February 23

John Howard Benson

“John Howard Benson died on February 23, 1956, in Newport, Rhode Island, where he had spent all the fifty-four and a half years of his life. Artist, calligrapher, sculptor, scholar, and humanist, he was unquestionably America’s leading designer of incised letters.”

Thus begins the short biography of Benson, written by his friend Philip Hofer, and published by the Typophiles in 1957. In an age when classic craftsmanship, in any field, is on the ebb, it is most unfortunate that such a person as John Howard Benson should be so quickly forgotten. His name appears on the title page of but two books and one pamphlet. The Elements of Lettering, written in 1940 with Arthur G. Carey was first printed by Daniel B. Updike’s Merrymount Press and is one of the finest books on lettering to be written in this country.

In his second book, Benson performed a service which had been waiting for over four hundred years, the first translation into English of The First Writing Book written in 1527 by Ludovico degli Arrighi. It is curious that the original of this little book, known and admired for so long a period, had never before been translated, even in the revival of interest in calligraphy which followed the contributions made by Edward Johnston, in England, in the early years of the century.

Benson’s translation, which occupied the last three years of his life, was a great deal more than a simple copying job. It was his desire to make an exact reproduction of the original, and further, to make it available in an inexpensive edition which would serve to enlarge the influence of such a splendid work. “The aim of this book,” he wrote in his introduction, “is to help those who wish to reform their handwriting.” Benson’s translation follows the exact page for page structure of the original, an extremely difficult, as well as laborious, task, making it necessary to rewrite certain pages as frequently as twenty times in order to capture the feeling of the Italian writing master.

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