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History of Lettering

Signore Giambattista Bodoni, Justus Erich Walbaum and Dr Giovanni Mardersteig

The relationship between the first and last named is that of an enthusiast who gained prominence through fine printing using the original matrices of the Italian type founder – known as ‘The King of typographers and the Typographer of Kings’ (for good reason: he was printer to Carlos III of Spain and received pensions from, among others, Napoleon. [Updike has a beautiful footnote in Printing Types (2nd ed), p168 that’s too long to quote here but for those with a copy near to hand deserves a read and a chuckle.] As for the grumpy German (my emotive), well he was active the same time as Bodoni and introduced a similar ‘Modern’ face with the thin serifs etc.

Mardersteig (born a Swiss) came across the Walbaum types in Leipzig and said; ‘My discovery that Walbaum originally stemmed from Bodoni…strengthened my conviction that it would be best to reach back to Bodoni and choose his type for my future press. A good recutting at that time did not exist’ (The Officina Bodoni, 1978, British Library, p16).

Life has moved on since then, with faces cut and recut like a hairdresser remodelling a style that needs to be tinkered with to fit in with modern taste. Stan Morison had a go back in the 1930s with Bodoni, producing what Updike called a ‘composite’ (p235).

The illustration of the face shown here is from the Bauer type foundry, which, according to Jan Tschichold (Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering, English language edition, 1985, p232) ‘…is the best and most faithful interpretation of Bodoni available’. These are contrasted with those from Monotype, of both ‘Bodoni’ and ‘Walbaum’.

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History of Lettering lettering Thoughts on lettering typography

William Morris, Bernard Newdigate and Bodoni

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William Morris, the temperamental late Victorian gentleman ‘printer’, once wrote of the Bodoni typeface that it possessed a :  ‘sweltering hideousness’. It was, he continued,  ‘the most illegible type that was ever cut…owing to the clumsy thickening and vulgar thinning of the line.’

But then Morris had no time for ‘modern’ typography, being wedded in the romance, as he saw it, of Medievalism.

Bernard Newdigate, next mentioned in the title, wrote articles for a long defunct magazine, partly collated in Book Production Notes, articles contributed to The London Mercury, 1920-1925, published in 1986 by The Tabard Private Press.

Mr Newdigate, or Bernard shall we call him with the familiarity of the late 2oth/early 21st centuries, is commonly described as a scholar-printer, a title now but extinguished in our headlong dash into the digital.

It is this book that I find another description of Bodoni’s faces, this time written by another eminence of early 20th century revivalism, Emery Walker, who writes, echoing Morris, ‘letters that are positively ugly, and … are dazzling to the eye owing to the clumsy thickening and thinning of the lines’.

How times change. Would anyone now think of using a Morris face?

To be continued…