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.