Robert Macfarlane on how a sunken lane inspired a handmade book, Holloway
An alchemical question: how do you make a book from a lump of lead? A year ago, I couldn’t have told you. Now I know the answer.
I know because I was fortunate enough to become friends with an artist called Stanley Donwood, a letterpress printer called Richard Lawrence and a young writer called Dan Richards.
Together, we decided to self-publish a slender book called Holloway from first principles.
The first principle being a lump of lead. In short, it worked like this: we melted the lead to cast the hot metal type to set the text to crank the press to print the pages to make the book.
The process was labour-intensive, silvery and arcane. Arcane, because few people still set hot metal type these days. Silvery because lead melts at 327.5C,
And labour-intensive, because every step takes many hours of painstaking effort.
A small book about those old ways, then, to be made in the old ways: raw lead, fresh type, hand-press.
This was where Richard Lawrence’s expertise was invaluable, as making type is fiendish work. You use a large finger-disc keyboard to punch holes in a paper tape about five inches wide.
The text is “input-blind”; the person doing it has only their memory to tell them where they have reached in the text, and whether they’ve made a mistake. All you have to show for hours of wary key-punching is a roll of perforated white paper. That roll is what then instructs the casting machine (in this case a 1955 Monotype caster), which uses brass dies to impress the typeforms on the molten lead.
The font Richard and Stanley chose for the type was Plantin, named after the printer Christophe Plantin, first cut in 1913 and based on a face cut in the 16th century by Robert Granjon.
Christophe Plantin was an intellectual with a nose for business. Shortly before 1550 he moved from France to Antwerp. Five years later, he started his own printing works.
Once the type was cast, it had to be set letter by letter into the presses: a 1965 Heidelberg Platen press and a 1970 Vandercook proofing press.
Big, old, heavy, hardy machines: workhorses made not to break. Stanley took photographs of his line illustrations, which were converted into etched magnesium plates.
Then the plates and the type were inked, thick wove paper was bought, the 48 pages were printed, sewn up and limp-bound, and lo! – the lump of lead had become a book. Or 277 books, to be precise.