INTRODUCTION        INK        MILTON        INFLUENCE       
TYPE        PAPER       BIBLE        REPATRIATION       

“Letters are like people. They come in all sizes and shapes, with different personalities and charms and foibles, but all with the same basic reason and purpose for existence.”
Dair qtd in Typography of Type in Design

John Baskerville
(January 28, 1706 – January 8, 1775)

      This quotation exemplifies the eighteenth-century man John Baskerville, an English type-founder and printer who was born January 28, 1706 in Wolverley, Worcestershire, England (d. January 8, 1775, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England). Unappreciated and scorned in his time, Baskerville was an observer with a keen desire for perfection that drove him to be an innovator. He broke many rules to create what he believed was the most beautiful printing. He exercised control over the entire process of his printing endeavours, transforming printing technology and paper to best show his type founts.* Although his contemporaries criticized and alienated him, Baskerville’s break from accepted traditional practices influenced the history of printing and book design.
      Working as a servant, his fine penmanship caught the eye of his employer. The young Baskerville was set to teach parish poor the art of writing (Allen 164). When the post of writing-master at King Edward’s School became vacant, Baskerville took the position and taught writing (Benton 4).
      Like most young men, John Baskerville had a desire to be wealthy. Birmingham was known for the craft of japanning** (Pardoe 9). With his eye for flourish, a desire for wealth, and a keen business sense, he quickly learned the japanning trade (Allen 164). He developed a thriving, prosperous business, moving in 1745 to a property he named Easy Hill on the outskirts of Birmingham (Benton 3; Hutton 193). To many, John Baskerville’s character was flawed; there were two main strikes against him, even before he started to tinker with traditional printing practices – he had a lifelong public aversion to Christianity and he was an adulterer (Benton 9; Pardoe 14). He was an eccentric man, a free thinker, who did things his own way, often flouting convention.
      In 1750, already a successful businessman, Baskerville applied his skill at lettering to typography and printing (Pardoe 14), as he was extremely unhappy with the state of printing in England (Benton 16; Bigmore and Wyman 36). He established a type foundry, printing shop, and paper mill on his Easy Hill property (Chappell 146).
      Like any true artist, there was no single detail of printing that Baskerville did not analyze. He had a fanatical attention to detail. As stated in Benton, Baskerville quickly realized that “much of the beauty of type depends upon the printer, and therefore Baskerville soon came to see that he must print with the types which he cut” (19). Thus he realized that to be successful in printing, he would have to consider four points: 1) the types themselves, 2) the press, 3) the materials – paper and ink, and 4) the process itself – the method of printing (Benton 20; Chappell 147).

The Type
      He had no formal training in print design or printing itself and this left him unfettered to experiment until he reached what he believed to be perfection in printing (Fabian). During his years of experimentation, Baskerville was fortunate to have employed an artist as a punch cutter, John Handy (Benton 22).
      Baskerville was not satisfied with the typefaces of his predecessors (“Famous Names in Typography”). With ever an eye on money, Baskerville had seen the type of one of his peers, William Caslon, become profitable as a standard in Western Europe. He embarked on a personal challenge to design a typeface that was an improvement on that of Caslon (Benton 20). Ultimately, Baskerville did not improve upon the Caslon typeface, but did create his own new masterpiece, the Baskerville typeface (Fabian). The new type was different from anything the English public had ever seen and was heavily criticized by those used to Caslon’s type (Benton 36). Baskerville’s previous work as a teacher of writing had most likely influenced his type design. It featured rounded characters, and in an imitation of writing, he made his upstrokes very thin, and his downstrokes thick, with his serifs sharp and fine and the weight stress vertical (“The Source of the Originals”; Morison 300). The Baskerville typeface had a clear, sharp image, which differentiated his type from others of his day.

      Baskerville found the conventional printing press could not capture the subtleties of his typeface, so he redesigned the printing press. He replaced the wood platen, which was covered with a thick tympanum (to minimize any difference in type depth by absorbing the pressure) with metal. Baskerville had confidence in his type. He machined his platen from brass and used a thin tympanum which allowed the planes of the press to meet more evenly (Pardoe 28). This provided an even pressure which combined with his innovative ink, enabled him to achieve his dark impression. To the improved platen, he added heat to give a crisp finish to printed pages (Pardoe 28).

