As the story goes, when John Lennon was writing “I Am the Walrus,” he received a letter from a student at his former primary school explaining that the English teacher there had given his pupils the task of decoding and analyzing Beatles lyrics. So, in true Lennon fashion, he resolved to make his new song as inscrutable as possible, including nonsensical lines about yellow custard and dead dog eyes adapted from a nursery rhyme he sang as a child. The song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, might seem like a similarly obtuse flight of fancy, but it was actually inspired by–and, in many cases, lifted wholesale from–a Victorian circus poster Lennon had picked up at an antiques shop some time earlier. Peter Dean, a modern-day Beatles fanatic, wanted a copy of that poster for his own wall, but all he could find were crappy reproductions. So, with the dedication of a true zealot, he set about re-creating it on his own.
That didn’t mean printing off a copy at the printer shop down the street. “Every effort has been made,” Dean explains, “to be true to the original poster. It is printed using the same methods that would have been used in 1843,” the year the original was produced. It wasn’t an easy journey. First, Dean scoured old Beatles photos like a detective looking for clues, trying to find glimpses of Lennon’s poster that would help ensure his facsimile was as accurate as possible. Then, he got in touch with a teacher he remembered from his days at the University of Reading–where he had dabbled in printing history, naturally–who recommended he enlist the help of the crack letterpress team at New North Press.
Dean was also pointed to an exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers which happened to be on view in London at the time. “I walked around,” he told me, “making a note of every piece of work I liked . . . and by the end, Andy English had more ticks next to his name than anyone else. When I made contact with him, he was so busy with other commissions that I had to wait a few months until he had some clear time. But I trusted my gut feeling and didn’t approach anyone else just to get it done sooner.” His patience paid off–the finished product is a gorgeous piece of work, worthy of its status as the unlikely object that inspired a pop-music masterpiece.
British filmmakers Nick Esdaile and Joe Fellows were on hand to document the odyssey along the way. But the story they captured isn’t just about a quirky piece of Beatles history–it’s about the history of printing, too, and the craftsmen today who still practice some of those time-honored techniques. Both elements were important to Dean. “I’ve always loved Victorian posters with their crazy, anything-goes mix of typefaces,” he explained, “so for me this was always the joining together of two things that I loved. My objective was to please fans of the Beatles and fans of letterpress printing and wood engraving in equal measure.”
As for his favorite album in the Fab Four’s catalog? “That’s almost impossible to answer,” he said. Though he did admit that Sgt. Pepper was in contention. “Perhaps unsurprisingly,” he said, “I have found myself listening to it a great deal lately.”