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Art of the Book, Vol. 3

Phil Abel of Hand and Eye, Lyra's Books and Areté Editions - Letterpress Printer


Phil Abel is an accomplished and sought-after letterpress printer, based in London, who has been mastering his craft for decades. He currently releases his own projects under the Hand and Eye imprint and is also the printer for Lyra's Books and co-owner and printer of Areté Editions with Marcelo Anciano. The projects he has printed have been some of our favorites in recent years and we are always excited when we hear Phil is involved in any production. His willingness to fit us into his extremely busy schedule is a testament to his commitment to our small/fine press community. We feel honored to be able to hear more about his story and learn how Phil, a pillar of the fine press community, started out in letterpress printing and what he has in store for us in the future.


Q: It is an absolute privilege to get to talk to the individual who has printed many of my favorite books in my library. Can we start by just hearing a little bit about where you grew up and what were some of the earliest indicators in your life that pointed towards your eventual career as a letterpress printer? Were there any people in your family or early years that directed you towards this path?

 

Thank you, that’s very kind, and I’m delighted and honoured that you’ve asked me to take part.

 

Until the age of twelve, I lived on a farm about ten miles outside London and I wanted to be a farmer like my dad. My parents had both come to the UK as refugees from central Europe before the Second World War and in some ways, farming was an unusual occupation for them, especially my mother. She wasn’t very practical and she loved the arts, particularly literature and theatre.


Phil Abel Portrait by Eleanor Crow

I shared her love of stories from before I can remember and once I’d learned to read there was no stopping me. When my father became seriously ill, she had to take over the running of the farm, as well as looking after three small children. It must have been really hard for her.

 

During my father’s illness, she started working for, and eventually forming a relationship with, James Boswell, painter, illustrator, designer and editor. After my parents divorced, they set up home together with me, my sister and my brother in North London. He was an important influence on the direction my life later took.

 

There was something else as well, and I don’t know where it came from. By the time I was eight or nine, I had an enthusiasm for pens and handwriting stationery and I see this as a precursor to my passion for printing.

 

Q: You started Hand and Eye Letterpress in 1985 with a simple Adana 8x5 and an Arab platen. Now you have printed for countless fine/private presses like Lyra’s Books, Areté Editions, No Reply Press, and Folio Society and have the ability to create your own plates for printing. What were some of the most pivotal transition points over the past decades and who are some of your biggest inspirations from the past and present?

 

The first important event came when I was seventeen. One day at the local shops there were some young people selling a community magazine that they’d just started. I bought a copy and liked it and answered their appeal for volunteers. I quickly became part of a small team, writing stories, selling advertising, pasting up artwork and distributing the paper. It was a fantastic experience and I learned a lot.

 

A couple of years later I went away to university in Liverpool but was still involved in the paper during vacations. The second seismic event happened when I was in my final year there. I read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and it changed my life.

 

My education had been highly academic, latterly in science – I studied biology at university. Pirsig looked at the world from a different perspective. He was a brilliant science student who had been sent to Korea during the war there and had had his eyes opened to non-European philosophy. I took three incredibly important things from his book:

 

  1. Working with my hands could be a highly rewarding experience. I had an unconscious assumption that manual work was less important than intellectual and no idea that it could be worth doing for its own sake.

  2. If I work with love and try to do whatever I’m doing as well as I can, I’ll get those rewards.

  3. Machines are not black boxes that work or don’t work and that are repaired by other people when they go wrong. Like people, machines work best when care is taken with them. Their design and manufacture can be as much expressions of the human spirit as a great painting or piece of music.

 

The Case of Death and Honey from Areté Editions

My first direct response to these revelations was to buy a bicycle and I still cycle more than forty years later. The second was buying a printing press, the Adana that you mentioned. It came from a friend who had printed stationery and invitations while he was at school and then moved on to other things. It’s no surprise that my first efforts were bad, but I got better.


