May 16, 2022

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Printing virtuoso Robert Reid created paper masterpieces

Canadian book designer Robert Reid produced hand-printed small press poetry books and large-run trade books, including some of the most valuable and beautiful books ever produced in Canada.Yukiko Onley

Printing was for Robert Reid a lifelong addiction that began when he was nine years old and received a toy Swiftset printing press with moveable rubber type for Christmas. This he used to make a family newspaper with dramatic headlines, each page no bigger than a postcard. It sparked a love of print that lasted until his death in Vancouver on Jan. 21 at the age of 94.

He could recognize any typeface – Garamond Roman, Ultra Bodoni, Caslon, Baskerville – as if it was the face of a longtime friend. He considered books works of art that gave delight to hold and look at. He named his four sons Michael, Anthony, Nicholas and Quincy because, according to Quincy Reid, he said those names would yield elegant italic initials.

He expressed his love of the printed word and image across the entire range of what is possible in publishing. Some of the most valuable and beautiful books ever produced in Canada came from his presses in Vancouver and Montreal, and are now in the rare book libraries of the University of British Columbia, McGill University, University of Toronto and other Canadian institutions of higher learning. During his lifetime, printing technology changed; letterpress and gravure gave way to offset lithography and computers transformed everything. But Mr. Reid never lost his commitment to craft, and the belief that a book should have a personality.

His students at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art and Design) where he taught typography and graphic design in the 1950s, went on to modernize the look of Canadian advertising, newspapers and magazines.

The late Keith Branscombe was perhaps his star student. Mr. Branscombe went on to the Royal College of Art in London, was art director of Chatelaine and City and Country Home magazine, design consultant for Thomson Newspapers and assistant managing editor of graphics at the Toronto Star, where he redesigned the paper in 1993.

“Bob was introducing us to the best typography in the world,” recalled another former student, Charles Mayrs, who became art director of Dome Advertising in Vancouver. “If he had a fine piece of rag paper, he would sort of stroke it and run his fingers along the deckle edge. He was a touchy feely kind of guy. He taught us linocuts, woodcuts, rubber cement drawing. He was excited about everything. “

An example of work done by Robert Reid is this title page for The Lawrence Lande Collection of Canadiana in the Redpath Library of McGill University: A Bibliography.Courtesy of Chester Gryski

Robert Russel Reid was the youngest of five children, born Oct. 26, 1927, in Medicine Hat to Daniel and Orah Genalda (née Haag) Reid. His father was a tobacco and candy wholesaler, but sold his share of the business and resettled the family in Abbotsford, B.C. Bob was 13 in 1940 when his father died suddenly and his mother moved the family to Vancouver. His elder sister Marian bought him a grown-up hand-cranked letterpress that became the centrepiece of his basement print studio in the family’s new home

At the library of UBC, where he enrolled in commerce a few years later, he noticed an open book in a glass case, the start of a chapter enlivened with a red capital letter. Much later he recalled in his self-published memoirs that it gave him a powerful desire to print his own book.

What he selected to reprint on the advice of Dr. Kaye Lamb, the university librarian, was one of the earliest books published in British Columbia: The Fraser Mines Vindicated, by the opportunist Alfred Waddington, first published in 1858. Waddington was trying to lure the greedy and the gullible to B.C.’s gold rush.

It took Mr. Reid two years to copy out and typeset the 100-page book on a platen press, creating 110 numbered copies priced at $10 apiece. When he took the books to a Los Angeles print show, U.S. collectors snapped them up. Today they might sell for $500.

In 1951, after graduating from UBC, he moved his handpress from his mother’s basement to a shop on Pender Street and founded Graphos Press, designing and printing invitations, greeting cards and various announcements for architects, artists and art galleries. He also printed a student literary magazine called PM, and later designed Canadian Literature, the periodical founded by George Woodcock. He married Felicity Pope, who had been PM magazine’s managing editor and shared his interest in typography and bookbinding.

They became part of a circle of gifted young artists in Vancouver that included Takao Tanabe, Bill Reid, Harry and Jessie Webb and the Czech émigré George Kuthan.

He sold Graphos Press in 1955 and started teaching at Vancouver School of Art. In 1962 he won a Canada Council grant to spend a year abroad to visit printing houses, paper makers and type foundries, and the whole family, now including four sons, sailed for Europe. There the marriage broke apart when Felicity refused to return to Canada. She moved to Ibiza, Spain, with the children.

Mr. Reid settled in Montreal in 1963 to work for McGill University (now McGill-Queen’s) Press, launched the previous year by Robin Farr. His job was to set a style for the new press. He loved the vitality of the city and over the next dozen years, did some of his best work in book design. In the basement of the Redpath Library, he also ran the Redpath Press, for special projects and limited editions.

His masterwork was the bibliography of the Lande Collection of Canadiana, 2,328 historical documents collected by Lawrence Lande, a notary, poet, composer and author. The book is embellished with fold-out maps, reduced-size facsimiles of legal documents, royal proclamations and drafts of government bills, all printed on paper imported from Spain, England and Italy.

“It’s the greatest piece of fine printing in scope and execution in Canadian history,” said the printer Rollin Milroy, a friend of Mr. Reid. “It shows Bob’s ambition and vision.” The cost overruns nearly got him fired.

In 1974, Mr. Reid moved to New York where he met his great love, Terry Berger, then working on children’s books at Harcourt Brace.

A page from Kuthan’s Menagerie was designed by Reid, with artwork by George Kuthan.Courtesy of Chester Gryski

They were soon living together in Manhattan (later in New Haven, Conn.), supporting themselves as book packagers. “We did a book, Great American Scenic Railroads, because Bob loved trains, and sold it to a publisher,” she recalled. “He did the research and I, the writing.”

A popular series of guides to country inns throughout the United States, for Holt, Rinehart & Winston along with a series on bed and breakfast places for Prentice Hall kept them going for years. They travelled widely and spent weekends checking out paper shows, collecting ephemera. They enjoyed all the same things.

“I am Jewish and he was Scottish. I have no idea how we came together from such different worlds,” Ms. Berger said in a phone interview.

Unable to afford American health care, Mr. Reid moved back to Vancouver when he was 70, leaving his beloved Terry, who did not wish to be so far from her children and grandchildren. But the relationship continued.

Mr. Reid’s son Anthony gave him a Mac computer and Mr. Branscombe, his former student, flew out from Toronto to show him how to download a wide range of old and new typefaces. He could thus continue for another two decades to design posters, broadsides, birthday cards and illustrated limited edition books on his favourite subjects such as movie stars, jazz musicians and old-time film directors. He made many friends in Vancouver among a new generation of letterpress enthusiasts and was always ready to help with their projects.

Mr. Reid lived in a small apartment in Vancouver, with toy trains running on tracks all around it. Lacking savings, he found a generous patron in the book collector and philanthropist Yosef Wosk. In 2007, Mr. Wosk endowed the Robert R. Reid Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Book Arts in Canada, given annually by the Alcuin Society, an organization of book professionals and collectors. Robert Reid was the award’s first recipient.

Exhibitions of his work were held at McGill in 2017 and U of T’s Massey College in the spring of 2018 in honour of Mr. Reid’s 90th birthday.

Late last year, he was admitted to St. Paul’s Hospital with COVID-19; he had not been vaccinated. His recovery was slow and incomplete and he returned home to have a medically assisted death.

He leaves his companion, Ms. Berger; his only surviving son, Quincy, who lives in Costa Rica; several grandchildren; and a sister, Hazel Reid Peterson.

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