November 2


In a letter to Horace Walpole, M.P., addressed from Easy Hill, Birmingham on this day in 1762, John Baskerville wrote:

“As the Patron and Encourager of Arts, and particularly that of Printing, I have taken the liberty of sending you a Specimen of mine, begun ten years ago at the age of forty-seven, and prosecuted ever since with the utmost Care and Attention, on the strongest Presumption, that if I could fairly excel in this divine Art, it would make my Affairs easy or at least give me bread. But alas! in both I was mistaken. The Booksellers do not chuse to encourage me, tho I have offered them as low terms as I could possibly live by; nor dare I attempt an old Copy, till a Lawsuit relating to that affair is determined. . . .”

Could this have been one of the Specimens dispatched to Russia, Denmark, and Walpole?

From James Mosley's Typefoundry blog, an unknown specimen of Baskerville’s Small Pica. Could this have been one of the "Specimens" dispatched to Russia, Denmark, and Walpole?

“I have sent a few Specimens (same as enclosed) to the Courts of Russia and Denmark, and shall endeavor to do the same to most of the Courts of Europe; in hopes of finding some one of them a purchaser of the whole Scheme, on the Condition of my never attempting another Type. I was saying this to a particular Friend who reproached me with not giving my own Country the Preference, as it wold (he was pleased to say) be a national Reproach to lose it. I told him, nothing but the greatest Necessity would put me upon it; and even then I should resign it with the utmost Reluctance. He observed, the Parliament had given a handsome Premium for a quack Medicine; & he doubted not, if my affair was properly brought before the House of Commons, but some Regard would be paid to it; I replyed, I durst not presume to petition the House, unless encouraged by some of the Members, who might do me the honor to promote it, of which I saw not the least hopes or Possibility.

“Thus, Sir I have taken the Liberty of laying before You my Affairs, without the least Aggravation; and humbly hope Your Patronage; To whom can I apply for protection but the Great, who alone have it in their Power to serve me?

“I rely on your Candor as a Lover of the Arts; to excuse this Presumption in Your most obedient and most humble Servant.”

Horace Walpole paid no apparent attention to this letter from Baskerville, so the typefounder attempted to sell his punches and matrices to France, for the sum of £6,000, using Benjamin Franklin as his agent. The American told him that the French government was too poor to purchase the types, as they lacked even the money to keep public buildings in repair. It was not until after Baskerville’s death that his widow advertised in 1776 for sale at auction, “Four accurate improved Printing Presses; several large Founts of Type, different Sizes; with Cases, Frames, screwed Chases, and every other useful Apparatus in that Branch of Trade.”

A suggestion by the bibliographer Harwood, that the British government purchase the types as a start upon a national typography was disregarded. After every effort to sell the type in England had been investigated, Mrs. Baskerville finally disposed of them to the French dramatist, Beaumarchais, who was then engaged upon a printing of the complete works of Voltaire. The punches and matrices remained in France until they were returned to England in 1953 as a gift of the French government to Cambridge University. Copies of the original design constitute one of the universal types.

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