A year or two later the offer of the Arab platen came up. It had been used in a local school but had been dismantled after a fire. It came with three other presses and a number of jobbing cases of type. I hired a van and a number of friends obligingly provided help and we moved it all into my mother’s cellar. It was there for years and she was very good about it.

 

I’d already learned a little about type in the form of Letraset from working on the paper, and once I had the Adana I wanted to know more. I read my stepfather’s copy of Introduction to Typography by Oliver Simon and found two more important books in London bookshops: Techniques of Typography by Cal Swann and The Letter Forms and Type Designs of Eric Gill by Robert Harling. That led me to Gill’s Autobiography and Typography.

 

Gill was a big influence. Ever since reading him, I’ve always tried to make work an integral part of my life rather than drudgery that has to be avoided and escaped from. It’s hard to imagine that would be possible if I worked for someone else and I hope I extend that attitude to people I employ.

 

After university, I knew that I didn’t want a career in science, but I had no positive ideas about what to do with my life. I was happy to drift into a job in the photographic supply trade, which I did for about five years. When my employers and I parted company (less than amicably) I decided to try printing for a living. In the run-up to starting Hand & Eye, I read through my stepfather’s sets of two important typographical journals, Typography and  Alphabet and Image. They were published either side of the Second World War by The Shenval Press, one of the leading UK printers at a time when letterpress was dominant. They remain an important influence.


Plates for Frozen Hell from Arete Editions

The early years of the business were spent learning to print by doing it, surely the best way to learn. After five years I decided to buy a Heidelberg cylinder press, at least as much because I desired one as because I had the work for it (awkward). When I told another letterpress printer about my desire for machines he said ‘Ah! Metal fever!’ and that describes it perfectly. I think I’m more pragmatic about my machines these days, but I do appreciate them and still have some sentimentality about them. It doesn’t go as far as giving them names, though.

 

The Heidelberg was an important transition point because I had to move to larger premises to house it. The recession of the early 90s followed shortly after buying it and sales halved while my overheads doubled.

 

This extremely difficult situation worked to my benefit in the end; I was offered workspace by Barnard & Westwood, well-established London printers whose customers included the Royal Household. They were one of the last in the city to use letterpress and their machine minder was about to retire. I knew the son of the managing director because we used to see each other at the typesetters we both used. We struck up a deal where I would rent from them and they would contract their platen work to me. The arrangement lasted almost fifteen years and it saved the business. One of the valuable things about working there was the workforce of nine or ten people, all approaching retirement age. They taught me a lot about trade printing, sometimes by actively showing me how to do things, sometimes just from watching.

 

Towards the end of my time there I started my first major book project, The Folio Society’s Letterpress Shakespeare series. Made-up pages were delivered from Stan Lane at Gloucester Typesetting (now Rooksmoor Press) and Barnard & Westwood’s compositor made up formes while I machined them.

 

A year or so after I moved to my own premises, I was invited to speak at a letterpress conference at St Bride Library. One of the other speakers was Harry Macintosh. He ran a typesetting service in Edinburgh and had done some setting for me. His talk was about the software and hardware he had developed for running a Monotype machine from a computer. I was concerned that Monotype setting was becoming harder and harder to get hold of and saw that eliminating the keyboard removed the need for a whole series of skills. That lowered the barrier to having my own system.

 

Harry was encouraging and I eventually bought a Composition Caster, a Super Caster and a stock of spares from Howard Bratter, former director of the Type Museum. On his recommendation, I bought Bill Welliver’s computer system rather than Harry’s. Nick Gill was working for me at the time, and the intention was for us both to learn to cast and to operate the software. It soon became apparent that learning to produce usable typesetting was going to take a lot of time. I had to keep the presses moving to generate income and the Monotype became Nick’s department. Over the next couple of years, he learned how to cast type and maintain these highly complex and temperamental machines.


Standard and Leather Stardust from Lyra's Books

One day Nick gave me notice that he was leaving to move to York in the north of England. He said that he intended to buy his own Monotype system and carry on setting. After some thought I decided to sell him mine, and it formed the core of his Effra Press and Typefoundry.


