Dear Lady is a very personal little piece, something that has been nagging at me for a long time, and I love that it’s finally in the world. Books are like that sometimes.
The text is a letter by the Rev. Sydney Smith (do follow that link and read about him, he’s wonderful) who was writing around the same time as Jane Austen, with a similar sense of drollness. This letter is a warm yet wry list of advice for someone feeling depressed. It was first read to me by the poet Rosemary Dobson, who has inspired me many times not only with her own work (I have been her casual literary ‘aide’ for about 15 years now) but with the things that she’s herself been inspired by.
Melbourne printmaker Rosalind Atkins used to produce wood engravings for some of the books by Rosemary’s printer husband, Alec Bolton (of the Brindabella Press). I asked Ros to contribute to my volume of Rosemary’s poems, and through the process we became friends. One day we had a conversation about wood type, and when I mentioned that I’d always wanted to print with engraved letters, she confessed that she’d always wanted to try engraving wood type. How could we not embark on a project? We had both had a few trying years, and the soothing words of Rev. Smith were just the ticket.
I had bought a set of wood type that had weird excesses of letters that are rarely needed, mainly in the first half of the alphabet. I suspect it was a larger collection that had been roughly split. So I selected letters that could be connected to sections of Smith’s list and sent them and the text to Ros, who took the letters on holiday with her to India. She brought them back engraved in appropriate period fashion (I had given her carte blanche as to the images). I guess it’s fine to bring wood through Customs that had originated in the home country! Ros said that it was very hard to do fine engraving on them because the wood was just so hard, maybe because they’d been used for printing for many years (and are pretty beaten up) and the grain was compressed. So the images are in almost a naive style, quite different to Ros’ usual delicate work; they are gorgeous objects in their own right, and I will treasure them.
The design of the book was quite an organic process, with only a few desires to be met: I wanted it to be small, so that it could be held in the hand easily and it had to feel warm and personal. I bought some sheets of beautiful handmade Magnani rag paper, knowing that the soft fluffiness of it would do justice to the wood engravings.
You can see here that I staggered the position of the letters through the book so that I could use a lot of pressure on the wood type. This made the engraved lines pop forward like lines on Wedgwood china (I loosely based the colours on this idea too).
Originally I’d planned the images to be Wedgwood Blue, but they looked much better in brown. You can see how beaten-up the block is by the dip at the bottom. I hand-rolled these blocks, so there’s a bit of colour variation through the pages.
The layout of the type was more complicated! I wanted to use a chase given to me by Finlay Press, who had a very specific house style, always keeping their books the same size and having their leads and chases purposely sized to fit. It is an 8-page chase, and I decided to use it to print 16 pages at once, so that all I had to do was print one side, turn and print the other side, and, la! I would have two books on one sheet. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t. Still, as usual with my projects, I learned a lot and that’s never a bad thing.
I made a lot of mistakes, but nothing heinous (although there was a lot of hair-pulling and glumness at one point), so I finished with 20 copies. Many of these are being given to friends by Ros and I, but there are still a small number for sale.