My first port of call this year was The Old Stile Press in the beautiful Wye Valley. Frances and Nicolas McDowall, who have been publishing books since 1979, invited me to come and look at their recent titles, and discuss compiling a bibliography to extend a history of the Press first published at the millennium.
Snow fell on the day I arrived, transforming the earthy winter tones of the Forest of Dene (red and orange lichen on the trees, sere growth along the river banks) into a monochrome view worthy of a wood engraving. The Wye wound its dark eddies through pristine snowdrifts in which, as the cold intensified, crystal aggregated to crystal until each flake was visible, large as an eye and intricate as a fern leaf.
Frances McDowall collects plant fibres from the fields and combines them with local spring water, creating the paper for many of the books that Nicolas designs and prints. This splendid partnership offers many artists a rare opportunity to experiment with different print processes and exploit the possibilities of the book form. The impressive list of titles ranges from a miniature haiku collection to, most recently, an ambitious production of Peter Schaffer's Equus, bursting with exuberant multi-media images by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
A Neo-Romantic sensibility is evident in many of the books. Whether the artist’s work takes shape through colourful figurative linocuts or more sedate engravings of seashells, trees and other natural forms, it seems imbued with what the Inuit call inue or "soul". The mystical elements of the landscape are expressed particularly strongly by the exceptional printmaker Angela Lemaire, whether in the mountain that swallows up a whole generation of children in The Pyed Pyper, or in the Scottish Border landscapes haunted by faeries and ghosts in Secret Commonwealth, a seventeenth-century account of the uncanny by Robert Kirk.