If fine press printing had a spirit, she’d dwell, at least for part of the year, in the River Thames. Once, when England’s winters were harsher than they are now and the Thames would freeze over, enterprising printers would haul their presses to a city ‘frost fair’ – at one of which Woolf’s Orlando meets his Muscovite – to make their fortunes on the ice. George Davis’s Frostiana; or A History of the River Thames, in a Frozen State was partly printed during the last of these great carnivals (‘an immense Saturnalia’), in 1814.
Some read commercial ruin on the face of the frozen Thames. London’s printers saw an opportunity. Their machines, more-or-less portable, could produce customised souvenirs on the spot. In their marketing material, the printers appealed to metropolitan political sympathies. ‘Now is your time to support the freedom of the press’, reads one 19th-century advert. ‘Can the press have greater liberty? Here you find it working in the middle of the Thames.’ It’s likely, however, that the sheer novelty of the occasion – a frozen river, indeed a press situated on a frozen river – was sufficiently tempting. ‘And sure, in former Ages, ne’er was found/A Press to print where men so oft were droun’d’, announced a keepsake printed at one of the booths set up somewhere between the Temple and Southwark.
These souvenirs have proved surprisingly durable. I recently examined a commemorative sheet produced for a Miss Anne Dunton in Oxford’s John Johnson Collection, in which there are numerous examples of printed ephemera. ‘Printed on the River Thames, in the Great FROST, in the Month of January, 1739–40’, it declares in the characteristically composite typography of handset, pre-industrial printed material. Along the footpath below Southwark Bridge, engraved onto slate wall slabs, are some lines of verse from one of the sheets produced by the frost fair printers: ‘Behold the Liquid Thames now frozen ore/That lately Ships of might Burthen bore … There you may print your Name, tho’ cannot write/Cause num’d with Cold … And lay it by, that Ages yet to come/May see that Things upon the Ice were done.’ The commemorative wall slabs were made to look like giant intaglio printing plates.
Frostiana, the Southwark Bridge monument, the scraps of paper printed on the frozen river: all these capture the ephemerality of the frost fair, while also immortalising a means of production that by the second decade of the 19th century was becoming commercially obsolete. By then, offset lithographic printing and the linotype (the first automatic typesetting machine) were rendering hand-press printers economically irrelevant. In 1814, the year of the last Thames frost fair, The Times purchased two of Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer’s steam-powered rotary printing presses. It’s said that on an unseasonably balmy November morning, John Walter II, the newspaper’s owner, walked into a room of hand-press printers. As his workers were preparing for the day’s printing, Walter raised above their heads a newspaper born of steam.
The relentless mechanisation of manual processes was what, in essence, the private press movement of the 19th century fought back against. Towards the end of the century, William Morris, with his Kelmscott Press, tried to recover what he believed had been lost in the drive for industrial efficiency: individual aesthetic experiences and a meaningful relationship with work. No one, however, embodied this revolt against utilitarianism better than T J Cobden-Sanderson, who in 1900, along with Emery Walker, created Doves Press. This enterprise was, economically speaking, disastrous. But that was more or less the point for Cobden-Sanderson. He called himself a visionary. Perhaps predictably, he and Walker fell out. When Walker attempted to appropriate the Doves Press type for commercial use, Cobden-Sanderson sacrificed all 2,600 pounds of it to the spirit of the Thames, throwing the matrices off Hammersmith Bridge, preferring, in the typographer Russell Maret’s words, to ‘expose himself to imprisonment and penury than allow his type to be sullied by commerce’.
Now that the Thames is too fast-flowing to freeze, its spirit’s devotees, working self-consciously in the tradition of Morris and Cobden-Sanderson, have found other climes for their printing ventures. On Super Bowl Sunday 1997, a motley crew belonging to the St Paul Ampersand Club, in emulation of the frost fair printers, lugged a press onto the ice of Minnesota’s White Bear Lake. There, the crew’s members printed a small chapbook of alcohol terms. They called it On the Rocks. The title page features an engraving (carved on the spot) of the icehouse in which they set up their press. As if to reinforce the idleness of such a project, one of the terms in the hand-set chapbook reads ‘alcoholic – adj, containing or pertaining to alcohol’. Two years later, the Ampersand crew lowered their Vandercook press into a Minnesota mining shaft close to the border between the USA and Canada. There, 2,341 feet below the earth, they printed a companion volume, In the Rocks, also illustrated.
I recently met a few of those responsible for On the Rocks and In the Rocks, including the antiquarian Rob Rulon-Miller and the engraver Gaylord Schanilec. Both were wearing St Paul Ampersand Club baseball caps. Rulon-Miller has reason to believe that On the Rocks was the first book ever printed on ice on the American continent. He told me the story of its creation as we stood shivering among his collection of fine press books in a leaky Victorian house overlooking the Mississippi.
On the first Saturday of September, they and other typographical fanatics and anarchist printers will gather in Gloucestershire for an open day organised by the Whittington Press. They will drag clunky presses onto the lawn, loaf about, chat about books and bring little printed things into the world. The delight of it, so it would seem, is in ephemera and in the incongruity of it all: using industrially obsolete, heavy-handed machines to capture what’s fleeting in little slips of frozen time.
And to what end (no one asks)? The organisers, quoting Norman Potter, claim that ‘the long-term effects of small creative happenings tend to be underestimated’. I tend to agree. Pieces of Cobden-Sanderson’s Doves type were found washed ashore on the banks of the Thames in 2014, having moved astonishingly little during their century in the water. What’s frivolous and a little mad can have surprising endurance.