The Dürer press

Durer drawing of blacksmith, printer and baker.
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Enlarged centre portion depicting a printing press

This central portion depicting a printing press unfortunately contains a number of  anomalies and differs from all other near contemporary representations of the press in its basic structure. Because of this it has not been regarded as entirely credible. In 2008 whilst building the press for ‘The machine that made us’ I studied this drawing with some care and began to think that there were possible explanations for its unusual features. In 2014 whilst preparing a paper about this, I was approached by a group of printing historians interested in commissioning an early press to be used as a test-bed for their ideas. I proposed that we attempt to build a press based on Dürer’s drawing 9 but incorporating the ideas that I was writing about. They agreed to this and so by this happy coincidence I was able to complete the writing of my paper and build a press which hopefully would confirm its conclusions. Both came out in 2015. The historians who ordered the press ‘The Duerer Group’ are friends of the St. Bride Library and arranged for the press to be on permanent loan there, and my paper ‘Albrecht Dürer’s drawing of a printing press: a reconsideration’ 10 appeared in The Printing Historical Society Journal at about the same time. It is also available as a PDF on this site’s Links and references page.

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The finished press viewed from the back
The press meets HRH after installation at St Bride Library

As originally conceived the tympan and frisket frames for this press were both positioned by fitting them to the corner clamps of the coffin as no hinges are visible in the Dürer drawing. I was not particularly happy with this arrangement even though it worked quite satisfactorily. However, in 2017 an opportunity to change this arrangement occurred. The School of Advanced Study at Senate House asked me for a demonstration of early printing. I proposed that we print the 42 line bible page originally acquired for the Gutenberg film. Unfortunately, neither the press nor the type, both now owned by the University of Reading, were available. I contacted the Duerer Group and proposed that we make some modifications to their press so that it could be used instead. They agreed to this and arranged to bring the press to my workshop. The press got a new metal platen, a new enlarged coffin and a new frisket which this time was hinged to the front of the coffin. The tympan whose only function on these early presses is to soften the impact of the platen on the type was simply some packing placed by the printer on the press bed after positioning the paper on the frisket. It all worked well and the press was delivered to Senate House.  In February 2018 Martin Andrews and I used it there in a series of lectures and demonstrations for The Institute of English Studies Term-long Celebration for Gutenberg Year 2018.  The practical part of the programme started with the Dürer Press in the form depicted by Dürer with its hind rails in place. We then demonstrated that these could be removed within a couple of minutes, so returning the press to its one-pull configuration. Next we inked up a line block reproduced from the Gutenberg page at Reading and pulled an impression. Finally, while drinks were served, we invited those who wished to, to come up and print a keepsake page for themselves. We estimate that during the two day programme about a hundred people took impressions from the page. The press has also been used at the St. Bride Library by Clare Bolton, Martin Andrews and Richard Lawrence while teaching  courses for The Rare Books School.

Next – Type moulds