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VM inspiration: John Lewis Heritage Centre

The John Lewis Heritage Centre in Cookham, west of London, is worth a visit for all VM professionals and creatives hunting the perfect print.

Besides being the business archive of John Lewis and Waitrose, with a small display of merchandise and artifacts from the past, it is also home to the archive of Stead McAlpin. Founded in the 1790s, Stead McAlpin was a fabric and wallpaper printer which supplied John Lewis for many years. It used fruitwood blocks and printed on long tables, in much the same way the more famous Merton Abbey works did for Art & Crafts founder William Morris.

Stead McAlpin, based outside Carlisle, also made bespoke prints for Heals, Liberty, Sanderson, Warners, and Bakers amongst others.

John Lewis Partnership acquired Stead McAlpin, and its archive, in 1965. The business was eventually resold in 2011, although the entire archive of designs and a selection of rollers and wooden blocks remains at the John Lewis Heritage Centre.

Stead McAlpin specialised in wooden block prints. These were made by carving sycamore boards, one for each colourway, mindful that the sequence of printing with would allow additional colours as the calico was over-printed. For example: printing red over blue would also offer purple sections.

Large areas of the block were covered in felt to give a smooth application of ink. This was critical to ensure an even, saleable result, and the printer’s top salary was recognition of the skill this required. The cutter, who calculated the number of blocks required to create the finished design and carved the boards, earned the second-highest salary.

The finer areas were either carved in wood or, more finely still, ‘two tiered.’ That is when the calico was part-printed, allowed to dry, and removed from the printing table to be polished and finished. It was then returned to the table and inked copper-rollers engraved with the remainder of the pattern, one for each colour, again allowing for overlap, were applied to the cloth.

This extra process was expensive but allowed for pen-fine lines and hatched designs. Curator Gavin Henderson has a series of recently-reused examples, that might have been rescaled and re-coloured and as a result, look fresh and new.

The centre is open to the public on Saturdays between 10am and 4pm, and a license permitting use of a design for two years can be purchased for £500.00. Private visits can be arranged by appointment.