History of Lettering lettering typography

Cobden-Sanderson, Hammersmith Bridge and Jenson

Cobden-Sanderson’s place in printing folklore is secure. The barrister turned fine printer and founder of the Doves Press (in 1896, along with Emery Walker) had what might be described as a ‘breakdown’ in or about 1916 when he systematically chucked the whole of the press’s type into the River Thames from Hammersmith Bridge.

The type was named Doves Roman and was based on Jenson’s original, both shown here. Why did C-B do this? One theory is that when the partnership with Walker was dissolved (1909) it was agreed that C-B could continue using the Doves Roman during his life, after which it would pass to Walker. C-B decided to abort this agreement. He wrote: ‘To the bed of the River Thames, the River on whose banks I have printed all my printed books, I, the Doves Press, bequeath The Doves Press Fount of Type, – the punches, matrices and the type…And may the River, in its tides and flows, pass over them to and from the great sea for ever and ever, or until its tides and flow for ever cease…untouched of other use’. What a waste.

According to reports, during this exercise (which took several nights of hard labour) he almost struck a boatman on the head with the bags of type.

Regarding the Jenson original (c1470), William Morris sourced it for his Golden Type, although referencing a darker fount; whereas C-B was more faithful to the original. Later Bruce Rogers would go a step better with his Centaur.

Sources:  A Tally of Types, Morison, 1973; Encyclopaedia of Type Faces, Berry and Johnson, 1953; Roman Types, Brown University Library, 1960; and Great Books and Book Collectors, Thomas, 1975.

History of Lettering

The Punchcutter

When printing was first invented it was no accident that those skilled in engraving and metalwork came to pre-eminence. To create a metal type a punch first had to be made, requiring exactness and fine dexterity. Each letter was cut, in reverse, into a metal bar, which was then struck into copper from which the finished type was cast in lead alloy.

Until a machine was developed to do this job, the skill of the punch-cutter was highly sought by typophiles in the late 19th and early 20th century. Edward Philip Prince was an Englishman who cut most of the punches for the private press movement, Morris’s Kelmscott, Ricketts’ Vale Press and Walker’s Doves Press, for instance. He was also commissioned by Updike in the US and Kessler in Germany.

To give some idea of how long it would take to produce a complete upper and lower case alphabet, in one size, it took Prince a day to cut one punch. Few though survive, for once the face was done the punches were thrown away, or if thought to be needed again ‘sealed in earthenware pots’. He was well paid, however: earning up to three times the then national wage.

Somewhere, years ago, I picked up a book about Prince (from which the illustrations and quotes are taken) – privately printed in an edition of 1000 by FC Avis. (His address was given as London, SE4, which is where I then lived.) Anyhow, Prince is described as a modest man, a ‘superlative craftsman’ and ‘possessed of that gentleness of spirit which becomes greatness in a man’.

Thoughts on lettering

J.H. Mason: scholar-printer

The name may not be familiar to many, but JH Mason was highly regarded by typographers throughout the early to mid 2oth century. He was one of those individuals, rare nowadays, who came from an obscure and impoverished background to make a long-lasting mark in his chosen profession or trade. Mason was self-educated, spoke many languages (including Oriental) and was employed as compositor by Cobden-Sanderson and the equally as legendary Count Harry Kessler of the Cranach Press. For many years Mason worked at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, where this illustration was produced under his guidance. (I like the sentiment, hence the choice. It is taken from The Memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini.)

For more of this man see JH Mason by LT Owens, Muller, 1976.