The Stationers’ Company exhibition at Guildhall Library is now open. Claire Scott, the organiser, has found some beautiful pieces to display, including a selection of paper lace – apparently British paper-makers were renowned for the quality of their output. The exhibition is designed to be quite interactive, and younger visitors are encouraged to try their hand at printing with ink stamps.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve enjoyed working on our archive and library exhibition pieces – the best prompt to learning about collections is having to explain them to someone else. In archives, where the things we put in display are always interesting, but often not beautiful, we need to work a bit harder to persuade people to stop and take a look.
For this exhibition, Claire and the Company were keen to emphasise the breadth of the Stationers’ activities, and the Company’s many contributions to the development of London society. One of the most significant was the Stationers’ role in regulating the registration and training of apprentices for professions in printing and publishing. Apprenticeships not only enabled young people to learn the skills essential to their trade; they were also a key route to acquiring the Freedom of the City of London, which was a prerequisite for conducting business within the Square Mile.
We’re lending an Apprentice Register dated 1763-1786, which includes an entry recording the apprenticeship of artist and poet William Blake to the print-maker James Basire. Blake showed an early enthusiasm for drawing as a child, and an education in print-making offered him a way of harnessing this talent to make a living. Moreover, Basire was engraver to the Royal Society and to the Society of Antiquaries, so working for him gave Blake access to the heart of London intellectual life.
Stationers’ Company Apprentice Register 1763-1786. Archive ref: TSC/1/C/05/01/04
As was typical for apprentices at that time, Blake was apprenticed for seven years, and his father had to pay Basire an initial fee to take him on. We have no records of Blake becoming a Freeman of the Company, but clearly his training was a success, for he supported himself through print-making for the rest of his life. And the ideas he came across when preparing copperplates for Basire’s learned clients must have influenced the progressive discourse which permeates Blake’s own work.
If you’re interested in researching our apprenticeship records, do take a look at the Records of London's Livery Companies Online (ROLLCO). This fully searchable online database was put together by the Centre for Metropolitan History working in partnership with eleven London livery companies. It offers free access to the information held in those companies’ apprenticeship records from 1400 to 1900. The database is extremely user-friendly, and the advanced search tool offers all sorts of options for focusing your research.