An extraordinary day at a print museum in London

Spent the day at an extra-ordinary museum on 19 March in London. A little gem in one of the bylanes off Fleet Street; close to St Paul's Cathedral. This is a narrow street that leads to St Bride's Church (built upon a foundation of seven churches); and the St Bride Institute was created in 1891 to celebrate the glory of print.

03 Apr 2013 | By Ramu Ramanathan

Noel D'cunha and I got a personal tour of a remarkable Victorian site, which included a printing and graphic arts library with 80,000 books (mostly rare first editions). We were chaperoned by the workshop manager Gill Clayton who has more than 50 keys for a labyrinth of 41 strong rooms and stacks.

This included:
- Rare books
- Bibles of all shapes and avataars (including one in Tamil)
- Original Caxton prints
- A 14th-century translation of Boethius
- An ornate 19th-century copy of Chaucer

Unlike the British Library one can actually touch and feel and do oooh / aah to these books.

We met Bob Richardson who preserves blocks, old types and parchments. Plus he tells the most fascinating stories about letterpress; and linocut; and wood engraving and blocks; and stereotype casting. I think, Richardson knows everything.

There's also a workshop which has an Adana among other things; the first time I saw one. Got to touch it and see how it is operated. 

Besides an unassuming alleyway and stone staircase, the foundation is all but hidden. It houses a theatre which has a swimming pool below it. And a bar in which Charles Dickens created an iron heater for Florence Nightangle during the Crimean War.

The highlight, among others is, the story of Louis John (or Jean) Pouché, a type founder. 23 of Pouchée’s decorated alphabets have survived and are at the St Bride Library. They are works of pure art. The most richly ornamented letters in letterpress. Pouchée’s team created fat-face style letters featuring flowers, fruit, animals, agricultural implements, musical instruments and Masonic symbols. 

All these rare documents and work dumped at the bottom of the Thames; as informed by the team at St Bride. Intrigue, competition, greed, politics, print history ...

This has to be made into a film with Daniel Day Lewis playing Mr Pouché.

For those of you, who are visiting London, please ensure you visit the St Bride's Print Museum + library. It is a MUST SEE for anyone who aims to see historic printing presses in action, plus participate in print workshops if you've the time. There is also a personalised tour which invites you to parts of the historic library archives (closed to the public).