by francis atterbury
I went to see my old friend and mentor Ted Gowin last week. Always known as ‘Dad’ to me, Ted is now well into his 90s and long since retired. I grew up with Ted and his family and, as soon as I was able, spent as much time as I could with him and his small team at Westerham Press where he was manager of the letterpress department. Although Westerham Press moved to offset lithography and computer-typesetting in the early 1960s (they led the world in the development of computers in printing, but that’s a story for another day), they maintained letterpress for special work such as orders of service for Westminster Abbey or private invitations as well as to remind themselves what good typography looked like!
Ted’s team of three were all veterans of the desert and Italian campaigns of the 8th Army (Desert Rats) in WWII and lunchtimes were full of their stories. As well as Ted, there was Fred Porter, who ran the Monotype casters and Norman Richold who printed on a Type C Victoria Art Platen. The artist Charles Mozley was also a regular visitor. He’d arrive at 11am with a bottle of red wine and, after a shout to me of ‘Morning, Boy!’ he’d start painting and discussing with Ted some problem and how he’d dealt with a poor hapless pressman, accountant or manager.
Ted had been taken prisoner at the siege of Tobruk in 1941 and spent the rest of the war at a PoW camp from which began a love affair with wine and especially Barolo ever since. As the smallest prisoner, he was given the task of climbing into the Commandant’s wine store and passing back the wine. After drinking the contents, the bottles were refilled using the prisoner’s own natural resources. The camp forger replaced the seals and labels before Ted replaced the bottles. Norman Richold was company sniper and was the most exact, precise and patient machine minder I have ever met. It was Norman who printed ‘Pictures on Glass’ quite simply the finest book ever printed letterpress. Fred Porter had lost his right eye and hearing on the right side from a mortar and would stand next to the clattering Monotype caster. If you were talking to him he wouldn’t have the slightest idea you were there. I remember he had a spare, bloodshot, glass eye to use after a heavy night which we used to place above the desk to keep watch.
Although not a formal apprenticeship, Ted taught me everything I know about type and how to use it. He had an instinctive feel for the measure and type size and understood about letterspacing. Caps (capital letters) of 11pt and below were to be uniformly spaced, usually with 1pt leads, except for obvious combinations like ‘AY’ whilst 12pt and above must be optically spaced. I think this is the real advantage of a letterpress training for a printer or designer; that it teaches you to appreciate space. Not space as a regular tap on the spacebar or return key but space as a genuine physical presence. 1pt leads to character space had to be cut from a 24 inch length of lead, each space had to be very slightly shorter than the type or it wouldn’t lock up.
Ted also taught me to appreciate Barolo, Chianti, Valpolicella and the Nebiolo grape. I can’t decide which is the most important – type or grapes; and I think this is a dilemma of which Dad would approve.