M-O-R-R-I-S: Mr Smith talks letterpress and William Morris ahead of Museums at Night

By Mark Sheerin | 12 May 2014

Mr Smith welcomes Culture24 to his Kennington studio to demonstrate the tools of his trade and reveal his plans for May 15 at William Morris Gallery

Colour photo of a letterpress artist in his workshop
© Mr Smith's Letter Press Workshop
The workshop of Mr Smith, in Kennington, South London, is everything you might hope for from one of London’s two or three remaining letterpress studios. The visitor has to work their way round the cases, stacked with slim drawers, and the heavy presses, which look immovable. At the heart of the space are three more vital tools of the printmaker’s art: a dictionary, a thesaurus and a coffee machine.

“I've got 60 cases of wood type and then about 400 cases of metal type,” says the artist. “Which means that there's a font in each one. And in each case there's one weight of one typeface at one size.

"So this is 14pt Baskerville Caps Italic,” he says, pulling out a seemingly random drawer. Trivia buffs may know that it is the vertical storage of type, in studios like this, which gives us the terms upper and lower case.

As a publishing option, letterpress may be on the wane. But as an artform in the hands of Mr Smith, it’s a growth industry. He shows me semi-abstract work featuring processions of apostrophes, ampersands and jolly pound signs; these being from a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy. Buried under these is concrete poetry by Kurt Schwitters.  

Best of all are his plans for Museums at Night 2014, when he’ll be heaving one of his smaller machines all the way out to Walthamstow for an after-hours event at the William Morris Museum. He expects to entertain two or three hundred visitors, many of whom will have a hand in creating some wallpaper or posters based on texts by the great man behind the Arts and Craft movement.

“As soon as we get there, I want everyone to put an apron on. I want it to be a working environment,” says Mr Smith, who evidently enjoys his own work as much as Morris proclaimed to love what he did.  

“There's a few different sections. So you find your information first. Then you set your type. And you prepare it and you print it and there's an outcome.”

The London printmaker admits that a four-hour event doesn’t give his project much time. But if visitors get the chance to each print a word or two, it should be a rewarding night for all. In the course of the night those words should build to form choice quotes from Morris.

But, says Mr Smith: “I might try and pick up on things which have a resonance with people, but don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s not enough humour in graphic design”. He also says that reading Morris is often "hilarious".

Close up colour photo of a case of woodblock letters
© Mr Smith's Letter Press Workshop
That is not to say that Mr Smith considers the setting of type, the presentation of language, to be any less than gravely important. “I don’t want it to be too much of an eclectic piece,” he warns. “So we want to keep a visual style to it.” In other words, you can keep your comic sans blocks at home.

“It's a nightshift, exactly,” Mr Smith says, but he does concede that, “we want to make it as much of an enjoyable experience as possible. And even if [visitors] come away with just a word, they take away a work and we build an archive setting these lovely sayings which still ring true now”.

By the end of the evening there should be ten of these statements “about the relations of humans to living and to working process”. But Morris, according to Mr Smith, was anything but dry. “The people who surrounded him took the subject really seriously, but he had a little twinkle in his eye which made him something special.”

Another aspect of the Museums at Night event will be the introduction of guerrilla poets, who should pop up when you least expect them to recite ‘chants’ by Morris. “The chants aren't really songs, they're just verse,” Mr Smith clarifies.

After showing me round two studios and offering a second cup of strong coffee, it is time to try out a letterpress machine for myself. We set a word upside down and left to right and, when the letter ‘N’ fails to print as well the rest of the woodblocks, Mr Smith is quick to patch it with paper and glue.

Needless to say he is more than able to think back to front or in reverse, and the repair is carried out with zero time for calculation. Smith is so used to reversing the direction of type, he tells me he can read a discarded newspaper at 50 yards.

Finally, I have a rolled up print on A3 paper and a number of insights into a well-preserved artform, as good to watch in progress as to consider in terms of finished product. So Londoners who can make it to E17 on May 15 are recommended to do so. It’s Museums at Night and you know William Morris would have approved.

  • Museums at Night: Mr Smith’s Letterpress Workshop runs between 6.30pm and 10.30pm on Thursday May 15. Admission free.

Hundreds of events take place for Museums at Night between May 15-17 2014. Visit museumsatnight.org.uk and follow the festival on Twitter@MuseumsAtNight.

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Volunteers share all: Spencer Tunick talks about his daring project for Museums at Night

Museums at Night 2014: Our guide to Newcastle and Gateshead's Late Shows

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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