Dr John Holmes
Letterpress printing. What images do you get from these two words? I immediately think of type, lead, paper, dirty hands and black ink under the fingernails. You would not expect a doctor to have dirty hands and ink under the fingernails. When I was a medical student I was given a small hand printing press, some type and other necessary equipment. I bought a very helpful book, Printing for Pleasure, which was first published in the Teach Yourself series by the English Universities Press in the late 1950s. I have been learning and practising letterpress printing ever since.
I enjoy being able to retreat into my rather cluttered print shop, contemplate the current project or decide on the content, layout and form of my next publication. It could be a visiting card, Christmas card, poster or a booklet. When I started printing I became friendly with a commercial printer who advised me not to spend a lot of time printing “ephemera” (transitory work which is not intended to be preserved), but to concentrate on unusual objects. Over the past 50 years I seem to have mixed ephemera with more unusual pieces. My most recent work, for example, is a 24 page reprint of a tale by Edgar Alan Poe about the vicissitudes of an American printer in 1849.
I took my press to the Chatham Islands in 1969 and was the first person to use a letterpress machine there. We produced a celebratory menu for a dinner held on 9 October 1969 to celebrate Captain Cook’s arrival in New Zealand. I still have a copy of this rare publication.
In 1971 we went to Tanzania, staying for almost three years. My printing press and several boxes of type went with us, and I converted our Guest House into a printing shop. Among the things I printed was a calendar with drawings of some aspects of everyday life of the local Sukuma people.
In 1974 we returned to New Zealand, and spent 24 years in Lincoln where I was able to have a printing shop in the garden shed and produced a wide variety of ephemera and booklets.
We moved to Dunedin in 1999 and I was introduced to the Bibliography Room, as it was then called, in the University Library. In 2005 the press was renamed Otakou Press in recognition of its Otago base. This is a well-equipped print shop with two large Victorian hand presses, two other presses, a selection of type and everything else required to print. It is used by third year students of English who get to experience what it was like to hand set type and print a booklet in the days before you could do it on a computer. Since 2003, the University has appointed a Printer in Residence who spends a month working on a specific publication, usually about 100 posters or booklets. I have been Printer in Residence on three occasions, and have also run basic letterpress courses in this studio as part of the University of Otago Summer School programme.
The Wai-te-ata Press at Victoria University of Wellington is another University-based print shop, and I have been printer in residence there on two occasions. In 2006 I was privileged to work there with Rachel Bush, a Nelson poet who had been Poet in Residence at Wellington Hospital in 2004. The project was to print some of Rachel’s poems and illustrate them with photographs of patients. The framed prints would be on display for everybody in the hospital to appreciate. Given the themes involved, I thought it was particularly appropriate to have a doctor as the printer.
The ten poems she wrote were published as a booklet by the Wai-te-ata Press in 2006 and accompanied by a series of pictures taken in the Neonatal Unit at Wellington Hospital by Alan Knowles, a Wellington photographer. My hand printed copies were to go in the Neonatal Unit but I believe that changes in hospital management have seen them moved to the School of Nursing. In her poem “Poet in Residence”, Rachel used comments from passers-by to describe her role.
Recently I have printed two books of poems and several selections of poems. I enjoy the challenges and processes of putting the poet’s words onto a blank sheet of paper. Type, paper and layout give me the ability to interpret the spirit behind the written word.
(Note: Rachel Bush died in March 2016. Her collection Thought Horses was recently published by Victoria University Press.)
Dr John Holmes
Honorary Clinical Senior Lecturer
Department of Preventive and Social Medicine
Dunedin School of Medicine