History of Lettering Thoughts on lettering

‘Metalfounders who cast the slugs for Baskerville’s elegant type died paralysed with lead poisoning…’

So writes Robert Hughes [The Fatal Shore, 1988, Pan Books, p.21].* This got me thinking about the foundry process since, without the metal there is no type, and without type nothing else is possible. I turned to my books and scanned those lovely, ‘sanitised’ early prints of printing workshops.

Engraving by Abraham von Werdt (flourished 1640-80), taken from Printing To-day by John C Tarr. OUP, 1945, p.23.

They look so orderly, so clean, so hygienic. Then I turn again to Joseph Moxon and his Mechanick Exercises… [Dover Publications, NY, 1978, edited by Davis, H & Carter, H] which has sections Of setting up the Furnace and  Of making Metal [pp162-167].

Moxon describes in elaborate detail how the foundry is made and the type of ingredients used: ‘…for every three Pound of Iron, about five and twenty pounds of Lead‘. Moxon concludes: ‘Now (according to Custom) is Half a Pint of Sack mingled with Sallad Oil, provided for each Workman to Drink; intended for an Antidote against the Poisonous Fumes of the Antimony, and to restore the Spirits that so Violent a Fire and Hard Labour have exhausted’. There you are.

La grant danse macabre dated 1499 and printed in Lyon, purporting to be the earliest image of a printing workshop

It was an ugly job, and may well explain why those cadavers are inserted in the 1499 image of a printers office.

  • But there is no source given by Hughes to this statement. Does anyone know where he may have gleaned this information?
‘A caster at the furnace using a hand mould’. From Printing and the Mind of Man, 1963, being a catalogue of the Exhibition at the BM and Earls Court. This may be Sidney Squires of the OUP, who is shown in Moxon, p.406.
From back cover of the Printing and the Mind of Man catalogue, 1963.

Easter Typographic Message (from an atheist)

This being Easter it is appropriate to draw in a typographic gem that has been long sitting on the top shelf of my small library. These images are taken from the prospectus to a Bible that the Oxford University Press announced in or about 1935.

I cannot remember where I picked up this typographic gem (but guess it was the UK, and not Australia) but gem it is. The page size for reference is 29.5cm (or 11.5 inches) by 46cm (18.25 inches) and the stock, as can be seen from the images, is hand-made. (Click here for a blog on watermarking.)

The prospectus contains just eight sheets, enclosed in a stiff pale blue folder. Not shown here is the Announcement. This states “Not since Baskerville printed his great Bible of 1763 has a practical folio volume been produced that challenged comparison with the early Bibles on the score of printing…To this end Mr. Bruce Rogers has undertaken, in collaboration with the University Printer, to produce at the Oxford University Press a Lectern Bible…Plans for this edition were begun in 1929. They involved experiments with many kinds and sizes of type; choice finally being made of a modification of the 22-point Centaur type, which had lately been produced by Monotype from Mr. Rogers’s own designs.

To adapt it to a smaller body and closer setting nearly all of the lower-case characters were re-cut, with the addition of suitable figures, initials, and other special sorts…”  The cost? “Of the hand-made paper edition 200 copies only will be printed…fifty guineas net.”


Mr William Caslon is digitised

“Caslon,” says Colin Banks, in this 1998 article published in u&lc, “does have a sort of enduring English charm, and we think of it here as our very own.”

Interesting then that it was much used in the US in the 18th century and was the typeface of choice for the Declaration of Independence.

The u&lc piece featured a re-cutting of the type by Justin Howes.

(If anyone recognises the face of the individual on the front and rear cover I’d appreciate a mail.)

[For blog on the merit of Baskerville versus Caslon click here.]

History of Lettering

‘…the soft curves of Caslon…the sterner qualities of Baskerville…’

So wrote Paul Johnston in his Biblio-Typographica (1930), a copy of which I picked up last week from my favourite secondhand bookshop.

He goes on: “The punches of the latter [Baskerville] went to France where they were accepted with more respect…Baskerville’s type also became the basis of a new form of letter design called Modern, which was bought to its best development by Didot and Bodini. And where the Baskerville type had been frowned upon in England, its derivatives were received with enthusiasm a few years later. They superseded Caslon’s letters and the French distortions and exaggerations of their design were imitated in England. Thus Baskerville’s type, by a roundabout way, and quite without their maker’s intention, brought English printing to the lowest state it had ever known; the period of heavy-weight modern types” (p.185).

Quite a paragraph. And for what it counts I have always detested the Caslon upper case A with its pretentious top. [Illustrations from my copy of an undated Monotype catalogue.}

History of Lettering Thoughts on lettering

The joy of having a (small) typography library to hand…and more on Spectrum

I’ve been collecting books since I was a teenager – books of all sorts, though literature and printing predominate. I was fortunate when I was a kid (13 and on) to have two wonderful secondhand bookshops nearby (now both gone) where I lived in south London.

I’d visit them once a week, and I can still remember my excitement at finding the Shakespeare Head copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, as printed in Stratford-upon-Avon. They cost me what was then a fortune – maybe 50 pounds – and I packed them carefully in a cardboard box, lashed it to the carrier on the back of my bike, and, rather unsteadily, and at times having to get off and push (there were several hills between the shop and home) rode back. 

That Shakespeare is one of my pride and joys. As are the various Penrose Annual’s I’ve managed to acquire. Not enough, of course, but sufficient. OK, I know these days one can use ABE and source a copy of a book at the flick of a mouse. But where’s the pleasure in that? That’s why I was delighted a couple of weeks back to stumble upon the Civic and Memorial Lettering volume by Percy Smith. And see where that has led.

Anyhow, this lunchtime, as I was waiting for something to heat up on the stove, I happened to pull down from the ‘library shelves’ the Penrose Annual for 1955. In it I stumbled across this article written by Will Carter on Monotype Spectrum, quite forgetting I had written about Spectrum last November, following an article in the 1954 edition. Carter was a very fine letter carver and printer, and ran the Rampant Lions Press in Cambridge for several decades. [See below for more on the press.]

Carter notes that the capital A of Jan van Krimpen’s design ‘has the cross stroke too high, leaving a diminutive counter that will fill with ink and fluff sooner than any other letter’ [this in the days when letterpress was in its prime] and making it optically too high-waisted a letter’.

He’s similarly critical of the W: ‘Here, it would seem, is a strong case for avoiding the crossed stroke, which is always a little fussy and in a narrow form particularly so.’ 

He goes on to give a wonderfully lucid critique of W in general. ‘Our preoccupation with parallel lines has blinded us to the true balance of white space which should not, as is commonly thought, consist of three triangles of equal area. An imperceptible opening of the two feet and closing of the upper arms will accomplish a proper balance, coupled with the disposal of the middle serif (vide Baskerville) which is an anachronistic reminder that the letter was originally a double V’.

[Re the Rampant Lions: an article in Matrix 27 for 2007, which I’ve also recently acquired – direct from the Whittington Press – notes the press closed in 2006 having been going since 1924.]

History of Lettering lettering lettering, typography, alphabets, stonework Thoughts on lettering typography

John Baskerville, typographer and publisher

For reasons unknown I failed to include in the typography poll Baskerville. Tis is strange since I used the face in a book I printed in 1990 under the Beeches Press imprint and shown here. (The initial is Perpetua.) The book was set using Monotype Baskerville and printed on 150gms Somerset Satin waterleaf, neutral pH. The title of the book for those interested is Adventures of Covent Garden by George Farquhar (1677-1707).

But I also want to show you the original Baskerville, from a book printed in 1766. This is genuine Baskerville. I only wish you could smell the paper!