      Baskerville’s innovative ink appears to be the only aspect of his printing process which was not criticized or scorned; in fact, it was the envy of his peers (Haley 42). It was common for printers to make their own inks. These proprietary formulas were closely guarded secrets. Baskerville undertook to develop a superior rich black ink that was described as “partaking of a peculiarly soft luster, bordering upon a deep purple” (Pardoe 29).
      Rather than mixing lampblack and oil as was common practice, he had a complex recipe.*** His japanning skills were likely useful in this endeavour. The thickness of the oil would have made the ink stick without smearing, and the rosin would have added sheen.
      Baskerville also applied his ink with great skill. If it had been too runny, there would be signs of it not staying on the printing type, but running down, causing blurring when the type was pressed into the paper (Pardoe 48). He used less ink than his contemporaries and seems to have used even less as he advanced his skill as a printer. His impression accuracy was unsurpassed. “His hot-pressing after printing would lessen any embossing that his presses did, but even on the pages that have obviously not been hot-pressed, the same splendid, unmistakeable Baskerville superiority is there” (Pardoe 48).
      The combination of all of Baskerville’s print related innovations culminated in a page that had a glossy, silky finish that showed the brilliance of his specially formulated ink. The results set Baskerville apart from others of his time – he was truly an innovator and ultimately set the standards of printing for those who followed.

      Baskerville also experimented with the paper process. He did not like the indentations left in the paper by the accepted paper making method. Baskerville’s fine typefaces did not show well on this rough (laid) paper, so he sought out a better way to capture the delicacy of his type (Allen 164). Although Baskerville has been credited in some literature as the inventor of wove paper, it was invented by James Whatman, and used a similar process as in laid paper, but the wire mesh was of a much finer texture with the wires woven as in cloth (Roberts and Etherington). The wire marks were not visible in the finished paper (Gaskell 22; Pardoe 39). The surface of wove paper was much smoother “… so it could receive a more gentle “kiss” impression in Baskerville’s metal reinforced press, using his superior rich opaque black ink” (Fabian).
      Again, it appears that Baskerville’s experience with the japanning processes provided an answer to his problem of marks on the paper. He dampened sheets of wove paper and subjected them to pressure between hot copper plates immediately after the impression (Chappell 146). This hot pressed process resulted in a polished look, in addition as serving to dry and set the ink (Allen 165-6). It produced a paper superior to other “book” papers of that time (“Famous Names in Typography”). The improved presses, inks, and new paper making technologies resulted in the creation of smooth, glossy paper which when combined with his sharp typeface was considered offensive to the reader causing “Baskerville [eye] pains” (Pardoe 39; Benton 11).

Works Printed by Baskerville

      Baskerville lets the reader into his psyche and clearly shows the purpose and frame of mind in which he entered into the printing business in the only forward or preface he ever wrote, that of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

“Amongst the several mechanic Arts that have engaged my attention, there is no one which I have pursued with so much steadiness and pleasure, as that of Letter-Founding. Having been an early admirer of the beauty of Letters, I became insensibly desirous of contributing to the perfection of them. I formed to my self Ideas of greater accuracy than had yet appeared, and have endeavoured to produce a Sett of Types according to what I conceive to be their true proportion. … It is not my desire to print many books: but such only, as are books of Consequence, of intrinsic merit, or established Reputation, and to which the public may be pleased to see in an elegant dress, and to purchase at such price, as will repay the extraordinary care and expense that must necessarily be bestowed upon them” (Allen 166; Pardoe 62).