Over the years more and more customers were supplying print-ready PDFs and we were using less setting and more plates. Our monthly bill for platemaking was often significant. A couple of years after Nick left, I got an email offering a photopolymer system for sale. Buying it meant that origination was in-house once again and the bills went down. As always, it took some time to get used to the intricacies, but we can now make high-quality plates from negatives we produce ourselves on an Epson inkjet printer.

 

There are a number of printers who have been important influences on me: the Shenval Press, who I’ve already mentioned; the Curwen Press, who were so important to the revival of typography and printing in this country; Westerham Press, probably the greatest of the post WW2 printers; and DB Updike and the Stinehour Press in the US. And there are many really good printers working today - of the current private presses I particularly like the work of the Randles at Whittington, Simon Lawrence at Fleece, Graham Moss and Kathy Whalen at Incline and Christopher Wakeling at Corvus Works.

 

Q: More recently, you have become part of a permanent team as the printer of Lyra’s Books (w/ Rich Tong) and a co-owner of Arete Editions (w/ Marcelo Anciano). How did this relationship evolve and what unique advantages do you think you have as a part of these consistent collaborations? Is there anything different to your approach with these partnerships than if you are being hired by another press or doing your own personal work?

 

If there’s one person who was key to putting this arrangement together it’s Paul Kidson of Ludlow Bookbinders. We ran into each other at book fairs over the years and he had given me some estimates for binding. As they are hand-binders they are more expensive than most and I thought they were too costly for me. I should have known better.

 

Towards the end of 2019, Paul got in touch about printing a book that was going to be published by one of his staff and I sent an estimate. The book turned out to be Stardust and the publisher was, of course, Rich. It went into production the following summer. Paul and Rich wanted to see a printed proof and usually I would have sent one on an overnight courier. As it happened, my partner and I were going on holiday a few miles from Ludlow at the time the proof was ready, so we took it in ourselves.


Hand and Eye Letterpress - Wind in the Willows

At this point, I had two other projects on the go. One of those was The Wind in the Willows. Brian Webb, the designer I’ve worked with for many years, had come up with a cover that required a large, solid foil-block. A binder in London spent months on a proof and failed to provide anything we thought was good enough. Paul said they could do it without any problem. Their factory and standard of work were very impressive and I knew that they were the binders I’d been looking for.

 

The other project was The Case of Death & Honey. Areté was newly started and came out of the blue. One lunchtime I had answered the phone and was asked how much it would cost to print twenty-six letterpress books. I tried to explain that there were so many factors involved that the question was almost impossible to answer. It turned out that the caller lived only about a mile away and we decided to meet to discuss the job that afternoon. That was the first time I met Marcelo. He had been working with Gary Gianni on Death & Honey for some time. The plan was for a trade publisher to produce two litho editions and he wanted to make a letterpress one to go with it. He didn’t expect to get any payment from the publisher, which seemed crazy to me. As the cost for typesetting, page make-up is the same whether you print one copy or 10,000 it made sense to keep all the production in one place and print all three editions letterpress. He had a project that was very likely to do well and I had the press and some experience of limited-edition publishing. We decided to put the books out ourselves, and that was how Areté was born.

 

We worked very closely with Rich on the binding for Death & Honey and he subsequently asked Marcelo to design the text pages of his next book, The Picture of Dorian Grey. As you know, the three of us have now worked together on a number of projects for three-and-a-half years. Knowing and understanding the way we all work makes communication much easier. Problems come up, of course, such as the time I printed a page of one of Rich’s books without the folio (page number), and we get round them together. There’s nothing fundamentally different about my approach to these projects and any others, though. I want to print whatever I’m working on as well as I possibly can, whoever’s paying the bill. What’s different about my own projects is that I choose the titles and have more say in what they look like.

