(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).
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).
He did not print for the many, only for the few he believed would be willing to reimburse him for his expense.
“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).
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 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”).
Notes* Fount or font defined in printing as a set or assortment of type (OED Online).
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 <http://www.linotype.com/7-310-7/baskerville.html>.
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 <http://web.archive.org/web/20001010034735/web.i-direct.com/~nfhome/basker.htm>.
“Famous Names in Typography.” DT&Gtypography. c2004. Showker Graphic Arts &Design. 23 Sept. 2005 <http://www.graphic-design.com/Type/typography.html>.
“Fount.” OED Online. 2nd ed. 1989. U of Alberta. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2005 from Oxford English Dictionary Online <http://dictionary.oed.com>.
“Frenchman’s Gift to Cambridge Press.” Times. 16 Feb. 1953. U of Alberta. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2005, from Time Digital Archive 1785-1985. <http://infotrac.galegroup.com>.
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 <http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/don/dt/dt3816.html>.
Robinson, William C. Typography in Book Design. Aug. 2004. 23 Sept. 2005 <http://web.utk.edu/~wrobinso/561_lec_type.html>.
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.
BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER |
REPATRIATION | CONCLUSION |
WORKS CITED | REFLECTION
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.