Stanley Morison: Significant Historian

Stanley Morison

During the 20th century two typographic historians have achieved notable stature and will be long remembered. The first of these, Daniel Berkeley Updike of Boston, died in 1940. The second, Stanley Morison, died at his home in London on October 11, 1967. He was 78 years of age.

The literary achievements of Updike and Morison have been significant contributions to the rebirth of typographic scholarship in our time. Updike’s Printing Types, Their History, Forms, and Use has been, since its publication in 1922, the standard work in the field and was itself a strong influence on Morison’s own development. In his review of the book Morison called it “the most important addition to the literature of typography which has appeared for many generations.”

Prolific Writer

While Updike’s reputation as a historian of the printed book rests primarily in his two-volume work, Morison has been astonishingly prolific, having produced scores of distinguished papers in addition to some 50 books. The latest of these, John Fell: The University Press and the Fell Types, was reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement on the day following his death.

It is unfortunate that Morison’s unrivalled brilliance has never appeared in a single comprehensive work. Such a volume would unquestionably have been the most authoritative single source on the subject. In two of his larger books, Four Centuries of Fine Printing (1924), and The Typographic Book, 1450–1935 (1963), he was content to allow the splendid illustrations of historic books to speak for themselves. His commentary, while completely authoritative, outline of the subject.

Attempting to trace Morison’s literary output is extremely difficult, since his passion for anonymity led him to produce a large volume of unsigned work. Indispensable for those who desire to “collect” Morison is the Handlist of the Writings of Stanley Morison, compiled by John Carter in 1950 and published, unfortunately, “for private distribution,” by Cambridge University Press, to which Morison was typographic advisor. A number of libraries, however, have this important bibliography. Carter’s list was appended up to 1959 by P.M. Handover in the periodical Motif in its third issue, appearing in September 1959.

Definition of Typography

Possibly the most widely quoted definition of typography, since its appearance in the seventh volume of The Fleuron in 1930, is the first paragraph of the essay, “First Principles of Typography”:

“Typography may be defined as the craft of rightly disposing printing material in accordance with specific purpose; of so arranging the letters, distributing the space and controlling the type as to aid to the maximum the reader’s comprehension of the text. Typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian and only accidentally esthetic end, for enjoyment of patterns is rarely the reader’s chief aim. Therefore, any disposition of printing material which, whatever the intention, has the effect of coming between author and reader is wrong.”

Influence on Classic Revival

It may be noted that Morison’s influence upon modern printing in both its “fine” and “practical” aspects rests in a large measure upon his career as advisor to The Monotype Corp. of London. During the 1920’s when there was slight interest in the production of new “book” types, the Monotype firm—with Morison’s guidance—embarked upon a program of classic type revivals which resulted in the cutting of such faces as Garamond, Bembo, Poliphilus, Baskerville, Bell, and Fournier. These types remain in demand and are among the best of the historic revivals.

Morison was not, however, interested only in renascent types. He also sponsored the introduction of Eric Gill’s Perpetua design and the immensely popular sans serif style of the same designer.

New Times Roman

A long-time staff member of The Times, Morison redesigned the newspaper, creating for it a new type which was named Times New Roman. This letter, although devised along the line of other so-called “legibility” types, with open counters and large x-height, has proved to be far superior and now may be listed as one of the universal types. (Both the body matter and the headings of this periodical are set in Times Roman.)

The success of Times Roman is no doubt the result of the strictures of its designer who has noted, again in his “First Principles,” that type design “moves at the pace of the most conservative reader. The good type designer therefore realizes that, for a new font to be successful, it has to be so good that at only very few recognize its novelty.”

High Standards for All

Despite his formidable scholarship, Morison’s typographic ideas were not restricted to the library. It was his belief that fine printing was not simply the province of the craftsman using hand-set types, printed by “a hand-press on hand-made paper. His gamble in the production of fine types for the Monotype machine resulted in the successful adaptation of the principles of the private press movement to everyday, practical printing.

In his own work as a typographer Morison proved to be completely adaptable to the requirements of the marketplace. Throughout his career he planned the format of a wide variety of printing—books, advertisements, book jackets, and many other pieces.

He believed that the advertising typographer should innovate and experiment with fresh concepts. Toward that end, he even suggested in an article in Signature in 1936 that “Despite the printer, the layout man should treat type as if it were made of rubber.” And to prove his point, he printed that statement some seven picas wider than the rest of the lines of the page!

Accurate Forecast

Morison could as readily look forward to the introduction of new printing procedures, buttressed as always by his profound knowledge of the printer’s craft. In a paper which he prepared exactly 30 years ago, he stated, “It is nevertheless possible that the next generation of printers will supply texts built up from photographic negatives, keyboarded on a photographic text-composing machine. The alphabetical negatives will, at first, deliberately preserve many, if not most, of the details made familiar by the existing letterpress methods, the ultimate basis of which, as has been seen, is hand-engraving. But, it may be prophesied, such photographic composition will, in the interest of the process, gradually depart from engraving just as, in the incunable period, Italian printers departed from calligraphic mannerisms.”

Guidance and Inspiration

It is perhaps fitting that this short tribute to Stanley Morison close with a quotation from Mrs. Beatrice Warde, a close friend and coworker for 45 years who read from Mr. Morison’s works at a memorial service held at the Morgan Library in New York on October 25, the very date upon which she had been scheduled to appear with Morison in a program of the Heritage of the Graphic Arts series of lectures, sponsored by the Composing Room, Inc.

“It is a time,” said Mrs. Warde, “not for mourning, but rather rejoicing that so splendid and fruitful a life should have ended with so much left with us to remember for guidance and inspiration. And we must feel proud too that typography could give intellectual training to such a man and be his pathway to world eminence in so many fields of scholarship and practice.”

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the December 1967 issue of Printing Impressions.

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