 

Q: Your two most recent releases under the Hand and Eye imprint were The Wind in the Willows and A Far Away Country, two very different works. Tell us a little bit about why you decided on these titles and why these projects are important to you. Were there any unique challenges you faced with either production?

 

Two very different works with some different motivations and some common ones. To start with a common one, a book generally takes a long time to produce, sometimes a year or more. It would be hard to endure if I didn’t like the text, think it was worth doing, and that the result would be worth having.


For most of the history of Hand & Eye jobbing printing has been the main source of income – invitations, business cards, letterheads (in the days before email), etc. I like books and I like printing them and they were a useful fill-in when there wasn’t much other work around. An important factor when choosing a text is that I think it will sell, hence editions of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and A Christmas Carol. Both are very popular stories and have the added advantage of being out of copyright. The Wind in the Willows is in the same category and it’s a book I have loved since reading it as a young boy.

 

Hand and Eye Letterpress - A Far Away Country

A Far Away Country is more personal because it was written by my mother. She used much of her own experience to tell what happened in Czechoslovakia, her native country, in the period immediately before the Second World War. It’s fictionalised, though, and some of what happens to Anna, the book’s protagonist, happened to her and some of it didn’t. She tried without success to get a mainstream publisher to take it and eventually put it out as an e-book herself through the small publishing company she part-owned. It was also translated and published in the Czech Republic.

 

My mother had a pretty remarkable life and after she died in 2015 several newspapers published obituaries. John Randle of the Whittington Press, who I’ve known for many years, read one of them and called me. I sent him a Word file of her book and he quickly responded enthusiastically. That encouraged me to publish it myself and Angela Barrett was a natural choice to illustrate it: we’re old friends, having worked on two other books, she’s a fantastic illustrator and my mother loved her work. It took a long time to put together and the Hand & Eye edition didn’t come out until seven years after my mother’s death. I wish she could have seen it but she didn’t finish it until four months before she died.

 

There are always challenges in producing a book but I wouldn’t say that there were any that were particular to those. I try to keep a project under control as much as I can, and checklists are a really valuable tool.

 

Q: Over your decades of work there is no doubt that you have produced some incredible pieces of art. If you had to point someone to a couple of different projects that you think exemplified your work, what would those be and why?


That’s a difficult question to answer and I’d probably give different answers at different times. At the moment I’d say that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the best books I’ve done. I can always see things in my work that could have been better, but it’s a book that gives me great pleasure when I take it from the shelf.

 

And I can’t ignore the decades of jobbing work. What comes to mind there are the menus, invitations and assorted other ephemera that I’ve done for the Double Crown Club over the years. There’s some good stuff among those jobs as well.

 

Q: All the imprints that you are involved with would be considered firmly in the category of fine press and print letterpress. Yet, letterpress printing takes many forms and can be done on different types of cylinder presses and or on more traditional hand presses. What forms of letterpress printing do you use at Hand and Eye and why does this work best for what you are doing and your approach to printing?

 

Heidelberg at Hand and Eye printing Coraline for Lyra's Books

We have three presses - a Heidelberg cylinder, a Heidelberg platen and a FAG Control 525 proof press. The platen came first. It replaced the Arab treadle platen and is reliable, fast and accurate, making it a brilliant workhorse for jobbing work. It has a maximum sheet size of 10.25 x 15 inches and these days it’s used for the occasional piece of stationery or invitations that come our way.


I’ve seen the Heidelberg cylinder presses described as the pinnacle of five hundred years of development of letterpress machinery, a statement that’s hard to argue with. It handles just about anything, including printing large solids and half-tones with ease. It’s a joy to use, and like the platen, it’s fast. That’s important, because we have rent to pay.

 

The FAG is also an excellent press, and we use it for proofing and editioning. Unlike the Heidelberg, it’s hand-operated and doesn’t have automatic inking, making it unsuitable for runs of more than 100 or so. However, it will handle some jobs that the Heidelberg can’t, and I’m thinking particularly of handmade paper. The Artist’s Edition of The Case of Death and Honey was printed on it, and we’ll be using it extensively for the very special Areté edition of Brave New World that we’ve been working on for a couple of years.

