November 17

In a paper read at the annual Henrietta Hertz Lecture on Aspects of Art before the British Academy in London on November 17, 1937, the typographic historian, Stanley Morison, discoursed upon the art of printing, attempting to apply his logical reasoning to just why and under what conditions printing could aspire to be an art. Morison began with the familiar account taken from the memoirs of the Florentine bookseller, Vespasiano da Bisticci, written in 1490, in which the bookseller described the magnificent library of his patron, the Duke of Urbino, in which no volume was imperfect, all being written on vellum and all beautifully illuminated. “Had there been one printed book,” wrote Vespasiano, “it would have been ashamed in such company.”

“It would thus appear just,” stated Morison, “to regard printing as a sort of poor relation to calligraphy. It looks like writing; it clearly is not writing; therefore it is imitation writing. No imitation, as such, can possess any sort of artistic value. Thus, the subject upon which I have been asked to lecture today is easily disposed of, and there remains little excuse for my further detaining this audience.”

Since no one in the gathering, typical of any group listening to Mr. Morison, took advantage of the invitation to withdraw, the speaker himself remained to enlighten his listeners, tracing the development of typography from calligraphic and inscriptional forms, and the effect of technological factors upon the reproduction of the printed word.

Mr. Morison finally endeavored to supply his reasoned definition of printing as an art. “Whatever the formal basis of printing may be—” he said, “calligraphy, engraving, or photography—the correctness of the text, the arrangement of the letters and lines, and their spacing, will continue in the future, as in the past, to prove whether a printer has a thorough understanding of his function. The arrangement or the design of a piece of printing should exhibit the highest possible degree of consistency—first, with the intentions and objects of the author; and, secondly, with the nature of the process by which these are to be expressed. When the text is efficiently articulated, and the process effectively exploited in accordance with specific requirements of illustration and multiplication, the product may please the understanding eye.

“That is to say, the understanding eye is pleased to recognize, in a piece of printing, the exactness, consistency, and lucidity that a thing of that kind ought to possess—be it book or newspaper or timetable—when read or even merely viewed in the circumstances intended by its author and printer. If a piece of printing should possess these qualities in an eminent degree, it may have some claim to consideration from such collectors of works of art as concern themselves with servant or applied arts. The primary claim of printing is not to be an art, but to be the most responsible of our social, industrial, and intellectual mechanisms; it must, like a transport system, be most disciplined, most rational. Nevertheless, if it is allowable to define art, in this connection, as the application of knowledge, reason, and skill to the service of writers and readers, it may not be rash to hope that some of the past, present, and future productions of the printer will, as multiplied productions of reason and skill, be counted worthy of rank as an Aspect of Art.”

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