Report: The Fine Press Book Fair, Oxford
The Fine Press Book Association (FPBA) are a group of people dedicated to the art of fine printing. Once every two years, they hold a fair, and then many people who know a lot about obscure, intricate printing techniques like “chromolithography” get together to display and discuss their publications. As they were kind enough to invite The Literateur, I went along to have a look.
I very soon felt out of my depth. I should have known even before I arrived that I was entering highly specialist territory. The catalogue sent to me in the post informed me that it was printed on “Rives artist pale-cream paper”. It soon became clear that this Rives paper stuff was soft-core by FPBA standards. There were over fifty stalls at the fair, and at one of them, I came across a book printed on “Bockingford 190gsm and acid-free tissue, laid on Khadi handmade cotton rag 480gsm.”
Then there was the matter of what was actually printed on the paper, and how: I was confronted with an array of linocut, letterpress, woodcut, and that elusive chromolithography (which is something involving acid on metal plates). These were books which had been lovingly crafted and printed in handfuls of editions. I wandered between the stands mumbling ‘lovely’ in my total ignorance, while worrying that I would inadvertently crease the pages of the books with my philistine fingers.
When the intimidation started to wear off, however, I reminded myself that this enterprise had been brought about by people who, ultimately, really like beautiful books. I like beautiful books too, so I could relate to this. I also remember, as a child, being fascinated by paper and certain books that did something special with it. I loved (and still love) The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. As fellow afficionadoes will know, the story is interleaved with envelopes – some of which even contain small books. My child’s mind boggled at this meta-textual wonder, and I have never fully recovered.
While there wasn’t a specialist edition of The Jolly Postman at the fair, there was a significant amount of children’s literature around. Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen, and Phillip Pullman were all present, bearing intricate woodprints and brilliant illustrations. There were also several alphabet books. My favourite of these was Dmitry Sayenko’s Absurd ABC (above), in which every letter of the alphabet represents a phobia. Printed in block colours using woodcut and linocut, it inverts the ubiquitous innocence of the alphabet, while pointing out tongue-in-cheek that our fears come from childhood.
The thought that these FPBA people were really just grown-up children still fascinated by beautiful books was quite comforting, and helped to make them seem less strange and scary. I started to identify books I really liked, and even spoke to the people who made them. I was won over by the sensory loveliness of a book by Shirley Sharoff, based on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Sharoff had printed extracts from The Waves on leaves of cream and white paper of different textures and shapes. With its interfolding, undulating pages, the book resembled a piece of coral.
I was also charmed by Claudia Cohen’s book Chasing Paper, on sale at one of the rare book dealer stalls. A book actually dedicated to paper, this was really the apotheosis of the specialist bookmaking obsession, and found its own meta-textual layer in its mostly unadorned pages. These were different samples of paper Cohen had collected from childhood years of pursuit, and ranged from patterned origami squares to plain packing paper, and antique wallpaper to currency notes. Bound together, they reminded me of a sort of uber-scrap book crossed with an intensely lovely carpet swatch.
Chasing Paper was on sale for £950, making it a rather expensive scrapbook. I think it was an indication I’d been at the fair too long that this price tag had started to seem almost reasonable to me. In two short hours, I had not only overcome my fear of this intricate dedication to fine press printing, but I had been sucked in. My dormant childhood love of beautiful books and craft bags filled with paper ends had been awakened and threatened to combine with dangerous results. I thought it would be fun to try this for myself. As I left the fair, I wondered whether I should choose Bockingford 190gsm paper, or go for something a little more unusual.