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Handcrafted books bring history to life

Wednesday, 13 September 2017
By James Cryer

Sue Anderson, creator of unique one-off or limited-edition books.

In the ragged landscape that passes for the printing industry, there are many torn fragments that would not normally catch our attention but which contain their own dramatic story.

James Cryer of JDA Print Recruitment

One such esoteric fragment is ”nature printing”, which I was privileged to observe in London recently – which first appeared in the early 1800s and enabled the accurate reproduction of leaves and other botanical specimens – without destroying the leaf! (The answer lay in the use of electrolysis to create a copper replica of the leaf – but that’s another story.)

Fast forward to last week, when I visited the Contemporary Art Fair at Sydney’s iconic Carriageworks. 

Let me introduce two charming ladies, Sue Anderson and Gwen Harrison, who are doing marvellous things with books. But these are not the “normal” books you and I think of. These are books that may be nearly (or sometimes over) a metre square, and with a print run of only a dozen – or less!

These are books where every aspect and element has been laboriously handcrafted: all display type has been handset, using wooden blocks; the text, again, has been meticulously handset by Sue using compositor’s typesticks, and all the binding has, again, been lovingly crafted – in one case using covers made of kangaroo-skin to house a collection of Gwen’s etchings.

These are works of art in their own right and rank alongside paintings, sculptures and etchings. But they are books! And there is a name for this genre: artists’ books. Note the careful placement of the apostrophe. They are not books owned by artists: they are books produced as works of art.

And who are these ”artists”? Well, Sue and Gwen are a sprightly duo, seen here holding one of their works of art – a book whose page-size when opened flat easily exceeds one metre in length by half-a-metre in depth. Try printing that on a digital press!

Their modus operandi is typical artist: no thought of commercial gain – if they sell some copies that’s great, but basically, they’re driven by the love of letterpress printing. But somebody loves their work, as their creations have been bought by the British Library, Stanford University in the US and several other American institutions, as well as several galleries and libraries around Australia.

They get their inspiration from certain dark Australian historical themes and have produced “works of art” on such diverse topics as Parramatta’s notorious Female Factory, the little-known convict prison on Cockatoo Island (known as Biloela) in Sydney Harbour and Sydney’s historic “Quarantine Station”, which played such an important role in Australia’s early immigration intake.

Sue Anderson (left) and Gwen Harrison holding their large, hand-made book.

To produce these works, Sue and Gwen may spend months researching and assembling ideas and images, and then many more months laboriously creating the text (Sue) and the hand-drawn images (Gwen) before the trial-and-error process of printing the whole thing – by hand – begins. Part of the complexity is combining copper-plate etchings with type – bearing in mind that each and every colour requires a separate run – and it’s all done on a Potter letterpress machine that’s nearly 90 years old!

Sometimes, there’s the easy way and the hard way, and Sue and Gwen seem hell-bent on choosing the latter. But this is the unfettered spirit that drives the true artist. Or is it the craftsperson? Sue and Gwen live in that twilight zone where the lines are blurred. All we should care about is that they are using the letterpress process to produce works of art – and as such, should be welcomed by us as being an integral part of the printing industry!

Who said printing is dead?

For more information on Sue and Gwen’s creations, visit

Or visit their workshop at the artist’s precinct on Middle Head, Sydney Harbour National Park.



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