 

Q: There is an age-old debate among printers about the depth of the imprint as it relates to letterpress printing. Some modern collectors like the idea of there being a more noticeable tactile quality, but historically, most printers have tried to achieve a more subtle kiss on the page. What is your approach and do you think there is room for variation in modern letterpress?

 

Something else that I read somewhere is that the history of letterpress is the story of the elimination of the visible impression. There’s some truth in that, but on the other hand, a Gutenberg Bible has no visible impression. He was trying to emulate handwritten books, which, of course, had none. And when half-tones and glossy, coated paper came in type indented into one side of the sheet would interfere with an image on the other. 

 

I used to be a purist about kiss impressions but I recognise that times have changed. It was the case that there was a clear difference between letterpress and litho printing of type, but digital and litho have improved dramatically. A deep impression says ‘this is letterpress’ but it quickly wears metal type, and polymer plates tend to slur if they’re pushed too hard into the paper. I aim for an impression that can be felt and sometimes seen, but not an extreme one.

 

A Christmas Carol from Lyra's Books

Q: Letterpress printing involves a heavy dose of artistic freedom when it comes to determining what makes an aesthetically pleasant reading experience. You must think about margins, typeface, paper, the imprint, and many other aspects. At the same time, you are also working manual machinery in similar ways to craftsmen of over a hundred years ago. To what degree do you see yourself as a craftsman versus an artisan?

 

The word areté is an Ancient Greek one meaning excellence in all things and, so I’ve read, is the origin of our word ‘art’. We usually think of an artist as someone who expresses themselves through painting, drawing or some other ‘creative’ activity. But we also use it to mean someone who does something really well - ‘That hairdresser is an artist.’ I’d like to think that I’m an artist in that second sense, although that’s probably for others to decide. And I make things, so I’m a craftsman.

 

The distinction I’m making here may seem a fine or unusual one, but it’s central to understanding what I do. I strongly recommend The Truth About Art by Patrick Doorly to anyone else interested in it.

 

Q: Obviously the art of letterpress printing is not as common as it was a century ago. How often do you think about the preservation of the craft? Is this something you actively pursue or simply hope that by putting out all the work you do it will inspire others to potentially follow a similar course? Why do you think it matters if this art is sustained?

 

It’s not something I pursue. I’m very pleased that there are more people taking up letterpress printing but I don’t think it matters very much if it dies out. The question that has to be asked is ‘Would the world be worse off without it?’ and to me the answer is hardly at all. On the other hand, it would matter a good deal to me and quite a lot of other people if we couldn’t do it or it wasn’t available.

 

In addition, I feel strongly that what is done with a technique or technology is more important than the technology itself. There is plenty of bad letterpress printing, just as there’s plenty of bad writing, drawing and painting.

 

Q: What would you say to someone who wanted to start getting involved with letterpress printing today? What are some of the unique challenges that a letterpress printer challenges and how would you recommend they go about navigating those?

 

The answers depend to some degree on what that person wants to achieve. Printing stationery in a bedroom, which is what I did when I first started, doesn’t have the same challenges as printing for a living. That said, there are some strange people like me who are entranced by the process of putting ink on paper, and given the opportunity, I always encourage them to follow that spell. I’ve been able to make a living from letterpress for most of my adult life, but it’s not an easy thing to do and it’s not a way to make a lot of money.

 

These days machinery, type, plates and accessories are pretty widely available. What’s not so easy is running a workshop. Letterpress machinery is heavy and bulky and needs space, and usually a three-phase power supply. Rent has always been a major expense and those who don’t have to pay it or have been able to set up a workshop at home are fortunate.

 

Arete Editions - Words of Fire by Neil Gaiman

Q: What are two or three books that you have encountered that you wished you would have printed yourself? What makes these productions so unique?

