Songs of Innocence and Experience: the first printed image off the Bates and Lambourne press. Songs of Innocence and Experience: a second pressing of the second plate used.

After the Ashmolean Museum’s critically acclaimed William Blake: Apprentice and Master, the printing press that we built to stand at the heart of the exhibition was moved to the upper library at Christ Church College, Oxford. Over the next two years, the exhibition’s curator Dr Michael Phillips will be giving demonstrations of Blake’s techniques, so it was to the first of these events that I went last Thursday evening, keen to see the printing press in action and hear Michael’s discourse. Although the press we built was designed as a working machine, it was not possible to actually ink plates and use it whilst in the gallery at the Ashmolean because of the potential risk to the exhibited prints. So after a long day in the workshop, and distinctly less well dressed than the bibliophilic seventy-odd other members of the audience, I was ready to lurk at the back of Christ Church’s wonderful library and enjoy the very first prints being produced from our press.

However I hadn’t reckoned on the time it takes to prepare the copper plates for printing prior to the actual running of the press. Before being involved with the project to build the press I had imagined that a quick rub with a roller was all that was required to get the plates inked up, but in reality it is a good twenty minutes to half an hour of painstaking dabbing away with a ‘dobber’ (I know this sounds like a term for someone who might get into a spot of bother in prison, but I am not making this up!) to build up a sufficient layer of ink to run three prints off. As a result, whilst climbing the broad stairs to the upper library I was strong-armed by Dr Phillips into giving a presentation on the making of the press whilst he dabbed with his dobber. Or dobbed with his dabber.

In the event, twenty minutes of off-the-cuff talk about turning the bell-frame of a high Wycombe church into a working copy of an eighteenth century printing press turned out to be pretty good fun. The audience managed to remain awake, and at the end, seeing the first prints roll off it was not only exhilirating, but also, a huge relief.  As any maker of things knows, all the planning and theorising is worth nothing if the thing made doesn’t work.

The pictures attached show prints taken off replica copper plates (Blake’s originals were lost) from Songs of Innocence and Experience. The darker image is the absolute first printed image off the Bates and Lambourne press (it worked, hurrah!), whilst the paler one is a second pressing of the second plate used.

For more information on building the printing press, please see the previous article “In the Forest of the Night: Building William Blake’s Printing Press”, posted April 14th 2015.

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