Lightboxes and Lettering, an extensively-researched exhibition at Bow Art’s Nunnery Gallery (17/01–31/03), charts the development of the print industry in east London over the course of the 20th century. Through maps, oral histories, and previously unseen printed materials and photographs, the exhibition offers an in-depth look at the industry over the period, and how changes in production methods shaped the evolution of the industry in Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and Waltham Forest.

The exhibition details the processes involved in a number of methods used in the industry, with a particular focus on letterpress and offset lithography – the phasing out of one for the other – and later digital methods that saw a lot of printers and presses in the area folding or moving elsewhere. Indeed, the history of the print industry in east London is also a history of the buildings and their changing uses.

The exhibition paints a picture of profundity not all that long ago, with printers and presses dotted all over the boroughs:

You only had to walk up the road and all you could hear were Heidelberg cylinders running or folding machines, the crack of the folding machine

Colin Nixon, Eagle House Press
Original Heidelberg Cylinder Printing Machine
Original Heidelberg Cylinder Printing Machine, Wikipedia Commons

To illustrate this, there is a terrific map available in the exhibition which plots services of the print industry active across the boroughs at the time, as well as a detailed look at a few presses in particular, including the Malvern Press, Barclay’s Print, and other smaller radical and community presses which enabled the printing of pamphlets, poster, books, etc. for local campaigns and events, such as the still running Aldgate Press, which coincidentally printed the booklet available at the exhibition. The exhibition is brought to life with interviews that really give a sense of what it was like to work be involved in the printing industry at the time, right down to the sound of the machines running in the background. The interviews are now available online at the exhibition website.

For anyone interested in type and publishing the exhibition is a real feast, with plenty of talk of fonts, production, finishing, as well as the sounds of the great hulking machines and even a couple of small letterpresses on show.

It is expertly curated and thoroughly researched, with thought also given to some less considered aspects of the heritage, such as women’s roles within the industry, and also some exciting talks and community projects running over the course of the project.

For more see the project’s site and the gallery site. For events running during the exhibition see here.

Lightboxes and Lettering exhibition booklet
There is also a beautifully produced booklet available from the Nunnery Gallery café for £5 which is well worth it.
Written by Jamie Bowman
Last updated 11th May 2020