half

Susan Tomaselli is ten point impressed

Johann Gutenberg changed the face of the world when he invented moveable type to print the first mass-produced bibles. Since then, technological developments have seen typesetting become much more acessible, moving from huge, cumbersome devices to linotype machines, phototypsetting and the computer.

However, in this wired era there exist niche publishers like Bottle of Smoke Press and X-Ray Book and Novelty Co, that not only continue to hand-crank out works on old letterpresses, but turn the printed word into something precious: poetry as individual pieces of art. Though mostly in the US, Northern Ireland is home to one of these presses: Ten Point Press.

Founded by graphic designer Sean Lynch, Ten Point Press in Kircubbin, Co Down, consists of a Hopkinson's Improved Albion Letterpress which Lynch uses to print 'broadsides'.

A broadside is a very old form of printed material, intended to be pasted onto walls, largely for propaganda purposes. The term derives from naval parlance - the simultaneous firing of all cannons on one side directly at another ship, intended to inflict maximum damage.

From the fifteenth century onwards, broadside came to mean a kind of proto-newspaper - a single sheet of paper, often inflammatory, printed on one side. The development of the modern newspaper in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries finally put an end to broadsides as forums for news and opinion, but the form lived on: by the late twentieth century, with the improvements in technology and the fading of the use of hand-set lead type, the broadside became associated with art, particularly the standalone, single page, illustrated poem.

Sean Lynch's first project, in conjunction with Kevin Ring of the seminal magazine Beat Scene, is a broadside by cult American writer, Dan Fante.

‘I studied Typography and Graphic Communication at Reading University many moons ago and they have a large element of getting your hands down and dirty with old printing techniques. Many of the lecturers are noted authorities on all things typographic so I was really lucky to get that experience.

'The Albion letterpress weighs in at a tonne and half so it took several months to finally get it together, and of course, a tractor and trailer, eight men, and ropes.

‘I've been planning it for years and have always had a sort of 'wannabe old craftsman' streak in me, so it has always been there in my mind.’

Lynch's Albion press itself has a unique history, coming from the old art college in Stranmillis: ‘The Printing Historical Society will be trying to trace its history. We do know it did some work in a Press in Donaghadee in the early 1900s'.

'It's one of the earliest surviving in Ireland for sure, as it was built in 1830 and it's only number 40 on the production list. It's a big old platen press which means it takes one impression at a time. I have to do a lot of prep on it, typeset the movable metal type, ink-up and take the impression - it's based on a lever mechanism basically.

‘The type I've been collecting over the last 3 years - most of it came from the old Irish News - I'm still way short of the pool of resources I'd like but eBay is a healthy provider of new stuff. I named her Anna. It was love at first sight.’

Setting the work is time-consuming but Lynch is clearly a man in love with the process, not to mention the unique aesthetic that the letterpress brings to the pieces other than the words: ‘Certainly it has a different physical quality - the paper, ink etc.

'It's the whole handmade thing for some people. It has kudos when something of limited run, hand-made, signed by the author is produced - it evolves into something more. I love looking at letterpress pieces, even if I don't run with the design, just because I know it is fairly unique and care and hard work has gone into it.’

Lynch, who says you need 'a lot of patience, luck, and to be a few crayons shy of a colouring-in set,’ also runs Ten Point Design, and enjoys mixing the old form with the new. ‘The old style charm can largely be replicated through modern DTP and printing methods, but I love being able to incorporate both. The restrictions of letterpress and in particular this ‘one impression at a time’ process can force you to be more innovative with the little resources you have - that can be a real buzz.

‘The way I work I try to keep the content of the piece clean and crisp with a formality that lets the words do their own work. My thing, I suppose, is translating the content graphically on the piece so that it can become either something someone likes as a purely visual entity, or hopefully as something more than the sum of the content and graphics.’

Aside from the art angle of the broadside, Lynch sees Ten Point as a way of bringing poetry to a wider audience, and finds the letterpress the perfect medium for this. ‘I will be producing chapbooks and my own follies in the future but at the moment it's a great format for expression.

'Poetry is an interest but I think it's more of the designer in me that wants to represent them in my own way - hopefully developing a unique style of interpretation.

'From what I understand, broadsides are largely an American thing but I would like to develop the medium over here and get it into the public domain. I would hope that in the future, the Press will be producing much more local work in the broadside and chap book form.’

Ten Point Press has already garnered much interest but Lynch is tight-lipped about what's coming up next.

What he will say is that ‘there are some really good things coming from other heavy hitters of the genre - I hope that will generate enough interest in the Press that I can branch out into other things and produce good home grown materials. I've got to keep the wolves from the doors by using my design business, so the pace is steady rather than rampant. But that's all good, and the way the old Press should be worked.’