John Baskerville: The Anatomy of a Type

By every measure, the types originally created by the amateur English printer John Baskerville in the middle of the 18th century—and named for him—have demonstrated universal appeal. The proof of this is their availability as single types for hand composition, and upon all of the typesetting machines, both hot-metal and photographic. And, unquestionably, Baskerville will be digitized for computers.

The current popularity of the type is of comparatively recent origin, although it was designed over two centuries ago. Its creator would have been delighted to know that his design has finally been accepted as a standard letter, surpassing even the well-loved Caslon styles which Baskerville was consciously trying to improve upon, but without any success in his own time.

A Printer at 45

John Baskerville (1706–1775) was about 45 years of age when he turned to printing as an avocation, following an extremely successful decade in the japanning business, which undoubtedly produced the capital which allowed him to set up a printing office. Earlier in his life he had been a writing-master, and he had cut letters for gravestones. Both of these activities had developed his skill as a calligrapher.

In 1750, Baskerville engaged the services of the punchcutter John Handy and proceeded with the establishment of his press. By 1754 he had progressed to the point of producing a prospectus for his first book, the Georgics of the poet Virgil, which finally appeared in 1757.

A year later, Baskerville used the preface of his second book, an edition of Milton, to explain why he had become a printer:

“Amongst the several mechanic Parts 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 incensed the desirous of contributing to the perfection of them. I formed to my self Ideas of greater accuracy then had yet appeared, and have endeavored to produce a Sett of Types according to what I conceived to be there true proportion.”

Admirer of Caslon

The most popular types in England during this time were those produced by William Caslon, who had established his great foundry about 1720. Baskerville was at some pains to indicate that he admired the Caslon designs, writing in the same preface, “Mr. Caslon is an Artist, to whom the Republic of Learning has great obligations; his ingenuity has left a fairer copy for my emulation copy than any other master.

“In his great variety of Characters I intend not to follow him; the Roman and Italic are all that I have hitherto attempted; and in these he has left room for improvement, it is probably more owing to that variety which divided his attention, then to any other cause, I honor his merit, and only wish to derive some small share of Reputation, from an Part which proves accidentally to have been the object of our mutual pursuit.”

In addition to his interest in the cutting of a new type, Baskerville had a number of other innovations to offer as a printer, all of which today would, under the heading of quality control. While his press, constructed in Birmingham, followed the standard model that employed by English printers, he made two important changes.

Improved Press and Ink

The bed and the plan were made of brass, one inch thick. Instead of utilizing a soft packing which would have produced too deep an impression of his types, Baskerville used a tendon of smooth vellum, packed with superfine cloth. These improvements were discussed in a letter he wrote to a contemporary printer: “I have with great pains justified to plate for the Platten & Stone (bed) on which it falls, so that they are as perfect planes as it will ever be my power to procure. . . .”

As the next step in his scheme to produce perfect printing, Baskerville experimented with the formula for an ink which would not only print blacker and more evenly, but would have the additional property of trying more quickly. T.C. Hansard in Typographia (1825) writes that the Baskerville ink formula was the first important improvement in that art in over two hundred years.

Finally, the Birmingham printer built what was called a smoothing press, consisting of two heated copper cylinders through which was fed each sheet which issued from the press, after the ink had sufficiently dried. The combination of all these features culminated in printing which made Baskerville and most controversial figure—as roundly damned as he was lavishly praised.

To assure that inking of all his pages would appear even, printed extra sheets in order to match pages perfectly. This was another quality control procedure which did little to endear him to his competitors.

Daniel Berkeley Updike, and his Printing Types, mentions that, in the words of Macauley, Baskerville’s first book “went forth to astonish all the librarians of Europe.” Indeed, it was on the Continent that Baskerville achieved his greatest fame as a designer of type and as a printer.

Pierre Simon Fournier, the noted French typefounder and inventor of the typographical point, writing in Manual Typographique (1764–66), said of Baskerville types, “He has spared either pains nor expense to bring them to the utmost pitch of perfection. The letters are cut with great daring, and the italic is the best to be found in any English foundry, but roman is a little too wide.”

Printers and bibliophiles all over Europe admired the Baskerville books. The young Italian printer named Bodoni became excited about the excellence of Baskerville’s work. Benjamin Franklin, who had subscribed to six copies of the Virgil, became a widely quoted admirer. However, in England he was vilified by his fellow printers, a factor partially attributable, without a doubt, his notable eccentricities as a human being.

Next month I will discuss the revival of the Baskerville types during the 20th century and will describe the versions presently available.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the February 1968 issue of Printing Impressions.


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