" Baskerville’s innovative types could only have existed because of his more important innovati

russellm's picture


russellm's picture


Also interesting but off topic - Anchor tags don't seem to work in the first post. Can this be true?

Nick Shinn's picture

Felici’s great man theory is skewed.

In the first place, not just paper, but ink and metal were improved considerably in the 18th century.

Secondly, technological determinism won’t wash, when there were other cultural factors at play. As John Hudson has noted, the role of the writing masters (and perhaps pen technology?) was important.

The idea that Baskerville’s type was the game-changer in enabling the neoclassical Didone style is a myth. The Foulis publishers in Scotland were producing neo-classical types and typography, in the context of printing classical literature (from ancient Greece and Rome), prior to Baskerville’s work.

I am sure there were other dynamics in France and Germany which contributed to the emergence of the didone style. Certainly, one man can make a huge difference, but design happens when there is a convergence of possibilities in the broad ecology of culture.

John Hudson's picture

Nick: The Foulis publishers in Scotland were producing neo-classical types and typography, in the context of printing classical literature (from ancient Greece and Rome), prior to Baskerville’s work.

What I have seen of the early Foulis typography -- albeit in not very good reproductions -- looks to me like neo-classical layout but still with baroque types. Do you have any images of the Foulis types that provide good detail?

PublishingMojo's picture

Baskerville's critics may have secured him a prominent place in typographic history by ranting against his type, warning readers that they would go blind from reading it.

I remember reading about the link between Baskerville's type and his paper many years ago (though the source eludes my memory, as so many important things do).

Changes in printing and prepress technology often spawn changes in the design aesthetic. I believe the introduction of Quark Xpress was to blame for the Great Drop Shadow Epidemic of the early 1990s.

quadibloc's picture

It is true that a type like Baskerville would not have worked without high quality printing. And Baskerville played an important role in making printing of this higher quality available.

But on the other hand, the improvement in the basic capability of printing things with finer detail on paper would have taken place without Baskerville as technology progressed; that's true too.

But without Baskerville pointing the way, perhaps the revolution in printing would have taken place too late for Didot and Bodoni.

Still, wouldn't Didones - like slab-serifs, Clarendons, and Latins (wedge-serifs) - have been almost "inevitable", rather than being easily subject to butterfly-effect erasure? I'm not sure psychohistory has progressed to the level which would allow us to answer such questions.

Chris Dean's picture

@russellm: I copied and pasted your syntax into a new test thread and it worked fine. Let me know if it happens again and I’ll pass it on.

Nick Shinn's picture

John, I haven’t seen anything high res or in reality, but these types look sufficiently transitional.
In particular the serifs on C and S, and the squareness of the serifs on E.

The layout is also severely minimal, generally identified as Baskerville and Bodoni's neo-classical/transitional look.

John Hudson's picture

Changes in printing and prepress technology often spawn changes in the design aesthetic.

In this case, I think the clear evidence is that it was the other way round: the aesthetic development drove changes in papermaking and printing technology. The neoclassical aesthetic that Baskerville applied to typography with such great success by way of his fine presswork and, yes, ideal paper, had been the dominant aesthetic in scribal text production for several decades before Baskerville had his types cut, and as Nick notes there were other printer publishers seeking ways to apply this aesthetic to typography.

One of the stranger things I have found examples of in my research on the English writing masters of the early 18th Century is occasional examples of engraved copy books with typeset prefatory matter, usually in Caslon's types. The disconnect between the aesthetic of the type and that of the engraved handwritten designs that follow is jarring to me, and I believe it was to the makers of these books too, especially the scribes whose work was displayed. My thesis is that during the first half of the 18th Century writing masters were devising a new page aesthetic in keeping with the emerging neoclassicism in architecture and the other arts, and that this aesthetic then drove improvements in printing and papermaking that would enable it to be applied to typography.

John Hudson's picture

Thanks, Nick. I think I have seen this before. As you note, the layout is very neoclassical. It is difficult to judge the type -- samples of the Foulis lowercase in text would be more revealing, I think -- but the C has a definite neoclassical form.

One finds formal roman capitals engraved in a neoclassical style very early: even in the latter 17th Century. These, from an engraved a portrait of John Seddon published in 1695, are practically Didone in their modulation and rationality:

Nick Shinn's picture

Those serif shapes are conducive to engrave by “line and fill”, not so suitable for punch cutting.

Intaglio printing also holds a finer line than letterpress—there is no equivalent of the beard to pick up ink and print, as can be seen here:

These arguments support the idea that letterpress was playing catch-up with engraving in the finesse department, for a long time, and also assuming its style.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

Which Baskerville types were considered innovative?

John Hudson's picture

His roman and italics originating in the mid-1750s and cut at various sizes thereafter. They were regarded as innovative immediately, with both negative and positive connotations. John (Quadibloc) has referred to the claims of some -- famously related by Ben Franklin -- that Baskerville's types dazzled readers and would make them go blind. But by 1803 positive commentary celebrated Baskerville's achievement:

The extraordinary efforts which have of late years been made to produce the finest models of Printing Types, must be highly gratifying to those who have in any measure interested themselves in raising the credit of the BRITISH PRESS. The spirit for this species of beauty has long been gaining ascendancy, having received a strong impulse from the talents of Baskerville, who endeavoured to combine sharpness and perfection of impression, with graceful types, giving to his works a finish which was before unknown in this kingdom.

[John McCreery, The press, a poem (Liverpool, 1803), quoted in Justin Howes' seminar discussion paper, published in Typography Papers 7.]

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

Where can I take a look at these radicals? Did they have names?

John Hudson's picture


Of course they don't have names. Historically, types were most commonly identified by style, size and foundry. So these are Baskerville's roman and italic types of various sizes.

Naming typefaces is a mostly recent phenomenon.

John Hudson's picture

Nick, you've seriously got me wanting to get on a plane to Glasgow.

I found this site with a good selection of images of Foulis editions from all periods. The size and resolution are still not good enough to provide real insight, but it is enough to convince me that I need to go and take a closer look.


Next time I'm in the UK...

As I suspect, at least some of the early Foulis editions, while exhibiting neoclassical layout, are using baroque types:

Later, post-Baskerville, there is a switch to neoclassical types:

So the question is: when does this switch happen, and what are the origins of these new types?

Nick Shinn's picture

I see this as being a case of “follow the money”. Scotland became Europe’s most literate country in the 18th century. One reason often cited is the role of the Presbyterian church school in promoting widespread literacy. Another is the removal of copyright restrictions that would remain in England until the 19th century, which caused a publishing boom. (Documented in William St Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period.) It follows that the progressive qualities of the Scottish Enlightenment would be reflected in the design and typography of books published there. This was the cultural environment that produced the Adam brothers and James Watt, and the typefounder Alexander Wilson.

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