The Williams Blake and Morris were masters of the art. Édouard Manet and David Hockney produced their own highly sought-after versions. Yet the very nature of artists’ books means that they’re not widely known as an art form – they’re essentially rarefied private pieces, small editions of labour-intensive books in which every element is produced by hand and which usually end up in private collections, galleries or museums.
On the outskirts of Scarborough, artist Michael Atkin is walking in the footsteps of his artistic hero William Morris to produce a magnificent artist’s book depicting the town in 26 scenes from A for art gallery to Z for zig zag (the paths leading from the seafront to the clifftop above the bay).
An Alphabet of Scarborough will be published next year. There will be just 26 numbered copies, each accompanied by an extra loose print from the book suitable for framing – so the buyer of book one will receive a print of the art gallery, while the buyer of book two will be able to enjoy an image of beach huts on their wall, and so on to Z.
The 64-year-old artist was born and brought up in Middlesbrough, but came to Scarborough in the mid-1970s to teach after attending art colleges in his home town and in Maidstone and Liverpool. His teaching career was fairly short-lived, as his reputation as an artist soared. He had already founded his own private press, Bracken Press, to facilitate his work as an etcher, block printer and wood engraver – all three print forms can be seen in the Alphabet. Today, his work can be seen in galleries around the world, and he’s an active member of the Fylingdales Group of Artists, Leeds Fine Artists and the Oxford Guild of Printers.
Michael has created three previous artist’s books: The Scarborough Tragedy, a tale of seduction and murder in the town (1974); Beggar’s Bridge, which details the building of the Glaisdale landmark in 1619 (1980); and Blue – The Life and Times of a Beverley Blue Pontiac Big 6 Sedan (1990).
Each is a true labour of love, taking months to create and resulting in just a handful of works of art – there were just 75 copies of each of the first two books, and 56 of Blue. But his A to Z of Scarborough is his most personal book yet.
“I realised one day that I hadn’t done anything on Scarborough for about 30 years,” he says. “I liked the idea of doing a series of prints that were naturally limited by their theme – and using the alphabet naturally limited it to 26.
“The artist’s book gives the creator total control – it’s very much a William Morris thing. He had the paper made, designed the type, hand-printed and hand-coloured the images, and even bound them himself.
“I’m doing everything except the binding – that’s in the hands of Smith Settle at Yeadon, who are real craftsmen. They’ve just bound a gorgeous facsimile edition of Morris’s The Kelmscott Chaucer, which is pretty much the Holy Grail of artists’ books.”
Michael works from an enviable location at home in Scalby, on the very edge of the North York Moors. Behind the pretty stone cottage where he lives with wife Beverley is a long garden housing his studio and workshop, the latter stuffed with the tools of his trade, including four vintage printing presses.
The images in the A to Z are variously etchings, lino prints and wood engravings, with the etchings the most detailed. Michael starts by visiting the location and, where possible, doing what he describes as a “360-degree tour”.
“I walk round and round it before deciding which side I want to portray it from,” he says. “Then I’ll look at the angle – with ‘L is for lighthouse’, for instance, I decided I wanted to be down in the harbour looking up at it. I’ll do lots of on-site sketches and take photographs, then come back home to draw the image.”
Because the final printing plate has to have the image in reverse, Michael then traces over his original drawing and flips the tracing paper to draw over it again onto a zinc etching plate coated with a “hard ground” – an acid-resistant substance made of beeswax, bitumen and resin.
He then goes over the lines again with a sharp tool called a burin to reveal the metal underneath, after which the plate is immersed in a tank containing nitric acid which eats away the exposed areas, creating recesses which will later hold the ink. Michael creates texture by repeatedly washing the acid off the plate, painting out areas using a substance known as stopping-out varnish, and re-immersing it in the acid.
Tone is then added using aquatint: rosin – a type of resin – is pulverised to a fine powder, and then applied to the zinc plate in a box with a paddle which creates a fine dust cloud so that it settles evenly. It’s then carefully lifted out and baked.
And that’s just creating the plate – the final process of printing has yet to happen. For his A to Z etchings, Michael is using his Rochat press which, he says, is “basically a glorified mangle”. Designed in 1812, the press is still being made today to its original design by Harry F Rochat of Barnet, north London. Michael had his made in 1977.
The finished zinc plate is coated with a mixture of ink, copperplate oil and pigment, laid face down onto the damp handmade paper and rolled through the press at a pressure of half a ton per square inch, the bevelled edge of the plate producing the distinctive frame effect so typical of etchings.
“It’s a technique which was created in the 1400s, and has remained essentially unchanged,” says Michael. “You could bring a medieval etcher into my workshop today, and they’d feel quite at home.”
Each plate is good for around 60 to 70 prints – Michael’s final step is to cut off the corner of the plate so that it’s no longer useable, ensuring the limited edition.
Other images in the book are printed using simpler block techniques, in which either wood blocks or sheets of lino have an image cut into them using a gouge – both produce similar results, although the nature of the materials means that the wood block prints tend to be crisper.
Michael is printing these and the text on one of two cast-iron Victorian Albion presses which he owns (his fourth is a Columbian Platen press) – this one dates from 1889 and came from a printer in Wensleydale. It uses a lever system to “stamp” the image onto the paper, rather than a roller system.
All of this, of course, takes time, and lots of it. Michael estimates that “H is for Harbour Bar” has so far consumed 32 hours, and it’s not yet finished.
That’s reflected in the price – An Alphabet of Scarborough will cost £2,950 (there’s a £400 discount on any orders received before February) for the book and additional print, all packaged in a bespoke Solander box, while a further 25 prints of each image will be available at £185 unframed. But there are plenty of art-lovers out there willing to pay for old-fashioned craftsmanship – nine copies have already been ordered by keen collectors.
• You can visit Michael’s Scalby studio and workshop during the annual North Yorkshire Open Studios events – next year’s will take place on the weekends of June 3&4 and 10& 11. He also runs courses on printmaking – for more information on those, or on the book, visit brackenpress.com.