Rowley Atterbury and the Westerham Press 1920-2011

This display celebrates his life and work and is based on the University's extensive archive of the Westerham Press, which has recently been catalogued.

Rowley Atterbury, a man of energy and enthusiasm and perhaps best known as the founder of the Westerham Press, was also an important figure in the modern printing industry. Passionate about design and printing, he was closely associated with the advance of colour printing and in the development of the application of computers to typesetting.

Rowley was born in England but was to some extent brought up by his grandparents and his aunts, one of whom was the writer Noel Streatfeild, to whom he remained close. During his early life Rowley and his parents lived abroad and following an unhappy time at school, which he left in 1936, he joined the RAF where he served in various capacities, but notably as an arnourer-fitter. His detailed knowledge resulted in his compiling a training manual, the start of his interest in book design and publishing. At the end of the war he joined the publishers Faber & Faber. Working there with Berthold Wolpe consolidated his enthusiasm for typographic design and printing, and led directly to his setting up the Westerham Press in 1950, initially in the garage of the family home, and later in rented premises nearby.

Early commissions for the small letterpress works came from various friends, colleagues and business associates, and early clients included the City Music Society and the Mermaid Theatre, along with work for publishers, the British Council and the Arts Council. The Westerham Press soon became known for high quality illustrated books and exhibition catalogues. In 1959 the need for more space drove Rowley to open a second works on Biggin Hill airfield to concentrate on colour printing and offset lithography. The business continued to grow and, thanks to the company becoming part of Max Rayne's London Merchant Securities group, it was able to build new state of the art printing works in Westerham in the early 1960s, with all the activites brought under one roof.

Rowley's genuine love of fine printing and good crafstmanship was reflected in his workforce. He employed the best craftsmen and technicians and enjoyed working with eminent artists, designers and photographers. Among those he worked with were Barnett Freedman, Edward Ardizzone, Charles Mozley, David Gentleman, Robert Harling, Hans Schmoller, Jan Tschihold and Lord Snowden. In a talk given to the Wynken de Worde Society at Stationers' Hall on 16 May 1974, Rowley quoted Oliver Simon, one of his mentors, in a statement reflective of the way he ran his business: "Before there can be any influence, the printer has got to be craft based, and numbering amongst its staff, people who actually enjoy the exercise of their skills".

In the early 1960s Rowley saw that data processing would have a big impact on the printing industry and in the mid 1960s he set up a Westerham Press subsidiary called Rocappi (Research on Computer Applications to the Printing and Publishing Industries). Working with Colin Barber and other mathematicians and specialists, Rocappi pioneered the first practical commercial applications of computer typesetting to the printing industry, with the firm principle that modern technology need not affect or diminish traditional standards of design. Early computer-typeset work included a novel by Margaret Drabble, an exhibition catalogue for the Goldsmiths' Company and the Bible. Sadly Rocappi did not survive but its achievements paved the way for the modern desk-top publishing revolution. However, Rowley's Westerham Press, once again a private company, went from strength to strength and continued to explore the boundaries of modern printing technology. The range of work included high quality illustrated books and catalogues supported by an expanding portfolio of city and commercial printing for clients worldwide. The 1970s saw the setting up of a publishing arm, the Hurtwood Press, whose books included important works by Robert Harling and John Piper.

In the early 1980s, financial pressures and union problems combined to undermine the company and in 1984 Westerham Press was bought by a large print and media group. However, Rowley having retained the letterpress facilities and publishing business, continued to enjoy the world of printing and design with his son Francis well into the 1990s. The business continues today as the Hurtwood Press.

Rowley Atterbury was a hugely enthusiastic member of the printing industry, at a time when a number of companies like Westerham Press were maintaining Britain's international reputation as the home of fine printing. His book, The Contributors, drew attention to those who, like himself, had helped to build and maintain this reputation. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and in 1984 he was awarded their Bicentenary Medal , given to people, other than industrial designers, who had had an "exceptional influence" on design. A report at the time stated that Rowley "pioneered technology in computer typesetting and colour printing" and earned an "international reputation for three decades of producing works of distinction".

Back to Exhibitions

Page navigation


Search Form

A-Z lists