He did not print for the many, only for the few he believed would be willing to reimburse him for his expense.
       Baskerville spent over £600 and many years before he produced a type fount that met his exacting ideal of perfection. In a letter October 2, 1752 to his agent, Robert Dodsley he said, “… They please me, As I can make nothing more Correct” (Benton 22; Tierney 144). He also indicated that the time for publishing the Virgil had been set. In a later letter, October 19, 1752, to Dodsley, Baskerville said, “You may depend upon my being ready by Yr time (Christmas), but if more time could be allow’d I should make use of it all in Correcting and justifying; As so much depends on Appearing perfect on first Starting” (Tierney 145). Acting on this advice, Dodsley advertised the forthcoming publication of the Virgil. But Baskerville was not to be hurried. He had no regard for time as he indulged in his quest for perfection. Dodsley became quite embarrassed and exasperated with Baskerville’s unrealistic timeframes: “I am very sorry I advertis’d ye Virgil to be publish’d last Month, as you have not enabled me to keep my word with the Public; but I hope it will not be delay’d any longer, as every day you lose now the season is so far advanc’d is certainly a great loss to you” (Pardoe 45; Tierney 273). After seven years of meticulous work, the Virgil finally appeared in April, 1757 and astonished the literary world (Benton 27; Pardoe 47).
       This first printing of Virgil was the commercial introduction to wove paper which eventually led to it becoming a printing standard. All aspects of this work – the unprecedented preparation of typeface, printing press, paper development, and ink, combined with an eye critical to design – created as Dibdin said, “… one of the most finished specimens of typography” (Benton 28). Pardoe says, “… the most astonishing of its qualities is the press-work and inking” (47) and finally, Gaskell states in summary, “Baskerville’s first and perhaps his finest book” (19).
      One of the reasons why Baskerville’s books were better than his contemporaries was that he designed and created layouts on the page that were well planned and properly spaced (Allen 166). As a designer, Baskerville’s guiding principle was clarity: simple pages, even stark, with nothing allowed to impede the message. He spread his letters over the width of the page, used spacing between the lines of text, and wide margins that seem to me to demonstrate a sense of design and an eye for what was aesthetically pleasing.
      Virgil made him instantaneously famous as a printer (Allen 166). “It was the first fine book printed in England, - the first of those magnificent editions which … went forth to astonish all the librarians of Europe” (Benton 28). It was then followed by some 50 other classics. For a number of years after Baskerville’s Virgil, he printed many extremely beautiful books. They drew much attention from the world’s bibliophiles and gained him celebrity status. With each edition he produced, he came closer to putting himself out of business. His presses were not overly profitable and the number of people that could appreciate and afford his work was limited (Bigmore and Wyman 37).
      His Virgil earned him the notice of the University of Cambridge and he realized one of his chief ambitions; he was appointed Printer to the University 1758-1762 (Bigmore and Wyman 37). In his agreement with Cambridge, it was strictly laid out that he would publish a Bible and two Common Books of Prayer, and pay them for this privilege (Hansard 311; Pardoe 53).
      The Virgil also led to a commission from Oxford University to cut the new Greek fount they wanted (Benton 37). Baskerville delivered a type better than what was in existence, March 5, 1761 (Benton 36-7). Literature shows mixed reviews about this type (Benton 37; Pardoe 56; Morison 300).

      Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained were printed in separate volumes in 1758, 1759, and 1760 (Benton 29). As with his earlier works, Baskerville paid great attention to the detail of the text. Dibdin speaks highly of Baskerville’s Milton, “…but he who hath, the Baskerville edition, 1760, 4to. 4 vols., hath a good and even a glorious performance. It is pleasant…to turn over the pages of these lovely tomes …” (604).

The Bible
       The folio edition of the Bible printed at Cambridge July 4, 1763, under the patronage of the University, was considered his “magnum opus” (Benton 30). While this was his most artistic and ambitious project, it was a financial failure. The contract with Cambridge was exacting in its specifications of every aspect of publishing and the amount he would pay Cambridge for the privilege of their patronage (Pardoe 53-4). One of the many requirements was that Baskerville had to print the Bible at Cambridge, necessitating the expense of sending his workmen and press to Cambridge (Benton 31; Pardoe 54). Baskerville only had 264 subscribers and thus had to borrow money to continue with the book. He was not able to sell even half of the 1250 copies and in 1768 sold the remaining copies for 36 shillings to a remainderer (Benton 31). However, Baskerville’s Bible has been called “one of the most beautiful printed books in the world” by Dibdin (33).

