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Note: The companies appear here in alphabetical order, not in the order in which they came into being.
André & Sleigh Ltd.
This firm was one of the earliest process firms in Britain, producing work of very high quality. Owned by Cassell’s, it was originally formed by Richard André and nephews. David Greenhill became manager after leaving Bemrose Dalziel in 1909, and, together with Charles F. Cook (also of Bemrose) and A.G. Symmons, developed the firm’s gravure printing facilities. When André & Sleigh’s work was exhibited at the Agricultural Hall, London, in 1914, Edward Hunter of Anglo Engraving was sufficiently impressed by its quality to negotiate with Cassell’s for the purchase of the firm. The sale took place later that year.
André, Sleigh & Anglo Ltd.
The company was created in August 1914 upon the acquisition of André & Sleigh and Bushey Colour Press by Edward Hunter’s Anglo Engraving Co. of London. Sir Arthur Spurgeon, of Cassell’s, was appointed chairman, and David Greenhill became a director and the company’s general manager. In 1916, André, Sleigh & Anglo acquired Ashworth, Meredith & Downer Ltd., a small blockmaking company in London. In 1919, André, Sleigh & Anglo acquired Menpes Printing and Engraving Co. and consolidated operations in the Menpes factory on Whippendell Road in Watford, under the banner of the Sun Engraving Company.
Anglo Engraving Co.
The company was founded in 1898 by Edward Hunter and J.A. (Archie) Hughes, both just out of their photoengraving apprenticeships. The firm was launched with a single employee, but grew quickly. In 1901, Anglo moved from its original Farringdon Avenue premises to larger offices in Raynes Park, where a trade letterpress printing department was soon set up. The partners would eventually be joined by two of Edward’s brothers, Hugh (around 1905) and Noel (in 1910). In 1906, Anglo purchased the Croydon firm of J.J. Waddington, acquiring its gravure facilities and expertise. In 1910, Anglo set up a small, separate firm in Barnes, Middlesex. This was the Mezzogravure Co., which concentrated on developing the new process of rotary photogravure printing. In 1914, Anglo acquired André & Sleigh Ltd. and Bushey Colour Press (both of Bushey, nr Watford) from Cassell’s, because Edward Hunter had been so impressed by the quality of the work they displayed at a printing exhibition in London. In the wake of these additions and acquisitions, Anglo was renamed André, Sleigh & Anglo Ltd.
Ashworth, Meredith & Downer Ltd.
Ashworth, Meredith & Downer started as a process engraving partnership in 1901 in Bushey. In 1902, Ashworth made the first colour process engraving, for the cover of Motor magazine. The firm moved to Watford in 1906, and thereafter to London. It was acquired by André, Sleigh & Anglo in 1916.
Bushey Colour Press
Formed by Cassell’s in 1910, the firm was managed by David Greenhill and, in 1914, was acquired (along with André & Sleigh Ltd.) by Anglo Engraving. The resulting company was called André, Sleigh & Anglo Ltd.
Geo.W. Jones Ltd.
This printing firm (which became a subsidiary of the department store Debenham & Freebody in 1904) was established by George Jones in London around 1890. Jones was involved in various aspects of production (including publishing) for a number of trade magazines dealing with the graphic arts, and his activities culminated in 1906 in the construction of a sizeable factory on Whippendell Road, Watford. At about that time, Jones was joined by artist Mortimer Menpes, who became art director of the company. In 1908, Jones left the company, whose name was then changed to Menpes Printing and Engraving Co.
Menpes Printing and Engraving Co.
Mortimer Menpes was an artist who became art director of Geo.W. Jones Ltd. (Printers), probably shortly before that firm moved from London to new premises on Whippendell Road in Watford. When, in 1908, George Jones resigned from the firm he had founded, Menpes seems to have acquired the business, which became known initially as the Menpes Press. Menpes undertook photoengraving and letterpress printing on quite a large scale. In 1918, the company’s assets were acquired by André, Sleigh & Anglo Ltd., which, a year later, consolidated its scattered production operations in the Whippendell Road plant after modifying and expanding it. The consolidated companies were renamed the Sun Engraving Company Ltd.
Mezzogravure Co. Ltd.
