Dr John Holmes

John at work in the Otakou Press Room

On Thursday morning I returned to the University Library’s Otakou Press Room to have another chat with  Dr John Holmes, the 2012 Otago University printer in residence. John is printing a commemorative volume of poems by Kevin Cunningham.

Poetry set for print

John how old were you when you first became aware of handset printing?

Well, as a child I used to go with my father when he visited printing works for his business. Then when my Uncle died my aunt offered me his small Adana printing press and type. He was a hobby printer but he was quite secretive, we never ever saw him printing. I bought a book, “Teach yourself printing for pleasure” and I taught myself the elements and have been learning ever since. When I was a university student I used the press to print invitations to student parties and occasional weddings. Anna and I printed our own wedding invitations and we’ve printed our Christmas cards every year since we’ve been married.

I joined a printing group in the UK in the late 1960s and I’m still a member. Everyone contributes a page or two of their own work resulting in a co-operative annual publication. I’m the oldest ‘living’ contributor – I’ve sent my work to them for 30 issues, and only missed a few years.

The Columbian or Eagle Press

In answer to my question is it a relaxing hobby, John nods his head, it’s great escapism really – time to contemplate. When I wonder if there’s a project or book that stands out John replies, No, every book is an achievement, all good in their own way.

And commercial work?
No it’s never interested me. I like to have control over what I print. I refuse to use terrible paper or print in silver ink!

The Albion Press

John owns five presses with his favourite being the cylinder proof press he has at home – it self inks. As for favourite fonts well he likes the classical ones – Bembo, Caslon, Baskerville. He prefers serif to sans serif. All typefaces have their own idiosyncrasies he says.  Garamond has an ‘a’ which seems too small. You just have to choose a font that you can live with. I order my hot metal fonts from M & H Type, the oldest and largest letterpress type foundry in the U.S. If you ever get the chance to go to San Francisco visit Arion Press.  It’s located at the Presidio, the new National Park in San Francisco.

Vandercook proofing press

At this point Alan Roddick calls in so we break for a chat about the When North meets South exhibition, poetry, and Virginia Woolf. Alan has a look at the poems John has already printed before heading into town.

So when you’re on your own here…….  Are you ever on your own? Everytime I’ve called in you’ve had visitors. No it’s fine, people popping in to watch and see how the work is progressing.  Where was I? Oh I know,  when you’re on your own do you work in silence? I listen to National Radio– Kathryn Ryan in the mornings. At home I enjoy Jim Sullivan’s “Sounds Historical” on Sunday nights too.

Now for poets -a printing sample

John tell me how does place – Dunedin –influence your work?
There’s great support here from people like Donald Kerr, the University’s Special Collections Librarian and Shef Rogers, a senior lecturer in English. They’re very encouraging, bringing artists together to work as a community. Other library staff are helpful as well.

Some of John’s printing

You’ve worked on the Chatham Islands, in Edinburgh and Tanzania –what happens to the presses?

Oh they go wherever we go. I’ve had them in a garden shed, a garage and now I have a built-in workshop at our St Leonard’s home. On the Chatham’s I printed a booklet  –  4 pages from Frederick Hunt’s story. He was the original European inhabitant of Pitt Island. In Tanzania I also printed a couple of booklets – one was a poem written by Samuel Wallis (grandfather of poet Lord George Gordon Byron) who was the captain on board the HMS Dolphin, the first European ship which discovered Tahiti.  The second was the Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr poem, “The Stethoscope Song. A Professional Ballad.”, about a fly stuck in a stethoscope.  ( I checked this poem once I got home and it’s 24 verses so it won’t be reprinted here!)

 John what’s the most tedious part of the process?
Oh definitely taking down (‘dissing’) type.

Emptying the plates

Selection of font and setting out must involve a lot of preparation?

 I have to consider if I choose a certain font have I got enough type and if so is it the right size. There are the logistics of working out where to break a poem which might mean another page and how that will affect the following poems…… When I was working out the placement of Kevin’s poems I met with Bill Manhire, who made the selection, and we agreed to change the order just because it made placement easier. It’s quite mathematical too – figuring out space….  Then there are special characters, such as accents and the character used as an abbreviation for the inches and feet sign – you can’t just use the single or double speech marks. I’ve had to purchase those because one poem refers to a height in feet.

Type cabinets in the Press Room.

While we were talking an idea formed, he beamed and his eyes sparkled. Just decided how to present my contribution to the exhibition – I will have to talk to Anna.. And there I left John Holmes happily working out the logistics for his haiku contribution.

A sneak peek at John’s ‘practice run’ for the exhibition

But he wasn’t allowing me to leave without parting words of wisdom – If you’re looking for fish and chips go to Fish Hook. They serve great fish and chips – they’re in George St. We had some last night   – the best in Dunedin I should imagine.

Like to learn more about John? Then go here  and  here

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  1. […] of each artwork and the haiku that provided the inspiration – and the concertina book made by John Holmes, this year’s printer-in-residence at Otago […]



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