April 16

In a paper read before the Society of Arts in London on this day in 1890,the English typefounder and writer, Talbot Baines Reed, discussed the revival of interest in typography then taking place. Most of his comments were to the point and bear repeating for the present generation of typographers:

“As artists,” he began, “the printer and the letter cutter are responsible to their generation. We live in the midst of a violent reactionary movement against dullness and conventionalism of all kinds. The artist has his three courses. He may sell himself slave to his public, and go where he is driven. He may set himself stubbornly to stem the torrent and fall a martyr to his conservatism; or he may strive honestly to control, even while following, the popular movement, and with his clearer artistic knowledge to direct it along lines of moderation and good taste. . . .

“I must remind you that the perfect model of a letter is altogether imaginary and arbitrary; there is a definite model for the human form. The painter, the sculptor, the architect, have their models in nature. But the man who sets himself up to make an alphabet has no copy but that left to him by former artists. He knows that the symbol which denotes the sound ‘I’ must be perpendicular, and that that which denotes ‘O’ must be round. But what should be the height of the ‘I’ in proportion to its width, how the extremities of the stroke should be finished, on what particular arcs and parallels his ‘O’ is to be erected—on all that is, which pertains to the fashion of the letter—he has no absolute standard. His own eye must furnish the criterion. If the work of those who have gone before satisfies that criterion, he copies it. If it comes short, he corrects it.

“What, then, is the criterion? It consists, I venture to think, primarily in the legibility of the character, and secondly on its beauty. It may be urged that the two are inseparable, and I am prepared to admit that, as a rule, the truest beauty in art is that which suggests utility. But it is possible for the two to exist without one another. . . . An arrangement of lines and curves and angles may be beautiful in itself, but unless it suggests a form it is valueless. And the more clearly and definitely it suggests that form the more we admire it. Type that is not legible, and in the case of books and newspapers easily legible, however elegant its lines, however delicate its execution, is not a good type. So that the artist of letters finds that his first test of an excellent letter is its legibility, and the second—which may easily be a consequence of the first—its grace and beauty. . . .

“I take it as a hopeful sign that the esthetics of typography are at the present time being studied by men of artistic taste and authority. The result cannot fail to be of benefit. For printing, in all its career, has followed close in the wake of its sister arts. When they have flourished, we have had our most beautiful books; when they have declined, printing has gone down below them. It is a bad day in the history of any art when it becomes a mere trade, and the ‘Art which preserves all other arts’ should by all means be saved from that calamity!’

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