Thoughts on lettering

Will Lethaby, the Central School of Arts and Crafts (London), Ed Johnston and Germany


‘No good form is ever made by consciously designing it.’ So said William Lethaby (1857-1931). By which he meant that things should be designed by the craftsman who made them. This man, who founded London’s Central School (1896) and was a mate of William Morris among many others, was also one of the first, what we would call, holistic environmentalists. ‘Right building is a part of nature. A proper house and church, before man turned round as the enemy of the rest of nature, were but bigger chambers in another kind of honeycomb…The care of the Earth is the greatest of all the arts…Is this to be a world of wrecked machines, crashed aeroplanes and stranded warships, rusty iron everywhere?’

Lethaby had a major influence on Johnston, who he met in April 1898. No wonder the latter (then 26) found such inspiration in a man who thought handwriting ‘the most universal of the arts’ and wrote: ‘We might reform the world if we began with our own handwriting…the form of a letter cannot be properly “drawn” or “designed”; it must be written’.

Significantly it wasn’t Britain that benefited from this philosophy. Rather it was Germany. By the end of the nineteenth century students from that country were coming to Central to learn calligraphy, as well as investigating architecture and design. The Germans took up Lethaby’s ideas and ran with it, leading to the creation of the Deutsche Werkbund in 1907. By contrast the British printing industry turned away.


Rubens, G. 1976. WR Lethaby and the revival of printing in The Penrose Annual. London, Northwood Publications.

Johnston, P. n.d. Edward Johnston and WR Lethaby in Lessons in Formal Writing (1986). London. Lund Humphries.

Newdigate, B.H. 1922. Scribes and Illuminators in Book Production Notes (1986). Oxshott. Tabard Private Press.


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.


The Albion Press, with particular reference to New Zealand

Hello New Zealand. This article is prompted by a piece written by Reynolds Stone, an eminent wood engraver, in the Journal of the Printing Historical Society, 1966, 2, 58-73, too which I either subscribed or obtained a back copy. (Actually the latter, as I did once have an Albion and was curious as to antecedents.) 

Stone starts his piece with reference to Cockerell and the Kelmscott Press (which I have alluded to in this blog), and states that in the 1890s Albions “were still two a penny…They were taken for granted; but it is now possible to see them as a product peculiar to the nineteenth century. Like a sailing ship of the same period they were the last flowering of a traditional method brought to something near perfection: efficient and beautiful objects, and both dependent on skilled and cheap labour.” How often does that arise – ‘cheap labour’? Think of Apple and iPads and China.

The reference to my comrades in NZ is the fact that when this article was written, according to Stone, an Albion was still in daily use at the National Printing Co. of Auckland, in fact a 1825 model used for proofing. If those readers of this live in or near Auckland could do a bit of sniffing and find this press much gratitude will ensue (and no doubt another piece in the blog).

Typographic ephemera

Watermarks – the briefest of introductions

As I browsed William Morris’s Printing Press (see here for the blog), I became aware of the watermark in the paper. It’s nothing too special, and Abbey Mills Greenfield is well known, coming from Holywell, Flintshire, the mill closing in 1982 (the Morris book is dated 1983). [For more information see,]

There’s a lot to write about the history of watermarks, so this can serve to whet your appetites…

History of Lettering printing

William Morris and his printing presses

The source of this article is a booklet called William Morris’s Printing Press, published by the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House in 1983. A limited edition, my copy is 142 of 300 (with a number printed on handmade paper and signed). The illustrations are by Rosalind Bliss. The booklet was printed on an Albion owned by Morris. In the text Anthony Eyre writes that of three presses run by Morris: one went to America; the second was bought by Ananda Coomaraswamy in 1907, used until 1910 and then made its way to Stratford for the Shakespeare Head Press, and put to use especially in the production by AH Bullen of the Stratford Town Shakespeare (a copy of which I have, and may write about at a later date). This press later went to Oxford before returning to Kelmscott. As for the third press? Eyre reports ‘whereabouts unknown’.

The typeface used is Monotype Van Dijck, set by hand.


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’.

History of Lettering lettering Thoughts on lettering typography

William Morris, Bernard Newdigate and Bodoni

Kelmscott Press - The Nature of Gothic by John...
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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…


calligraphy Elements of Lettering History of Lettering lettering

Something for the weekend – William Morris

This is a quotation from William Morris as drawn by Jean Larcher in 1993. [Courtesy of Letter Exchange Magazine, issue number 6.] Please see the artists website for further examples