 

Recently I read the Limited Editions Club edition of Nostromo by Joseph Conrad and it’s a book I would have loved to have printed. Everything about it is wonderful - the type, the layout, the illustrations, the smooth, ivory paper, the even, deep black ink… The illustrations are overprinted in two or three colours, all perfectly registered. It’s a wonderful piece of work.

 

Another book that I admire enormously (and am lucky enough to own a copy of) is Arnold Bennett’s Elsie and the Child with pochoir illustrations by Edward McKnight Kauffer. It was printed by the Curwen Press, and as with Nostromo, the design and presswork are exquisite. It was set in Monotype Baskerville and published in 1929 so it was a relatively early use of that face. It has green running heads separated from the text by green rules, and it’s gorgeous.

 

Q: If there was one word or phrase that came to people’s minds when they think of Hand and Eye, what would you hope that it would be?

 

Hand & Eye? They’re good.

 

Q: What can you tell us about future projects you are currently working on? We know there are projects like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Alchemist from Lyra’s, as well as Brave New World from Areté Editions, but is there anything else coming from Hand and Eye or either of the two presses you work exclusively that you would care to share?

 

There are two Hand & Eye books currently in production. Angela Barrett is working on paintings and drawings for The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, first published as a serial in 1859–60 and an early mystery novel. It’s a great read and it’s long - over 600 pages, so it will be expensive but we hope, as always, that it will be worth it. We’re planning three versions. All being well we’ll put it out this year, but it depends on when Angela has finished and what else we have on the press.

 

The other is also a Victorian work, a Dickens. He and Collins were friends. We wanted to do something with our wood-type collection and I’ve admired Bleak House for years – the first chapter is one of the greatest pieces of descriptive writing I’ve ever read. My colleague Robert has set it in wood, just one or two lines per typeface and size and each font used only once. We decided on margins and left the rest of the design to be done as he went along. As it turned out, he didn’t need more copy than even the first paragraph. We’ll also print the whole of the chapter from hot-metal type, together with descriptions of each face.

 

I’d like to produce some smaller, less expensive books too, and there’s a short story that I have in mind. Will it sell, though? That’s always the question!

 

Hand and Eye - The Wind in the Willows Lettered Edition

This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth and we want to thank Phil for his generosity of time and willingness to be a part of this series. If you want to keep up with what is coming from Hand and Eye in the future, you can check them out at https://www.handandeye.co.uk/. You can follow his other ventures at https://www.lyrasbooks.com and https://www.arete-editions.com. For updates on current projects check him out on Facebook or Instagram to stay in touch with the incredible things coming from this from this incredible letterpress printer.


Interview by: Zach Harney of the Collectible Book Vault

 

*Since there are often different spellings in American English and British English of the same words, we have chosen to adhere to the spelling of the person who is speaking rather than conform to one convention for the whole interview.

 


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Thank you everyone for joining in on the giveaway, the winners are as follows:


  1. Christmas Carol from Hand and Eye Letterpress - @wordswithsips

  2. Words of Fire Test Copy from Arete Editions - Nathan Overlock

  3. Benjamin Button Dave McKean Print - @read_by_kyle


Really appreciate it, stay tuned for our next interview with legendary artist Tom Kidd and a fun giveaway coming in early March!

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Another insightful interview, thank you.

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It’s an inspiring life journey! Thank you for sharing! It reminds me of “all dreams start small, from your own bedroom!” I am easily disheartened, especially I don’t have supportive friends or family towards my dreams. They prefer stable jobs, paths that most people take. But I see the roads not taken as a great chance and opportunity. I expect obstacles and hardships, but deep down, I still wish the least that family members would give encouragement and supports. Anyway, that’s the point of me learning and reading, to help me broaden my horizons and be more prepared to face the path not taken, to be more well-equipped! Knowledge is power! It is even better when you can read with…

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Great interview once more!

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Love all the work you have done with Arete and Lyra, best team in the world.

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