You can only talk about letterpress for so long before you have to mention Alan Kitching, it’s almost unavoidable. For many people he is the epitome of contemporary letterpress, and having made a very successful career out of what is essentially an almost redundant craft, he certainly deserves his plaudits.
Now, we’ll be honest, although we greatly admire his skill, craft and what he’s achieved, we’ve never actually been huge fans of the work we’ve seen. For us, some of it is just too…well… ‘letterpressy’: the distressed wood type, erratic inking, mixed faces and higgledy-piggledy setting. So it was with slightly mixed expectations that we went along to the opening night of his show at Advanced Graphics London.
Above: A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever
When we arrived we were surprised by just how busy it was, especially on very wet Wednesday Evening in Borough. The work was hung in largely chronological order and the room was divided into two spaces, with the early broadsides in one and his later work in the second. What struck us was the utter beauty of some of the earlier, less well-known, work. Exquisite typography in both wood and metal, arranged in beautifully graphic, and complex, compositions.
The work also had some beautiful thinking behind it, broadside No.2 (below), for example, used passages from the bible to show type variations, it was then cleverly printed on delicate bible paper instead of the ubiquitous heavier printmaking stock used in the rest of the series. The devil is in the detail, as they say.
Above: Broadside No. 2
Above: Broadside No.5
The broadside series are also where the typographic maps of London began, which cropped up throughout the exhibition (one of which, incidentally, appears in this year’s Summer Show at the Royal Academy). But it was Dr Johnson’s London that really caught our eye. The now familiar wood-type river and the streets are present, but the real joy is the wonderful paragraphs and quotes set in the most beautiful cut of Caslon. The use of swash characters, ligatures and changes in scale are clearly the work of a very skilled typographer, one who is not afraid to use contractions when it suits him (or rather when the need arises...). We could have looked at it for hours. We actually managed to ask Alan why the very deft changes of scale, after some deep thought and much stroking of his beard, he explained in his thick northern accent that there were two reasons; "firstly, the emphasis of the words and the pace of the text". And the second? We waited… “I ran out of type”. Priceless. (And we know the feeling!)
Above: Dr. johnson’s London
Overall the show was great, brilliantly hosted by the fabulous Advanced Graphics; the wine was lovely (with labels featuring a print by Alan, of course) and seemingly endless (or so our heads told us the next morning!); we met some great people; saw some fabulous work; and even ended up in the pub with the great man himself. In fact, he bought us a beer! Ok, so some of his work still irks us a little (things just-not-quite aligning, questionable inking, some very suspect colour choices in our very humble opinion), but it was his earlier work and some of his most recent broadsides that really blew us away, masterpieces, really amazing stuff. And, well, what can we say, the man is a legend.
All images courtesy of the very wonderful Advanced Graphics London