Open studio sessions at Woodson Research Center offer hands-on experience with one-of-a-kind printing press

Authentic, functional replica of poet William Blake’s star-wheel rolling press is housed at Fondren Library

Amanda Focke, student with William Blake star press

In a corner of Rice University’s Fondren Library reserved for the special, rare and historic, a relatively new addition with centuries old roots is making an impression at Woodson Research Center.

“The press is a replica of the press that (Romantic poet and artist) William Blake used to print his materials in his studio back in London in the 18th century,” said Alexander Regier, professor and chair of English. “Just like William Blake could print on his, you can print on ours. And it’s a press that belongs to the whole of Rice.”

English chair Alexander Regier
Alexander Regier, professor and chair of English, led the effort to bring the rare press from Oxford University to Rice. (Photos by Brandi Smith)

Blake, an English poet, painter and printmaker who is widely known as a seminal figure in Romantic-era poetry and visual art, used a star-wheel copper-plate rolling press to produce his works of word and image. Though his press was lost to time, its authentic, functional replica now at Rice is the only one of its kind, according to Regier.

Amanda Focke, the head of special collections at Fondren, wants to extend the experience of using the unique press beyond the Rice campus via an open studio on the fourth Friday of each month.

“We have the rare and unique things in this part of the library, but we’re open to the public,” Focke said. “We really want people to come and use the materials and spend time here.”

The press was unveiled in Fondren last March after Regier led the charge to bring it to Rice from its previous home at Oxford University. That’s where Regier first used it with guidance from the man who designed it: master printmaker and Blake scholar Michael Phillips. Along with the press, which was built using wood from the 1700s, Phillips recreated copper plates and the color palette of natural pigments that Blake used.

Student uses William Blake star rolling press
Staff at the Woodson Research Center hope to expand access of the press to others on the Rice campus, as well as in the broader Houston community.

“I would like to especially thank Fondren Library and the people there who helped so incredibly graciously with the pursuit of this idea that, at the beginning, seemed like a wild goose chase: to bring a replica of an 18th century press from Christ Church, Oxford, in England to the Woodson in Houston, Texas,” Regier said. “We built it all up here together, and it’s been wonderful.”

In the months since its arrival, the press has been used by many of Regier’s classes. Students and visitors first create their own colors using dry pigment mixed with linseed oil before using a dauber to meticulously dab the ink onto the copper plates. Once the plate is thinly but completely coated, it’s ready for the press.

“Everyone has their way of interacting with it,” Focke said. “It’s just fun because everybody gets something different out of it. People’s faces when they come over and pull their print, they see their image on their piece of paper from the plate that they inked. It’s just delightful.”

“My students are often surprised how small and delicate these prints are because quite often they see them projected on big screens,” Regier said. “(They’re) learning and seeing haptically and historically how difficult it is to daub and print them but also how beautiful and joyful it can be. I think those are some of the reasons that make it an exciting process.”

Student with completed print from William Blake press
Participants in the monthly open studios will be able to take home their prints, made using the one-of-a-kind press in the Woodson Research Center.

That process has garnered attention from all over campus — especially from students in art, architecture and engineering who are figuring out new ways to interact with the press — as well as from the international community.

“An artist from the U.K. contacted me in April. He’s coming here just to learn how to use the press to help him with his own artistic process,” Regier said. “It’s connecting lots of different people, which is another interesting thing about this object that seems so old in some way, even though it’s just a replica. It connects people. It connects people all across the campus but also all across the globe.”

The open studios will allow participants to use the one-of-a-kind star-wheel rolling press as well as a moveable type press. To register for an upcoming session, click here.