The British Printer 1893

The British Printer (1888-2000) was one of the most important magazines – perhaps the most important – for the practical side of the media of the late Victorian period and the twentieth century.

Unusually, it’s not a trade periodical based in London. It had been founded in 1888 by the Leicester printing firm of Raithby, Lawrence & Co on the back of the success of a publication they had started in 1880 which showed the different kinds of typefaces, layouts and so on they they could produce. This was The Printers’ International Specimen Exchange: copies of this rare and very beautiful publication are very valuable nowadays! The Printers’ International Specimen Exchange was very successful and by 1887 its success inspired the man who was in charge of producing it, George W. Jones, to set up a society of printers, “The British Typographia.” The society too was successful – it had 300 members within a year (a large number for a new society) – and to spread the society’s ideas, it started up a new periodical – The British Printer – which was at first was financed and edited by Robert Hilton (by all accounts a fiery man!). Of course, it was printed by Raithby Lawrence and they bought it from Hilton in 1890, though he continued to edit the periodical (from London) until 1894.

The British Printer was concerned to promote the elegant style on the printed page that only the most exclusive art printers had previously created. It wanted to develop a specially “English” style of page layout that would surpass that of its American rivals. Above all, it wanted to make elegant style commercial, and promoted the latest technology to do so.

It certainly practiced what it preached. It is a very beautiful volume, as anyone can see in our digital version of the whole volume for 1893.

This beauty does create problems for digitisation though! The files are so large it is much more efficient to view the pages on Metabotnik (to which we have uploaded them) than to follow our usual practice of uploading individual issues and pages that you in turn can download freely. Metabotnik doesn’t allow you to download individual images or pages easily, but at least you get to see the whole volume in all its colourful glory.

Here, though, are themed selections of a few pages that we think interesting.

First, there are some elegant multi-coloured adverts, showing off the work of various printers and manufacturers of printing machines and printing machine parts. One advert – for the “Express Platen Printing Machine” is even embossed in gold! It is perhaps hard for us to imagine the effect of such multicolour printing on readers at the time, and hard too for us who are used to bright colours everywhere, to appreciate the taste for the subtle colouring that advertisers tended to favour. It is also very hard to convey on a screen what is really beautiful as a physical page! It was certainly possible to print in bright colours (see the “Spectrum Analysis of White Light” in this slideshow) but much more refined colours were favoured in the British Printer adverts, no doubt to distinguish them from the brighter and more energetic adverts seen on the streets and by rivals in other countries.

Second, here are some images of mothers, of the kind the artist Emmanuelle Loiselle reacted so strongly against. We were very struck by how there aren’t many women – let alone mothers – in The British Printer and almost all the mothers are reproductions of paintings by Raphael. The images are of course intended to show off the crisp detail and the subtle shading possible with the latest printing technology (in this case “Acme” paper and “Mander inks” printed at the De Montfort Press, i.e. Raithby & Lawrence themselves), but the choice of these images to reproduce suggests that The British Printer thought they would sell well. The only other mother we can find in the volume is in an advert for the printing firm of Falkner & Sons. She’s not prominent – look at the bottom left of the advert in the background in the shade. It seems to sum up The British Printer‘s attitude to women which reflected attitudes to women in the printing trades more generally: men and machines are foregrounded; women are relegated to the barest visibility. The notion goes hand in hand with the use of The British Printer to show of its owner’s technological expertise.

Finally, we couldn’t omit a slideshow of at least some of the wonderful machines that The British Printer advertised. They seem to come out of a fantasy steampunk or Heath Robinson world, whereas in fact they really existed. As I pointed out on page 36 of the booklet accompanying the “Keep the Door of My Lips” exhibition, it was rare to see human beings actually working in adverts for machines – the adverts promised a utopia where machines seemed to do all the work by themselves, even if in reality a lot of people were needed to operate them.