The embodiment of dreams, Brendan O’Brien

The Printing of a Masterpiece 
Alan Loney
Black Pepper, $AUD25.95, 
ISBN 9781876044589

With so much reading now done on the computer screen, Alan Loney’s new publication arrives to remind us of some of the other qualities we encounter when we read a well-produced book. A text presented with a high standard of design, printing and binding can greatly alter the experience of the reader – frequently there is a transformation from the ordinary to the memorable. As The Printing of a Masterpiece and Alan Loney’s own printed work make evident, the role of the book shifts from being solely an instrument of communication to function also as a artefact or a work of art in its own right. One of life’s mysteries remains how computer technology continually fails to improve on hazy distorted typefaces and a format and standard of type design mired in pure hideousness. It appears the sharper minds in the world of design, of which Loney’s is undoubtedly one, remain engaged with the book.

The Printing of a Masterpiece is the narrative of the creation of a book – the book Alan Loney considers to be his finest – Leonardo on Nothingness, a volume based on a selection of passages from Da Vinci’s notebooks. The author describes the evolution of that project, each section of the book focusing or, perhaps more precisely, contemplating a different aspect of the Da Vinci publication. Ranging beyond the concrete – there is discussion of paper, inks, and illustration among other material considerations – he engages with more ethereal aspects: one section bears the title “The Printery as Cosmological Haven”, another “The Nonchalance of the Mastercraftsman”. In these sections, the writer shares some of the broad experience and personal philosophy gained from a lifetime engagement with the production of books.

The author’s musings on matters typographical and of printing (what were once known as the “black arts”) not only reflect a deep understanding of the tradition of the book but also engage in a respectful dialogue with that tradition. The book is at once a manifesto and a testimony to Loney’s achievement as a handpress printer. Many of the printer’s 50 titles to date deserve acclaim as important accomplishments in the contexts of independent publishing and book design.

Electio Editions is the imprint attached to Loney’s recent output. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, Loney’s meticulous standards do not lend themselves to mass production. Sadly, with such limited editions (there are just 26 copies of Leonardo on Nothingness), the closest many will get to these volumes will be by way of a visit to a major library. Regardless, readers will find the insightful detail of the book under review a great fillip to understanding the printer’s exacting work and an impetus to visit their nearest public rare book collection – something every ratepayer should feel entitled to do.

Printed on lightweight paper and with a rather tight perfect binding The Printing of a Masterpiece makes no attempt to measure up to the exemplary guidelines the author applies to his own book-making production. That said, a debt is owed to Black Pepper, the small Australian publishing house, for making this volume available. As there is such a paucity of both Alan Loney’s own writing and of local writing concerning “the book” available, the publisher’s efforts are to be applauded.

Loney, a resident of Melbourne in recent years (but presently in New Zealand at Otago University holding the increasingly significant post of printer-in-residence), has in the past suffered from the indifference of local administrators. His recent presence at the Christchurch Art Gallery where he had a well-chosen selection of his books on exhibition is a timely step towards correcting this neglect. An earlier visit to that institution to view a beautifully arranged group of books printed at the Kelmscott Press, including the magisterial Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, brought to mind an observation of William Morris, “My work is the embodiment of dreams”, a remark one feels could also have originated from Alan Loney himself. The Printing of a Masterpiece reveals that alongside the manual skills to make a great book, other more visionary qualities are also vital.

Here’s hoping that there is a publisher out there somewhere with sufficient vision to enlist a writer such as Noel Waite or Peter Simpson to prepare a substantial and well-illustrated commentary focusing on Loney’s printed work – such a prospect would cause many in the book and art worlds to drool in excited anticipation. In the interim we should celebrate this book. It should serve to inform and inspire a new generation of printers, and for those with an interest in print culture, it will reshape perceptions and enrich understanding of the handmade book.


Brendan O’Brien works in conservation at the Alexander Turnbull Library and has been a handpress printer for over 10 years.


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