The Book of Common Prayer
      After the Bible, Baskerville wanted to publish a Prayer Book. He wanted to make it suitable “… for people who begin to want spectacles, but are ashamed to use them in Church” (Benton 32). Baskerville printed two octavo editions of “The Book of Common Prayer.” They first appeared in 1760; one had a border with a lozenge and star (apparently his favoured ornamentation) and the other had no ornamentation, both set in long lines Great Primer (Dibdin 43). Benton say Baskerville “… printed Bibles and Prayer Books not because he believed in Christianity, but because these were the books which everybody used and which he thought warranted the most effective treatment” (17).

      The influence of Baskerville’s type design, book design, and superb printing skills were seen primarily in France and Italy (Fabian). In 1784, Didot of France made improvements in paper production, composition, and printing. Furthermore, in 1787 Bodoni in Italy worked on letters, perfecting certain style characteristics: greater thick and thin contrast, fine line serifs, with mechanically precise strokes (Fabian). The Baskerville type design is classified as Transitional, placed between the Old Style of Caslon, and the Modern of Bodoni (Haley 44).

Repatriation of Baskerville Founts
      The Baskerville punches were witness to much history after his death in 1775. His widow kept the type foundry and tried to sell the printing business, but there were no buyers. Eventually, she sold her husband’s original equipment, punches, matrices and type stock to a French nobleman, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, for 150,000 francs in 1779, who used them to print a 70 volume work of Voltaire (Benton 51; Fabian). The remains of the original punches and matrices stayed in France until the end of the twentieth-century where they belonged to the Deberny and Peignot foundry. Charles Peignot offered them a gesture of goodwill to Cambridge University Press when he closed his company in 1953 (“Frenchman’s Gift”).


      The Baskerville types never did gain favour with English printers, and consequently disappeared from commercial use. A Baskerville revival was started by the Stephenson Blake Foundry in 1909. Real Baskerville founts were re-introduced in 1917 by Bruce Rogers. This triggered the release of new Baskerville founts across Europe in the following two decades (Fabian).
      Baskerville’s type style is still celebrated as one of the best typefaces for printed books and magazines. Today Baskerville has received status as a respected typeface and was most recently used in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
      John Baskerville was an innovator, great type designer, and printer whose books were masterpieces that have stood the test of time. He developed not only his own type designs, named after him, but a new, more precise printing press along with his own inks which optimized his finer type style, researched and developed a new ink, and a method for processing paper, which led to overall improvements in the quality and standards of print.


* Fount or font defined in printing as a set or assortment of type (OED Online).
**Japanning also known as lacquerware, was popular in the eighteenth-century when the term was applied to metal coated with layers of varnish, dried, and hardened by heat in imitation of Japanese lacquerware.
***“He took of the oldest and finest linseed oil three gallons, this was put into a vessel capable of holding four times the quantity, and boiled with a long-continued fire till it acquired a certain thickness or tenacity, according to the quality of the work it was intended to print, and which was judged of by putting small quantities upon a stone to cool, and then taking it up between the finger and thumb; on opening which, if it drew into a thread an inch long or more, it was considered sufficiently boiled. This mode of boiling can only be acquired by long practice, and requires particular skill and care in the person who superintends the operations, as, for want of this, the most serious consequences may occur, and have very frequently occurred. The oil thus prepared was suffered to cool, and had then a small quantity of black or amber rosin dissolved in it, after which it was allowed some months to subside; it as then mixed with the fine black, before named, to a proper thickness, and ground for use.” (Hansard 723)
†Paper in Baskerville’s time was made by hand. The fibrous plant material was broken down into its individual fibres, and suspended in water. This mixture was then spread onto a wire mesh screen so the water could drain away leaving a thin sheet of matted fibres on the screen.
‡Clarke, Susanna. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.

Works Cited

Allen, Agnes. The Story of the Book. 2nd ed. London: Faber, 1967.

“Baskerville” The Source of the Originals. c2005. Linotype Library GmbH. 23 Sept. 2005 <>.

