Characters of Culture shares the stories of people of Bristol and surrounding areas who have set out to do something great, and a little bit different. Making the city a better place for us all. For the first in the blog series, Nick Hand shares tales of journeys on bicycles, the Letterpress renaissance, and owning the means of production.

Published: March 2019

Nick Hand of The Letterpress Collective

Josie: So, what goes on here in your workshop?

Nick: This is The Letterpress Collective. We set up because there weren’t any letterpress printers in Bristol six years ago. Bristol was big print centre at one point with thousands of people working in this industry or connected to it. And so I was a bit intrigued because of my background is as a typographer; designing and working with type. I trained in an art college, spent a year in a room a bit like this one with kind of cases of type and presses. So I had it in my heart, and decided to find out where the old equipment was. I started getting in touch with a few of the old letterpress printers, which led me to the M Shed museum which had quite a bit of letterpress equipment in storage. They were kind enough to let us use it over the period of time we’ve been up & running, as it is better off being used and kept going rather than in storage! My friend Robin Mather who has a workshop here making bicycles told me about a space coming up that sounded perfect for us & all the heavy letterpress equipment – which is hard to move anywhere, let alone up stairs!

Josie: How on earth did you get them all in here?

Nick: Well that one came from M Shed and it was lifted out on one of the dockside cranes, brought here on a flatbed truck, before maneuvering it on some kind of trolley up the lane, and then we rigged up a sort of gantry from the beams to haul it into the building. All these presses are super heavy! So that was how it started really; just trying to collect equipment, get equipment rescued, and look after it and get it working again. We relied on some of the old printers to help, and we have gradually filled the room over the years with the odd purchase and a lot of donations .

Photograph of letterpress type by Josie Rae

Josie: What did you do next?

Nick: Then it was a case of what to do with it. We decided straightaway that we’d try and get people in, and run workshops, and we also wanted to work with communal groups, artists, and poets. I soon decided I need some help, so a few years ago Ellen came and worked one day a week, and now she’s full time here. We do this mix of commercial or ‘jobbing’ work, run the workshops, and then some of our own work which involves printing things and then trying to sell them. We’ve never had any grants, but we’re lucky being in Centrespace – which is a co-operative of thirty-five artists, and the rent is really good. So we are supported in that way by the city. Much like Hamilton House was, and partly still is.

Nick hand by Josie Rae

Josie: How does the cooperative space work?

Nick: Centrespace has been going for 41 years. It became a co-op 30 something years ago. A co-op is basically an organisation that’s not for profit, and is set up and run by its members. This is an artist co-operative, set up forty one years ago. I think in the 1980s they had a chance to buy this building, which they did – luckily for us. The people that were around then bought the building, and basically we all cover costs – which means our rent goes towards paying costs, plus a little surplus in case the roof goes, which it did last year!

Josie: Do you think it’s important that there are spaces like this that exist for craftsmen and artists?

Nick: Definitely. One of the problems with Bristol being a city in the South of England, is that everything has become so valuable in the last few years. As a result, people are finding it harder to live here, let alone be an artist in Bristol. It’s very hard to own property anymore. Cheap artist space is really important for any city with a large, cultural community; otherwise we’ll just go somewhere else and the city just becomes a boring city full of investment bankers, insurance, and estate agents – which isn’t much fun for anyone!

Josie: I agree with you there! So when did you really fall in love with letterpress?

Nick: As I said, I spent a lot of time during art college in a room much like this one doing letterpress. So it stayed with me while I lived through this era of the arrival of digital design and printing. Everyone thought letterpress was gone forever; we hear stories of the old letterpress printers taking the type home to burn on the fire in the evening because they didn’t see any future in it. But recently it’s had a kind of renaissance period for the last five or ten years and has become a kind of art form, and is treated a bit more carefully, with the respect it deserves. Letterpress print has a unique textural quality, and there is a wonderful connection with physically handling type. I’ve just been up to the University of York where they the English department have opened a letterpress print room which I’ve never heard of! So things are definitely changing. I think in England there’s about maybe 20 people or set-ups like us, making a living from this way of printing – which is hard to do. And it’s a really nice community, we meet up at things called Wayzgoose, which means a gathering of printers. Often it’s linked to markets where you get together, and you can sell bits of your print, but also it’s time to meet other letterpress printers. They’re a really nice community; there’s a lot of respect.

Nick Hand Letterpress by Josie Rae

Josie: Is it helpful to meet up with other people in a very similar position?

Nick: Yes. It is really interesting. Everyone works differently. For example, there’s a guy in Stroud called Dennis Gould who is a bit kind of legend amongst letterpress printers. He’s quite politically radical. He does work which is technically not the bes, but his thing is the output and what he’s saying. He prints on cloth, playing cards – anything he can get his hands on!

Josie: Sounds pretty great, I’m going to have to check out his work! How did your bicycle journey visiting artists along the way come about?

Nick: So over the last ten years I’ve done quite a lot of long distance cycling journeys. I’ve always felt connected to them. I cycled around the coast of Britain about ten years ago, and I’ve always liked the idea of doing something on the journey. I’m not very good at just going off on a nice bike ride and coming back again. I was really interested in things being made, and craft so I thought I’d seek out people who made stuff on this journey while on the bicycle around the coast of Britain. I would photograph them and record their work. On that journey I recorded about 130 makers of things, and that has just carried on.

Josie: How did you make the letterpress bicycle?

Nick: When I’m at Centrespace, Robyn (my friend who makes bicycles) and I go for coffee together. One time I had just seen little film about a knife grinder who lived on a bicycle travelling around the countryside, going to villages and sharpening people’s knifes. And I was a bit intrigued, along with the fact that the old printers would do an apprenticeship, and at the end of that they were called the journeyman. And the journeyman could leave their city, and would be guaranteed a day’s work any printer. So I liked that idea of a journeyman’s itinerant way of working. I asked Robin if he thought we could make a bicycle with a printing press on the back, and he ended up making an amazing bike.

He and I made a journey to Mainz, where Gutenberg invented printing with moveable type six/seven hundred years ago. We printed postcards along the way, funded by the Kickstarter project. It was brilliant. Afterwards I longed for more time on the bike, so I went to schools and festivals and printed with it. And then because I’d already cycled down the coast of Britain and Ireland, I thought I’d plan another one up the middle of the country!

Josie: How do you find the process of printing a product using your own material?

Nick: It’s lovely to join all the dots through recording, and then communicating the journey. I like that phrase by Karl Marx, where he talks about owning the means of production, and one of the nice things about this work is that you can do what want really. When you own the means of production, you’re in control of what you do.

With letterpress you can work organically, you don’t have to sit at a computer and make every decision about what type you’re going to use, what the page size is going to be. For example with the book that we’re printing at the moment, we decided to use some nice big type. As a result, we decided to print on the biggest page we could. And then we invited some friends to do some linos. Because the whole project is quite tactile, using hands for each process, nothing has appeared on a computer yet.

Josie: Is it hard to cover so much distance while working?

Nick: The journeys can be quite hard work but it’s great fun. Life’s quite complicated at times, but when I set off on a bike, all I’ve got to do is cycle somewhere for six or seven hours and then stop, find the person, photograph them, print something nice, and then set off again. It’s a very nice way of spending your day. Everything on your mind while your at home kind of falls away. You don’t worry about the everyday things.

Check out Nick’s work, or book into a workshop at The Letterpress Collective

Interview & photographs by Josie Rae