June 6

Academicians but rarely descend to the level of bestowing honorary degrees upon printers for their contributions to our civilization. There come to mind but a half-dozen instances when an American college or university has called to a convocation platform a craftsman representing the industry, other than a rather steady flow of newspaper and magazine publishers. This day in 1949 was therefore unique, when tiny but long-established Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, honored the American type designer, Robert Hunter Middleton, with a Doctor of Fine Arts degree.

Now considered to be the “dean” of his craft (in a time when type designers represent a group scarcely of sufficient number to fill a hotel room should they ever hold a convention), Middleton has demonstrated his longevity by remaining on the job with a single firm, the Ludlow Typography Company, for his entire professional career. He was brought as a child from his birthplace in Glasgow, Scotland to Alabama in 1908, following a path worn smooth since the early days of the republic, when the typefounding industry was populated almost exclusively by Scotsmen.

While attending the Department of Printing Arts of the Art Institute of Chicago, young Middleton was fortunate in having as a teacher Ernst Detterer, to whom he later dedicated his little book, Making Printers’ Typefaces.

It is probably unfortunate for Middleton’s reputation as a creative designer that he has served one firm so long and faithfully, particularly since the nature of the machine for which he designs type precludes originality, which is not to say that Middleton lacks imagination as a type designer. The Ludlow machine was devised to produce display type primarily for newspapers and periodicals, utilizing hand-assembled matrices. It became the custom to inform purchasers of Ludlow machines that all the “currently popular” hand types would be made available. This factor has therefore prevented Middleton from attaining the individuality of an independent designer, but within this framework he has had to exercise mature judgment about the types which are valuable enough to warrant adapting to the Ludlow machine, and to evaluate typographic trends in advance, a task at which he has been remarkably successful.

Beginning with an outline capital named Delphin cut in 1928, Middleton has now reached the impressive total of over ninety types, most of which remain in everyday use by the nation’s printers. Of his Garamond, modeled on the types appearing in the famous Egenolff-Berner specimen of 1592, Bruce Rogers was most enthusiastic, calling it one of the best of the modern Garamonds. Rogers used it in the 18-point size for the setting of his edition of Gulliver’s Travels for the Limited Editions Club.

Middleton has become internationally known, also, as the proprietor of the Cherryburn Press, from which has been issued printing of a high order. The name of his private press, reminiscent of the time of the engraver Thomas Bewick, has appeared in a number of modern editions of Bewick’s work, as Middleton owns one of the largest collections of the original engravings now extant, and has spent countless hours perfecting the process of printing by which they are best reproduced.

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