Explore Russell Frost’s vintage letterpress gallery
We head to Leytonstone to meet an artisan typographer using historic printing methods to create witty and unique work.
Take a wander down Leytonstone's Church Lane a weekend and you may find Russell Frost’s hole- in-the-wall gallery, Hooksmith, open for business. Here, the former fly-fisher sells bold, characterful works created on a vintage letterpress. We catch up with the artist to find out how this old-school printing technique has changed his life.
So what exactly is letterpress printing?
It’s a way of collecting and reusing elements from the past to create something new, a tangible connection to history and a continuation of an incredibly old craft. To create my prints, I assemble wood and metal type into a forme, either on the bed of a press or in a steel rectangle called a chase.
How many different presses are there?
You might have seen the ones with the treadle and the big archetypal flywheel, or very early wooden hand presses. I mostly work with a cylinder press and hand platen press.
When did the practice start?
It goes back to the 15th century: letterpress was the first, most important example of disseminating knowledge around the world. My work reflects a slower time and a love of typography and the written word. By the 1960s it was pretty scarce as offset printing came along – and then, of course, digital.
How did you get into it?
In the noughties I was a landscape architect – and also a fly-fishing guide back home in New Zealand. Twelve years ago I was given a business card which had been letterpress printed, and a lightbulb just came on: I marvelled that there were still people who appreciate this sort of tactile, historic method. I enrolled on a night course at Central Saint Martin’s and taught myself the rest.
What do you enjoy most about it?
I like the ‘time-travelling’ quality, the searching high and low for type, and the fact I can be working with blocks that have been around for 150 years or more. My oldest type dates back to the 1830s.
How did you find your unique little shop?
I started selling in different craft fairs like the Crafty Fox, and then moved to Leytonstone in 2012. I was looking for a local spot, and this unit had been derelict for five years – it was previously a coal cellar, greengrocer, and florist. I will have been here eight years in November.
Why the name Hooksmith?
It just plays on Smith being the most common European name in New Zealand; where I grew up on the South Island. It also alludes to a time of specialised artisans and craftsmen, coupled with the famous Maori myth where Maui accidentally pulls up the North Island with a magic fishhook. And it also reflects my fly-fishing past.
Like the gallery name, your work is full of layers of meaning as well as humour.
Yeah, I can be funny and witty – and sometimes just silly. A picture block might inspire a particular type or phrase. And I love the rabbit-hole stories behind each print, a sort of insignificant significance.
What piece of work are you most proud of?
Hackneyed was chosen for this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. I've tried about four times, so it was nice to get selected and it’s been a real boost; I've had a few sales and I've been ploughing money into building my new garden studio. Hackneyed is just very vibrant, it smacks you in the face and is loaded with puns and references – in fact my grandfather was a Hackney carriage driver. Plus it’s onomatopoeic – “Hackneighhhh!” I bought the mid-19th-century plate from Kentucky, well-known for horses in America.
Finally, what do you love most about the area?
Epping Forest aside, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is a fantastic landscape. What they've done on the River Lea and the canals is a total asset. I love to cycle through to Here East and Hackney Wick. It's a real amazing thing to have on our doorstep.
Hooksmith, 54 Church Lane, Leytonstone E11 1HE For more information visit hooksmith.com/