Book Review: Alan Kitching – A Life in Letterpress

Chaos, Reason, Rainbows and Leading

Considering the vast majority of artist and master letterpress typographer/designer Alan Kitching’s life has been very well and tastefully spaced around the world of type, it seems almost a disservice to try and attempt to use words on a computer screen to talk or indeed rightfully celebrate him. To properly give him the respect he deserves I would be patiently, peacefully, diligently and methodically carving out crafted wooden letter pieces for months in my local forest, then herding up the brightest coloured wild inks possible to coat said letters and conjure the review. But that would be silly time consuming and the ink would wreck my computer screen.

Musical Types, from the series Entertaining Types2009

Musical Types, from the series Entertaining Types, 2009

A more and truly beautiful way of honouring the vast and vibrant work of Kitching would be to produced a stunningly curated, detailed and gorgeously produced (designed by Simon Esterson of Esterson Associates) and written (by John L. Walters, editor of Eye magazine) book, that just like the tactile/haptic and natural medium his works end up on, the paper warms with the touch of your hand, and your soul warms with the touch of his work. It also helps that it’s the consistently excellent folk over at Laurence King who have stepped up to the printing press to lovingly forge what is effectively an mini shrine to creative intelligence, vitality and exuberance, though thankfully a computer was used to help get the book out to us in our lifetimes.

Alan works extensively with letterpress printing (individual metal and woodblock cut letters laid out, coated in ink and paper pressed on top to take the shape of the inked letters) which has stayed with the same basic techniques since the invention of the printing press in around 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg. What Alan has managed to do since serving his apprenticeship as a boy working in a printers that produced anything and everything that had text on it is extraordinary. In a world where function, efficiency and speed reigned over any artistic endevours or desires, such restrictions only served as a solid foundation to catapult himself into a parallel and opposite world, literally like the transfer of colourful ink from the block to the paper. But you have to know the rules before you can break them, and given he doesn’t like the mechanical experience of cutting paper and prefers to tear it, it’s almost as if he’s actually tearing up the rule book, but you still recognise the abstract/chaotic pieces.

Hamlet poster, London Globe Theatre, 2007

The book covers over fifty years of his continuing evolution, and with 350 illustrations to whet the inspiration, in no uncertain terms, this is my favourite design/art book I’ve ever had the joy to embrace, every turn of the page brings a new wide eyed joy. Like the deceptive simplicity of some of Alan’s work, it also works on multiple levels. As an introduction to the man whose work has been seen by many more than they might realise (his extensive creative collaborations with the Guardian newspaper since the 1990s having massively contributed to that), it gives a human face to these creations that predominately only contained typefaces, but it also restores the profound appreciation of craftsmanship and patience in a world addicted to ephemeral apps.

Work for the National Theatre’s Transformation Season, 2002

Work for the National Theatre’s Transformation Season, 2002

Irrespective (or maybe because) of the conservative training he has an almost reactionary palpable dance of play in his work. Knowing and being schooled in all the design zeitgeists over the decades (I personally sense the waltz of Rodchenko in his dance around the page), it’s quite safe to say he is proudly and confidently marching to the sound of his own drum, indeed letterpress. There’s a truly enlightened sense of the use of colour that makes you think his nightly bed time reading is solely Pantone swatches, and his jovial sway to continually add human marks (be it by brush strokes etc) into what is essentially a hugely mechanical, technical process shows a zen blend of man and machine creating vastly beyond the some of the prints.

Broadside Number 5, 1992

Broadside Number 5, 1992

The distillation at work is also quite staggering. The fine kerning (spacing between individual letters) between success and failure is far more fragile and exposed when there’s less elements inhabiting the piece. Now weights, angles and colours hugely contribute to the overall message, less really is more.

One of my favourite aspects of the book is the section of studio photographs wonderfully taken by Philip Sayer. Tastefully atmospheric they capture fleeting moments and topography of the workshop (that contains the largest collection of wood block type in Europe). Mountain regions of type draws, skies of drying prints and lakes of resplendent containers (old plastic cheese pots) all collectively creating a paradise of imagination, wonderfully summed up in one particular photo of stacked, used elephants graveyard of colourful ink pot lids with an embedded random dandelion seed, the figurative seed of life and creativity.

Book Burning, 2011

Book Burning, 2011

Like Alan’s work and approach to everything, the book is a beautiful piece in itself that aptly and luxuriantly pays homage in the most respectful way you can to an artist, by creating another work of art. As an appropriate fullstop to the journey of the volume, there’s a wonderful piece presented based on the words of poet John Keats in 1818 ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’, and it really is.

The book is available now, and to celebrate the release there’s also a fantastic opportunity if you are in London to see a collection of the prints up close at an exhibition being run at The Coningsby Gallery from 11-15 April.

10/10 ‘Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress’ is published by Laurence King Publishing and is available in extremely tasteful bookshops now.