Part II, Restoring the Press: Amelia Hugill-Fontanel

This is part two of a three part conversation series on the famous Kelmscott/Goudy Press. The K/G was once used by William Morris at his Kelmscott press, and is now found at the Cary Collection at RIT.

Our first guest was Steven Galbraith, Curator of the Cary Collection. Today, we catch up with Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, Associate Curator at the collection, and the person charged with restoring the press. Watch this space for a Q & A with Stephen Lee-Davis, the talented artist who printed a limited-edition broadside on the press.

1. What did you enjoy most about restoring the Kelmscott/Goudy Press? 
As with any of the historic presses in the Cary, I enjoy the process of giving an historic printing press a new useful life. While working on a press I always picture the finished press, how it will be used to teach, and what projects and programming we can design around it.
I admit that the restoration of the K-G was a bit nerve-wracking. I was hyper-aware that many great designers and publishers used it. I recognized that the press was responsible for bringing The Kelmscott Chaucer, one of the most beautiful books in history, to publication. It would be disappointing to many people if the press did not print well after my best effort in repairing it. I am so lucky that these machines are actually quite simple, and that I have a lot of connections with experts who could give me good advice on fixing the press. That the K-G finally prints well is the best reward in being associated with its restoration.
2. How does this press compare to other presses?
The Kelmscott-Goudy Albion iron hand press is the third Albion type model printing press to join the Cary Collection. It is the one with the most illustrious provenance, having been owned by William Morris, Frederic Goudy, Melbert Cary, Jr., and the founder of the American Printing History Association, J. Ben Lieberman. However, one of our other Albions was also in Frederic Goudy’s shop, so the K-G is reuniting with a companion in its history. (Incidentally those two Albions came to the Cary via American wood-engraver, John DePol, so cumulatively these three presses printed some amazing work!)
The K-G is the youngest of the three Albions, having been manufactured in 1891. It is also the most puzzling in terms of its design. The K-G is not as elegant in its engineering and manufacture in a few ways as its older prototypes. For example, the platen-raising spring in the top finial is connected to the main impression piston via two beautifully-engraved, but materially weak, brass plates. The older Albions neatly conceal this connection in the internal housing of the piston, and they use steel-to-steel linkages, which are technically stronger and in theory, superior.
Also, I am curious why the K-G has a rough surface finish when compared to the other Albions, which are smooth cast iron. I believe Hopkinson & Cope, (its manufacturer), did not take the last step to buff out the pocked surface left by sand-casting its iron frame.
Finally, the K-G has two 4-foot-high iron straps along each side of its staple or frame. Supposedly, these were added so the press would not torque under the stress of printing the large engravings in The Kelmscott Chaucer. They make the K-G look a bit cobbled together. I hope to some day address all of these questions through continuing research. But regardless of these minor flaws, it still prints beautifully.
3. Do you have a favorite historical press?
Can I say they are all my favorites? I know that is avoiding the question, but each press in the Cary is there because it represents some milestone in the engineering of how a printing impression was made: from flat-bed hand press to platen press to cylinder press. We can teach the gamut of 500 years of printing history by showing how these mechanisms work.
It would be politic to say that the K-G is my favorite because I took it apart and put it back together, and because I’m linked now to that famous lineage. I am so proud of the work I did on it. However, I am also very interested in platen presswork that succeeded the hand press era. I am even involved right now with a group of RIT engineering students who are designing a 21st century platen press with modern materials. One goal of this work is that enthusiasts would not a have to rely on restoring vintage presses to print letterpress. That opens the field to prospective printers!
4. What is most challenging about assisting artists, such as Lee-Davis, with their projects on the press? Most rewarding?
I have to educate any potential user of the K-G to expect that hand press printing is deliberate and time-consuming. You must be fastidious in how the press is set-up before printing and be aware of such small adjustments in impression, paper dampness, dwell time, and registration in order for the prints to come out perfectly. Sometimes artists prefer immediacy in their creation process—hand press printing does not offer that!
Steven Lee-Davis was already a meticulous wood-engraver before he worked with us, so he knew what to expect in terms of the printing process. I was so pleased with facilitating his vision and making the K-G print a beautiful image worthy of its grand legacy.
Amelia Hugill-Fontanel
Associate Curator
RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection

For more information: See this video, where Hugill-Fontanel walks viewers through the printing process.

Image, Top: Amelia Hugill-Fontanel sets up the Kelmscott-Goudy Press for printing at its dedication. RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection, October 9, 2014. (Image by A. Sue Weisler.)

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