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An im-press-ive acquisition: Rice procures replica of William Blake’s printing press

Katherine Hui / Thresher

By Murtaza Kazmi     3/7/23 9:35pm

Rice University is now the home to a functional star-wheeled, copper plate, rolling press that the prominent, Romantic-period English poet William Blake used to create some of his famous pieces. The printing press, housed in the Woodson Research Center at Fondren Library, is the only functional replica in North America. 

Alexander Regier, a professor of English and of modern and classical literatures and cultures in the School of Humanities, and Sara Lowman, the vice provost and university librarian, worked with printmaker Michael Phillips to acquire the press using resources from Fondren’s Hobby Family Fund. 

In the past, Regier and Fondren Library have partnered to obtain Phillips’ replicas of the copper plates used by William Blake. Regier says his personal relationship with Phillips played a role in Rice’s acquisition of the printing press. 

“We kept up the correspondence … And then we were on the phone for some reason. And he said, ‘Oh, the press needs a new home.’ And I said, ‘Okay, sure. You know, what about Rice?’” Regier said. 

Lowman says that an endowment established by Oveta Culp Hobby was used to purchase the printing press because of a personal connection between the Hobby family and the English department. 

“It was great because [Oveta Culp Hobby’s] daughter in law, Diana Hobby, worked for studies and English literature, which is now what Dr. Regier is the editor of,” Lowman said, “So when [Regier] approached me about this, I thought, this is a great fit for this fund, because Diana Hobby would be so pleased that we could use that state gift from her mother in-law to purchase something that was so much interest to a faculty member.”

Regier says this particular type of printing press holds historical significance for being the first to invent a method that allowed Blake to combine words and images using one device. 

“[William Blake] is one of the great poets of the English language, he is one of the great artists that we have,” Regier said, “And he was somebody that combined the idea of what is the written word and the image and he spent his entire life dedicated to that.”

Regier says the printing press will be useful for making concepts taught in the classroom tangible. demonstrations of course materials. 

“It takes the theory [of] what we learned theoretically in the classroom and makes it real. It’s practical,” Regier said. “You learn a tremendous amount about what it means to produce, to create, and you learn something about the object.”

Regier says the plan is not for the printing press to be displayed merely as an artifact, but instead to use the technology to make concepts taught in the classroom tangible.

“This is not something to be sort of locked away and just be like, a museum piece. It’s supposed to be a teaching and a research tool,” Regier said. “It takes the theory [of] what we learned theoretically in the classroom and makes it real … You learn a tremendous amount about what it means to produce, to create, and you learn something about the object.”

Regier says the printing press will be beneficial for students outside of the humanities as well. 

“I’ve already been in touch with some engineers saying we can print really cool [copper] plates in the design kitchen, and then do some inking, and then printing,” Regier said., “So that’d be interesting bringing two pieces of the campus together also.”

Lowman says supporting practical learning experience is a priority for Fondren Library when evaluating how to utilize resources from endowments. 

“There’s a movement to make Rice a central hub of scholarship in terms of practical learning,” Lowman said.. “And that’s what this printing press represents. From the perspective of Fondren Library, that is a shared goal between the departments of acquiring pieces like this, in the spirit of bringing practical learning and teaching opportunities to the wide student body and to the faculty at Rice.” Lowman said.

In addition, Regier says that the acquisition will also bring scholars from other institutions to collaborate with Rice students. 

“There will be external visiting people coming here to visit [the press],” Regier said. “We’ve already organized a workshop for later in March, from visiting scholars from all over the country, and those scholars can also connect with the students.”

Lowman says the printing press’ home in the Woodson Research Center will support student investigation. 

“It’s because they have the primary source material… so that’s what we’re trying to do in the Woodson [Research Center] and they have a really great staff that, you know, works on oral histories and teaches students how to do oral histories and what questions to ask people so that you get really good information from them,” Lowman said.

Lowman says the acquisition of the printing press is part of a goal of Fondren’s goal to support students’ needs for learning and research. 

“We want to hear from [students] about what they want from the library. And that’s our job to support their learning and in their research, and we do want to hear their ideas and what they want us to do,” Lowman said.

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