At the private view of Alan Kitching & Celia Stothard’s exhibition ‘Celebrating 20 years of New Letterpress Prints’ (19 November to 19 December 2009) at The Typography Workshop, British graphic designer Derek Birsdall was reported by J Walters in Eye as having said that Kitching had ‘breathed life into the dying embers of letterpress.’
From Kitching’s biography it could be suggested that letterpress printing was inevitable. The combination of an interest in print, design, and teaching is what I have seen time again in the letterpress printers met through the course of the research.
His career started as an Apprentice Compositor (1956–61) before he established a number of London-based design practices. His CV also includes a smattering of art school connections: co-established the experimental printing workshop at Watford College of Technology, School of Art (1964), and teaching through letterpress at the Royal College of Art (1991–2006).
Whilst running a design practice Kitching took up letterpress printing, and four years later in 1989 established The Typography Workshop in Clerkenwell EC1.
From 1994 to her death in 2010 designer/writer Celia Stothard partnered Kitching at the Workshop. In a self-penned article in Eye (Winter 2009) she explained the relationship further:
‘As a freelance graphic designer and art college lecturer, I was familiar with his work and shared his interest in design and letterpress. We began to collaborate, and over the ensuing years we purchased equipment together at two closing print-shop auctions, also buying Herbert Spencer’s small hand-press and fine collection of wood-letter as he made space for his oil painting and easels in his London home.’
This type, once added to that Kitching had already acquired from those keen to see their collections used, made for a good collection. But when Kitching and Stothard purchased the assets of the G&M Organ Theatrical Printers (1928) at auction in 1997, they became owners of literally a barn full of wood type and one of the most enviable collections in Europe. It has been called the Wrington Collection, after the name of the village where the theatrical printer was based – Wrington near Bristol.
The theatrical print ranged in size from from 4 line (3/4in) to 100 line (18in). It was mostly sans serif, but also featured two-colour outline and inline fonts, ultra condensed, almost abstract, hairline condensed letterforms, wide Latins, slab-serifs, and Victorian oddities.
With all this choice and proofing presses able to cope with paper up to A1, Kitching’s work experienced what has been coined by Stothard as the ‘Wrington effect’. From this it could be easy to summarise that although Kitching breathed life into the dying embers of letterpress, as suggested by Birsdall, the Wrington collection must surely have been the bellows.
One of the attractiveness of letterpress printing to those interviewed for this research has been the restrictive nature of working with their own collections. Both the challenge and the reward is being able to make a piece of visual communication that your mind can envisage, your skills can realise, and your resources allow you to fulfil. This is where innovation and experimentation can lead to something very exciting.
Could one therefore say that Kitching’s would not be successful without the Wrington Collection? A comparison of work pre and post 1997 would suggest that a printer is not only as good as his tools.
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