Friday, February 3, 2012

Featured Item of the Week: The Original Printing Blocks for the Gogmagog Four Seasons

Original printing block for The Four Seasons

On Thursday, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter. However, here at Bromer Booksellers we have set our sights on spring, anticipating the change of seasons. This week's featured item is a complete set of the original printing blocks created by Morris Cox of the Gogmagog Press for his set of four books, The Four Seasons. An Impression of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter: a Landscape Panorama. Printed between 1965 and 1966, the Four Seasons are often considered the magnum opus of the Gogmagog Press. The blocks are not only the most important original materials for Cox's books, but are works of art in their own right.

Morris Cox first began the Gogmagog Press, a one-man operation, in 1957 as a way to publish his poems and artwork in limited editions. His approach to printing was unconventional and inventive, influenced by his early work as an artist creating woodcuts and linocuts. His process was often laborious, building up and subtracting layers of various colored inks, but the results are unlike the work of any other printer.

The process used to create the prints for the Four Seasons is a form of nature printing, described by Gogmagog Press bibliographer David Chambers as "embossed reverse/direct offset" printing. The tradition of nature printing, originating in the eighteenth century, is given "added life by being printed offset, with all the implications that this involved." He writes that "having an uneven surface, the blocks had to be impressed on to (and into) the offset sheet, from which the image was then transferred to the paper" (21).

This process required many steps. The blocks themselves are made of plywood with a layer of cardboard on top, and each is approximately thirty inches long by six inches in height. Natural materials, including seeds, leaves, and twigs, were added to the blocks along with gesso, creating a highly textured surface. These natural elements were then varnished for strength. Using an adapted office copying press, Cox would hand-ink the blocks and and transfer the ink onto a flexible offset-sheet of his own devising, made of plastic mounted on thin sheet rubber. The block was then wiped clean, and additional colors were added to the offset-sheet in stages. Once Cox was satisfied with the image, it was finally printed from the offset-sheet to the paper. The printing blocks still retain traces of the various colors of ink used in the prints.

Chambers writes that "Cox's way of making and using an offset-sheet... was the essence of his work. Its merit was that it enabled him to build up the surface of his blocks with almost any materials and, despite their irregularity, print them successfully" (17). The flexible rubber backing of the offset-sheet "enabled impressions to be taken from comparatively rough blocks," and "also allowed embossed prints to be made, since the block could be left in place when the image had been created, and the paper laid on top of it, so that the rubber-backed plastic forced the paper into the hollows of the block at the same time as it transferred the image to the surface of the paper" (19). The prints in the Four Seasons books are highly embossed with the shapes of the leaves and other natural materials affixed to the blocks, showing this technique at its best.

Each of the books of the Four Seasons begins with a poem by Cox, followed by three prints that have been seamlessly joined together into a panoramic strip, and then folded to create nine double-page openings. This creates a sense of continuity and progression throughout the book: the changing seasons appear in flowing images with delicate natural forms and subtle hues. Twigs and leaves in the blocks become trees and bushes in the prints, seeds become stones, flowers, and fruit. It is illuminating to compare the prints in the books with the blocks that were used to create them, giving the viewer a glimpse into the artist's creative process.

For more information on the printing blocks and other works by Morris Cox, please visit our website. Thank you for reading, and we look forward to sharing another item with you next week. Additional information found in Gogmagog: Morris Cox & The Gogmagog Press, by David Chambers, Colin Franklin, and Alan Tucker. Published 1991 in Pinner, England by the Private Libraries Association.

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