Printing linocuts for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - film

Friday, 26 May 2017

As well as my translation, the linocut prints I have produced for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight lie at the heart of my work. The film above shows you the actual printing process for each end every image in the book and below I tell you a little more about the research and production process.


We know from clues within the original manuscript that, despite the anonymity of the Gawain Poet, the work itself was written at the end of the fourteenth century, during the reign of Richard ii. We know this mainly because of how the poet describes the armour worn by Gawain himself but also from studying contemporary illustrated manuscripts and from references the poet makes to castles and architecture.

A scene from the Livre de Chasse of Gaston Phebus

So, when crafting my linocut illustrations for my translation of this masterpiece, I have referred specifically to illuminated manuscripts of a narrow period between 1380 and 1400. These manuscripts include everything from the rather crude illuminations of the Gawain manuscript itself (Cotton Nero A.x in the British Library) to the magnificent hunting scenes in the Livre de Chasse of Gaston Phebus, Comte de Foix.

Linocut illustrations

Whether the capital letters at the beginning of each Fitt or the images of scenes from the poem, all the illustrations in the book are produced by me using the linocut process. Each image takes many hours to cut from the lino before I take them to the Curwen Print Study Centre in Linton, Cambridgeshire, where I print each one.

Cutting a plate - detail of work on the plate shown being printed in the film

Each Fitt of the book contains approximately four illustrations. In Fitt 1, I've created prints showing festivities at the castle and what happens when the Green Knight arrives. In Fitt 2, I illustrate Gawain's journey, including his arrival at the mysterious Castle Hautdesert. In Fitt 3 my prints vary between Bertilak's hunting of various animals and Lady Bertilak's equally purposeful hunting of Gawain. Finally, in Fitt 4, I cover Gawain's meeting with his nemesis at the Green Chapel and his return to Camelot.

Printing on the Albion Press

All the main illustrations for my book are produced on what is called an Albion press. The Albion press is a magnificent instrument. Made of solid cast iron, it produces consistent imagery but must be used with care. As the day progresses I often find that repeated use causes it ever so gently to change character as the metal slowly expands with different temperature fluctuations during the day. So every print I put under the press has to be run through twice to ensure that all inked areas of a block are pressed uniformly.

Above - an inked up plate featuring Lord and Lady Bertilak and Morgan le Fay

Although the process is all manual, and can be quite messy, the Albion Press nonetheless produces really quite exceptional results. Having said that, get any part of your cutting wrong, or leave a few high spots in the cut away areas, and the press will find you out. Printmaking is an unforgiving business - the Albion Press is there to tell you when your own overweening pride (or surquedry, to quote the Gawain Poet) has become too much!

A short film of the Albion Press in action

The film accompanying this update, shot in the Curwen Print Study Centre in Linton, takes you through the process. In it you can see me print one of my favourite prints from the book - that of Lord and Lady Bertilak and Morgan le Fay. I am grateful to my dear friend, Kate Heiss (herself an exceptional printmaker and designer) for filming the process.

Thank you once again

As I write this update, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is currently standing at 61% funding pledged with 209 backers -  I am indebted to all of you who are supporting making this book become reality. If you have friends who love mediaeval writing, romances or Arthurian stories, please do let them know. As well as the rewards associated with different pledge levels, every pledge on the way to 100% of whatever size will be rewarded with the backer's name being printed in the back of the book. It is this last feature which I find particularly touching - none of this would have been possible without you.

Kind regards

Michael Smith






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Writing in progress
Publication date: TBC
115% funded
316 backers