Benton, Josiah H. John Baskerville Type-Founder and Printer 1706-1775. 1914. New York: Burt Franklin, 1968.

Bigmore, E. C., and C. W. H. Wyman, comps. A Bibliography of Printing with Notes and Illustrations. 1880. London: Holland Press, 1969.

Chappell, Warren. A Short History of the Printed Word. Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1980.

Dibdin, Thomas Frognall. The Library Companion; Or, The Young Man’s Guide, and The Old Man’s Comfort, in the Choice of a Library. Vol. 1. London: Printed for Harding, Triphook and Lepard, 1824.

Fabian, Nicholas. “The Man of Transition: John Baskerville.” 19 Oct. 2000. 23 Sept. 2005 <>.

“Famous Names in Typography.” DT&Gtypography. c2004. Showker Graphic Arts &Design. 23 Sept. 2005 <>.

“Fount.” OED Online. 2nd ed. 1989. U of Alberta. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2005 from Oxford English Dictionary Online <>.

“Frenchman’s Gift to Cambridge Press.” Times. 16 Feb. 1953. U of Alberta. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2005, from Time Digital Archive 1785-1985. <>.

Gaskell, Philip. John Baskerville; A Bibliography. Cambridge: UP, 1959.

Haley, Allan. Typographic Milestones. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.

Hansard, T. C. Typographia: An Historical Sketch of the Origin and Progress of the Art of Printing; With Practical Directions for Conducting Every Department in an Office: With a Description of Stereotype and Lithography. 1825. London: Gregg P., 1966.

Hutton, William. The History of Birmingham. 6th ed. London: G. Berger, 1835.

“Japanning.” Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd., 1976.

Morison, Stanley. Modern Fine Printing; an Exhibit of Printing Issued in England, the United States of America, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Czecho-Slovakia, Holland and Sweden during the Twentieth Century and with Few Exceptions since the Outbreak of the War. London: E. Benn, 1925.

Pardoe, F. E. John Baskerville of Birmingham Letter-Founder and Printer. London: Frederick Muller, 1975.

Roberts, Matt T., and Don Etherington. “Wove” Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology. 8 July 2005. 23 Sept. 2005 <>.

Robinson, William C. Typography in Book Design. Aug. 2004. 23 Sept. 2005 <>.

Wroth, Lawrence C., ed. “The Eighteenth Century.” A History of the Printed Book Being the Third Number of the Dolphin. New York: Limited Editions Club, 1938.

LIS 600 — Reflection

      One of the course objectives for the LIS 600 capping exercise is to give the student an opportunity to synthesize what they have learned throughout their MLIS experience at the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS) at the University of Alberta. Through my courses chosen from the vast array offered through SLIS, I have been able to gain exposure to not only librarianship, but also the principles of archives and conservation.
      The significance of my capping exercise is progression along my life pursuit of continual learning, which led me on the path towards attaining my Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS), and as a reflection of my time spent at SLIS - the experiences and learning gained, represented by a single assignment.
      The essay and the course it came from, LIS 586 History of the Book, for me embodied the unification of both librarianship and archives. This blending was interwoven through research, the tactile enjoyment of working with printed works from many years and centuries past, and the pangs of concern, as some of the brittle pages crumbled and binding stitches fatigued under my hands; issues and victims of time and preservation.
      This essay was a personal indulgence to examine a particular font as an aspect of the book as an object. Along the research journey, I discovered a man who exemplified librarianship in his attention to all detail, not just the fount that bears his name. The essay also provided me with an opportunity to continue to refine my research and critical analysis skills, essay formatting in the Modern Language Association (MLA) style, and consider archival and conservation principles of aging print materials.
      I had never heard of this font or person prior to this assignment. However, I will certainly endeavour to blend his most outstanding personal quality of meticulous attention to detail with my enjoyment of librarianship and archives as I enter into my next professional journey.


This essay was written for LIS 586, History of the Book. It was revised and converted to a web document to fulfill the requirements of LIS 600, Capping Exercise, for completion of a Master of Library and Information Studies degree at the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta.

Copyright 2006 Tamara Durec. Last updated June 22, 2006.