Curator's Choice: Hilary Williams of Ditchling Museum chooses Eric Gill's printing press

Hilary Williams interviewed by Ed Sexton | 07 August 2009 | Updated: 17 July 2015

Curator's Choice: Former Ditchling Museum Director Hilary Williams talks about the Stanhope Press printing press used by Eric Gill and other members of the Guild of Joseph and St Dominic

a woman with with a large black printing press
(Above) Ditchling Museum Director Hilary Williams with the printing press at Ditchling Museum in 2009. Pic © C24

"It is the original Stanhope Press used by Eric Gill, Hilary Pepler and Edward Johnston. The press was brought back to Ditchling in 2005 when Justin Howes, who had a great knowledge of printing, left it to us in his will, as well as all of the Caslon type which went with the press.

When the Guild started experimenting with it they had not designed any typefaces, so they were using historic typefaces for their work. Before the press was acquired by the Guild it was used to print The Times newspaper, and it is an example of the work that was involved in using 18th century technology.

There were a lot of physical issues of bringing back the press back to Ditchling. We only have one room in the Museum with a floor strong enough to hold the weight of it. We also had to apply for planning permission to have the windows in the room knocked into doors so that we could actually get the press inside the Museum.

A haulage company who are based out on Ditchling Common (the former home of the Guild) read a story about the press returning to Ditchling and offered to help us bring it back. The High Street is really tight so we caused havoc by blocking it, and the turn into Church Lane is really narrow so it was pretty nerve wracking.

What was interesting for me was that Hilary Pepler, the Guild's printer, printed a piece on the press 25 years after it first arrived in 1908 saying that its delivery held up the High Street – it was nice see to the parallel between Pepler's experiences and our own.

The original press was established at the end of Church Lane close to the Museum, and one of the first jobs of the press was to print the beer labels for the Sandrock pub in the village as well as religious texts. The two jobs capture the approach of the original press as jobbing printers, and show how important religion was to the Guild.

printed lettering and pieces of a printing press

(Above) Typefaces and examples printed on the press. Pic © C24

We were lucky enough to acquire the Evan Gill collection – he was Eric's younger brother and a great supporter of his brother and was very interested in type. He collected examples of nearly everything that was produced on the press.

We were assisted by The Heritage Lottery Fund, V&A/MLA Purchase Grant Fund, The Art Fund and The Newby Trust and a number of individuals, as the collection cost £124,000. It is great as we can show the physical items alongside the item that produced them.

The collection comprises 300-400 pieces, which include letters between Eric and Evan and drawings that Eric did as a child of trains. When his family lived in Brighton they had a good view of the station and the viaduct and this is supposed to have inspired Eric's life long love for letterforms.

We have had a number of graphic designers come along to our adult print workshops and they have said it has help to remind them why they became graphic designers. Using the press is a very hands-on experience and you can clearly see what the finished item will look like from the spacing to setting the font. It makes a difference from being sat in front of a Mac.

We also worked with an artist called Jo Roberts who carried out a self-funded residency using the press. It led to her investing in a £16,000 letterpress, so she was heavily influenced by using the press. It is great to see how working with collections can inform contemporary practitioners work and help them to develop new ideas."

For further details on the Guild and other collections at the museum visit

Update: Ditchling Museum reopened in September 2013 as Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft. The Stanhope Press is now displayed in a special printing gallery and used regularly in the Museum's programme of public workshops.

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