In 1910, Edward Hunter and J.A. (Archie) Hughes set up the Mezzogravure Co. in Barnes, Middlesex, and there they ran experiments on, and refined, the revolutionary process of rotary photogravure printing. It was the beginning of the photogravure work for which the Sun Engraving Co., and ultimately Sun Printers, would become famous. The work was done behind locked doors with a small staff sworn to secrecy. There was no unauthorized access. Possessed of a good knowledge of the process for hand-plate gravure, a small master screen, and a 15 in. calico printing machine made by John Wood of Ramsbottom, Hunter, Hughes, and works director John Threlfall (originally of Waddingtons, the Croydon photo engravers) were soon producing fine prints – chiefly calendar subjects and frontispieces for high-quality books – that won raves for their ‘rich velvet quality, the amazing depth of tone, and the inimitable shadow detail.’ The extraordinary work coming out of Barnes had a revolutionary effect on the rest of the trade, and the wider world began to take notice. During WWI the company was hired by the government to print a photogravure background on the nation’s food tickets, to make them hard to copy. The Mezzogravure Co. was absorbed into the Sun Engraving Co. around 1918.
Rembrandt Intaglio Printing Co.
The company was formed in 1895 by Storey Brothers of Lancaster (calico printers and sail and cloth makers) on the advice of artist, photographer, and engraver Karl Klic. Technical development was carried out under the direction of Klic and Samuel Fawcett, a former Storey Bros employee, and by 1900 Rembrandt was producing gravure prints commercially and in large quantities. The firm enjoyed a de facto monopoly for several years. Examples of the work produced at Rembrandt at the turn of the century are the exquisite Burlington Art Miniatures, made for The Fine Arts Publishing Co. Ltd. of London. The monopoly crumbled after WWI as other gravure printers began to compete, using newer methods and offering a wider range of products. Rembrandt Intaglio moved to London in 1926 in an attempt to reinvent itself, but was relatively unsuccessful in developing new techniques. The company was bought by the Sun Engraving Co. in 1932 and renamed Rembrandt Photogravure Ltd.
Rembrandt Photogravure Ltd.
In 1932 Sun Engraving Co. of Watford acquired the Storey Brothers’ interest in Rembrandt Intaglio Printing Co. when the Storeys made the decision to revert to producing strictly textiles. Sun Engraving moved the company from London to Watford, turned it into a sheet-fed gravure operation with modern equipment, and gave the firm its new name. Rembrandt Photogravure continued to operate as a separate entity in its new premises, producing high-quality art reproductions in colour, until 1961, when it was folded into Sun Printers Ltd., formerly the printing operation of the Sun Engraving Co.
Studio Sun was incorporated as a photographic studio in 1931 by Sun Engraving, and was located at 49a Blandford Street, London. As ‘photographers to the printed page,’ the studio specialised in fashion and art photography, and also produced some of the pictures in Sun Engraving’s promotional magazine Illustration. One of its later employees, W.J. Pilkington (a colour photography specialist and member of the Royal Photographic Society), became manager of Studio Sun, and purchased the firm from Sun Engraving in 1951.
Sun Engraving Co. Ltd.
In 1911, the name ‘Sun Engraving Co.’ became available. (Find out more about the name and the company’s visual identity by clicking on: the name.) Edward Hunter and his partners adopted this name for a new engraving firm they established at Milford House, just off the Strand, in London.
In 1919, while retaining Milford House as the company’s London head office, Sun Engraving absorbed André, Sleigh & Anglo, consolidated all production operations under one roof at Whippendell Road, Watford, in the premises that had formerly been known as Menpes Printing and Engraving Co., and began using the Sun Engraving name exclusively. The newly updated works were ‘christened’ in July 1919 with a sit-down luncheon for all staff, who by then numbered close to a thousand.
It was on Whippendell Road that Sun Engraving pioneered, in the early 1920s, the gravure printing of colour insets (black and one colour on one side of the sheet and black on the other) for use as magazine covers and inserts. In 1925, the company’s experiments proved that the chromium-coating of gravure cylinders would greatly reduce cylinder wear and vastly increase press productivity, allowing much longer press runs. In 1926, Sun Engraving made printing history by producing the first ever four-colour sheet on a rotary photogravure press. The Sun-designed press became the prototype of all subsequent four-colour rotary gravure presses.
Over the next decade, Sun Engraving developed a huge and ever-expanding rotary photogravure facility, dedicated to the production of magazines and catalogues. It has been estimated that by about 1935, the firm was producing 70% of Britain’s mass-market magazines.The company did pioneering work on titles such as Picture Post, for Hulton Press, breaking U.K. records with weekly production runs of over a million copies.
During those years, Sun Engraving enhanced its operations by launching Studio Sun, which would go on to become a pioneer in commercial colour photography, and by acquiring the Storey Brothers’ interest in Rembrandt Intaglio Printing Co., moving the operations from London to Watford, renaming the company Rembrandt Photogravure, and equipping it as a modern sheet-fed gravure printing operation, whose quality remained consistently high. By 1938, Sun Engraving had become the largest combined gravure and letterpress printing company in the world.
