Meeting the Maker
Just half an hour’s drive from Stratford-upon-Avon, on the edge of the Cotswolds, we spent an inspiring couple of hours at the home and printing studio of Louisa Hare and Wilbur the cat (aka The Foreman). Nestled away in an idyllic village location, Louisa produces an extensive range of hand printed cards for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. It’s a partnership that goes back almost 30 years and which has seen her original concept to illustrate the text of Shakespeare’s First Folio blossom into the 130 Shakespeare designs she has in print today. Louisa was first inspired by the discovery of a beautiful vintage reproduction copy of the First Folio while working in an antiquarian bookshop in Stratford-upon-Avon, so it is fitting that our own Shakespeare Bookshop has become the principal outlet for her Shakespeare cards.
Once Wilbur was suitably petted and we were given his seal of approval, Louisa gave us the tour. Neatly tucked away, next to the kitchen, sits her very impressive Heidleberg Platen letterpress, a thing of beauty and an example of German engineering at its finest. Dating from 1969, you can’t help but be impressed that it still functions and that you can still find parts!
Louisa apologises for the mess, but seeing the cases of type, relief blocks and shelves of ink in a working print studio really is a photographer’s dream. Once the pleasantries are over, we then get on with the reason we are there; the printing.
The Printing Process
For each card design, the type is carefully set into a composing stick, one letter at a time. The type and, or relief blocks are locked into an iron frame known as a chase. The chase is in turn locked into the press. The position of type and blocks must be adjusted within the chase until it is printing satisfactorily. Type has to be back-to-front for the letters to print the correct way round, which makes this even trickier.
Next the ink is mixed. Louisa mixes by eye. I ask if she uses a Pantone book, she says she has one, but doesn’t need it. Louisa confidently mixes the red and the black to get the correct shade of maroon. A quick test with the swipe of the thumb on some card and we are good to go.
The ink is then spread onto the rollers using a spatula, the blank cards are stacked at the front of the press and the block frame is attached. When the Heidleberg starts up it has a reassuring strong puff, reminiscent of ‘Ivor the Engine’. The card is rapidly sucked up by the press, ink is rolled onto the relief surface of blocks and type, then transferred onto paper using pressure.
There's occasional tweaking of the blocks along the way if there are any untoward marks or if it doesn’t line up. Sometimes there’s a mis-feed of card, so the press has to be manned at all times. To add more colours, the process starts from the beginning and the card is fed through again.
All Louisa’s First Folio Cards are printed this way using the traditional, hands-on method. Other than it now being mechanised, little has changed since Shakespeare’s time.
Once we’d completed the first print run, it was a look around the upstairs studio, where umpteen cards are neatly stored ready for dispatch, followed by tea and biscuits. The lovely Wilbur decided he was ready for his close up and demonstrated his naughty milk-stealing skills while we chatted about all things letterpress and Shakespeare.
With over 130 designs, Louisa sells in Stratford, London, Washington DC, and all over the world. Her illustrations from the First Folio Cards were used for the covers of the New Penguin Shakespeare series and also adorn the wrappers of our exclusive Little Bird Soaps. The First Folio cards continue to be our bestselling range and one of the unique products that makes our bookshop a destination store.
“Throughout the long life of FIRST FOLIO CARDS it has been my foremost, heartfelt wish to produce something honest to the spirit of the plays. By adding colourful illustrations to the original text, I hope in a small way to make the scenes accessible, and bring them to life.”
We stock as many of Louisa’s different designs as space in the shop will allow – around 80 different cards, representing all of Shakespeare’s plays – as well as a range of greetings cards Louisa has created exclusively for us. You can browse and buy the greetings cards in our online shop.
To meet the demand and make available the full range of First Folio cards, Louisa has launched her own online shop. Due to our special longstanding partnership, Louisa is offering our customers an exclusive 10% discount on purchases of three cards or more using the discount code sbt2022. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust receives a percentage of the profits from every purchase using this code.
More about Louisa
Louisa grew up 5 miles from Stratford, so she was familiar with Shakespeare’s plays from a young age. She spent a year at Art College and completed a degree in English, then combined the two fields in her pursuit of printing. The skills she acquired at Exeter College of Printing have provided the foundation of her work.
You can follow Louisa on Instagram here.