First things first

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I am delighted to announce that Two Rivers Press are launching a new First Collection Series to provide an opportunity for emerging poets to see their work published in print. First up: The Beholder by Kate Behrens.

Taking on unpublished authors is a risk for any publisher, and a series suggests a series cover – always a good way to economise. The challenge was to create a series design that had a Two Rivers look and feel, but also reflected some aspect of the poets’ work.

I am lucky then to have at my disposal literally hundreds of rubber stamp illustrations created by Two Rivers founder Peter Hay. Pete, who died in 2003, was a multi-talented and prolific artist and enthusiast for all things Reading. His rubber stamp images, cut into ordinary erasers he used to buy in bulk from WH Smith, adorn many of the early Two Rivers classics such as Where Two Rivers Meet, A Much-Maligned Town, and a powerfully illustrated edition of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol. What better way to return to the true Two Rivers style!

I spent a pleasant morning in bed (a favourite creative space for me) experimenting with a selection of some of the more ‘esoteric’ images and put together a bright, contemporary palette of different colour combinations. The idea is that the colours chosen for each title will echo some element of the poems’ key themes. That should see us through the first few titles – it would be great to revisit the series every year or two and have another chance to play with those wonderful illustrations! Of course, if things go well and the series is a success, Two Rivers may be able to afford more bespoke cover designs, but then those are fun to work on too.

I also designed a template for the text pages using two of my all-time favourite typefaces: Parisine and Janson. Hopefully all the styles I set up will cover at least some of the more experimental typography that modern poets seem so fond of as well as the established conventions for typesetting poetry – we will see.

I’m grateful to students at the design department at the University of Reading who took prints of all the rubber stamps, digitised and catalogued them for Two Rivers Press. I can promise them I’ll make good use of their work.

Royal Berkshire Medical Museum

I was saddened today to hear of the death of Marshall Barr, a retired consultant anaesthetist at the Royal Berskhire Hospital in Reading. I met Marshall in 2007 when I was working with Martin Andrews on the redevelopment of the hospital’s medical museum.

Martin and I were both working part-time in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading at the time, where we shared an office in its collection centre, teaming up occasionally on freelance commissions too.

Every Monday for a year we would drive down to London Road, park up in front the Renal Unit, and walk down to the old laundry room in the hospital basement to meet with Marshall and the team of volunteers – all retired doctors and nurses – who staff the museum and care for its collection.

Marshall was warm and funny, always in a good mood, cheerful and charming. You couldn’t say no to him simply because he was such a genuinely nice chap. I remember he used to call me ‘gorgeous Nadja’ in his soft Australian accent whenever he wanted a favour.

He was also incredibly knowledgable of medical history and a gifted storyteller, bringing out object after object from the hospital archives and setting them into context for us. The themes and ideas around which we centred our design just seemed to emerge naturally from our discussions with him.

The museum is structured, both thematically and in terms of the physical space, around key areas of medicine and patient care, including ENT, ophthalmology, pharmacy, and nursing. Each area is represented by recreating a real-life environment – an operating theatre, a room on ward, a dentist’s surgery – combining large image backdrops with real objects.

The material is displayed displayed with a density and richness unusual in twenty-first century museum design. Think Pitt Rivers before it was reopened – Marshall’s doing of course. Each reconstruction scene is headed by a title, and text panels and object captions are colour-coded in a contemporary palette in order to clearly define each section.

Text panels, detailed object captions, wall lettering of selected quotes, timelines and chronologies provide different levels of information that cater for different audiences, and offer variety and choice in exploring the museum.

I learnt a lot from Marshall – a great many things about poking and prodding the human body that I never wanted to know, and many, many more things I always wanted to know but had never had explained to me so clearly, patiently and enthusiastically. It sounds corny but it’s true: the place won’t be the same without you Marshall, and I will miss you.

Birds, Blocks & Stamps

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On 22 July 2011, a little delegation of Two Riverlings – Sally Mortimore, Karen Mosman, John Froy and me – went to Norfolk to visit wildlife artist Robert Gillmor and his wife Sue at their home. Robert had been commissioned by the Post Office to produce a series of linocuts for four sets of Post & Go stamps featuring native birds of Britain, and, to our delight, had approached Two Rivers to see if we wanted to work with him to make this into a book.

I think it’s fair to say we were all a bit starstruck. It felt surreal to see the studio where it all happens, to find myself sitting in Robert’s conservatory, original artwork spread out on the dining table.

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Robert is a quiet man, courteous and soft-spoken, a warm and welcoming host who quickly put us at our ease, regaling us with wonderful anecdotes of bird encounters, of his time teaching at Reading, of his grandfather Allen Seaby whose love of birds and art he inherited in equal measure, of doing colour separations in his head while sitting in the bath. Then Sue made him pack it all away again to delight us with a home-cooked meal.

We set off back to Reading armed with three folders’ worth of Robert’s drawings, sketchbooks and notes, and Robert’s only set of the prints, which I took home to digitise them for the book.

Then I spent many terrified weeks worrying I might get burgled, hiding those invaluable prints under my bed (because burglars would never think to look there), and pulling them out every day to check they were all still there as much as to admire them.

Going through Robert’s original artwork to make a selection for the book was the most enjoyable and the hardest of tasks. Every now and then a postcard or a letter would arrive from Robert, an avid correspondent who refreshingly shuns email, in his even and beautiful hand, to give feedback or make suggestions on my latest designs.

Relieved as I was to return his things to him at the launch of Birds, Blocks & Stamps (which coincided with the opening of his an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Reading), I found I missed having them. I would have loved to see the Magpies on my living room wall.

Shortly after the launch, a thank you card arrived from Robert, congratulating me on ‘a good job’ – and if you know Robert, that is high praise indeed.

I might not have got to keep the Magpies, but I framed that card and put it up in my kitchen.