During World War II, much of the Allies’ propaganda material, four years of crucial colour-coded charts for emergency ship-to-ship signals for the Admiralty, and all the manuals of aerial reconnaissance photographs used for the invasion of Europe were produced by Sun Engraving. The firm was also heavily involved in the production of munitions and in activities connected with the production of the atomic bomb.
At the end of the war, in 1945, the owners sold their burgeoning printing operations for just over £1 million to the smaller family firm of Hazell, Watson & Viney. The new owners renamed their acquisition Sun Printers Ltd.
Sun Engraving, solely an engraving company once again, continued in business until 1968, when it was sold to C. & E. Layton Ltd. and ceased operations at the Whippendell Road site.
Sun Printers Ltd.
In 1945 Sun Engraving’s massive printing operations were split off from the engraving operations and sold to the family firm of Hazell, Watson & Viney of Aylesbury, which then formed the Hazell-Sun Group as a holding company for its various production facilities. The Whippendell Road facility was renamed Sun Printers Ltd. and entered into a period of ambitious expansion. Between 1945 and 1965, Sun Printers continued Sun Engraving’s tradition of innovation, pioneering the application of electronics to rotary gravure printing (including colour scanning to produce separations, and electronic register control on the press), and researching and developing new kinds of inks. In 1962, the firm obtained the contract to produce the first-ever weekly colour magazine for a British newspaper. The Sunday Times Colour Magazine proved a huge success. Employment at Sun Printers peaked in 1963 with more than 3,600 people on the payroll.
That same year, Hazell-Sun Group merged with Purnell Group to create a formidable new printing conglomerate they called the British Printing Corporation (BPC). For many reasons, Sun Printers failed to flourish within the new configuration. The next fifteen years saw a high turn-over of senior management. There was also constant conflict between management and the unions, during a period when unions were becoming increasingly powerful in the U.K. It was also a period of rapid change within the printing industry. Letterpress was foundering, and gravure was losing ground to the new web-offset printing technology that, for self-serving reasons, a majority of BPC’s directors had rejected for Sun Printers. By 1975, sales were falling, and over 92% of company income was being eaten up by wages and salaries. The Sun’s letterpress department was forced to close in 1979 for lack of work. More and more gravure business was moving to the less-expensive web-offset printers, both in the U.K. and on the Continent. The much-delayed introduction of phototypesetting at the Sun in 1980 spelled the end of the large composition department. The ink factory was closed in 1981. By this time, the company was in grave financial difficulties.
Robert Maxwell bought a controlling interest in BPC in 1981 and changed its name to the British Printing and Communications Corporation (BPCC). He soon acquired Odhams, Watford’s other large gravure printing house, which was also struggling to survive, and, in 1983, merged it with the Sun at the Whippendell Road site to create Odhams-Sun Printers Ltd. He funded an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful. research-and-development project to engrave gravure cylinders by means of laser beams (it was an idea ahead of its time), brought web offset to ‘the Sun’ (as everyone still called the company), and oversaw the paring down of departments and workforce in an attempt to return the company to a position that would be competitive with other U.K. and European printers. But the Sun continued to lose contracts and failed to win bids for new work. In 1984, Maxwell bought Mirror Group Newspapers and quietly refurbished the vacant Odhams facility as a printing plant for the Daily Mirror. In 1987, the year that BPCC became a subsidiary of Maxwell Communications Corporation (MCC), he began to poach the Sun’s web-offset operators to train on and run his new newspaper presses. Many Sun employees went to work for the Mirror, while others, who wished to stay with gravure, transferred to Purnell’s in Bristol.
Maxwell’s deputy and several other directors bought the BPCC Group from MCC in 1989. Most of the Whippendell Road site was abandoned after the deal went through, and a much-reduced printing operation was moved into the Sun’s refurbished former paper warehouse on Ascot Road. Web offset was the only printing method used on the new site, and employees of the once-mighty Sun now numbered around 200. The presses were kept busy, but the Sun (now called BPCC Sun Ltd.) seem to have lost its way and sense of self. Soon, it even lost its name, becoming BPCC Consumer Magazines (Watford) Ltd.
In 1996, BPCC (by then the British Printing Company Ltd.) merged with Watmoughs (Holdings) plc to form a new printing conglomerate called Polestar Group, of which the Sun became just a small satellite. Polestar removed the last printing presses from the Ascot Road site in 2004 and closed the site down.