Caroline Archer-Parre and Malcolm Dick, editors, John Baskerville: Art and Industry of the Enlightenment.
John Baskerville (1707-1775) remains one of the most intriguing figures in printing history for his life as much as for his work. His views on religion, his life with Mrs. Sarah Eaves (housekeeper, mistress, and eventually wife), and the manner of his burial have all been entertaining subjects of discussion rivaling commentaries on the quality of his books and the merits of his types--criticized by contemporaries but now held in high esteem. The eleven essays in John Baskerville attempt to go beyond both the salacious aspects of Baskerville's life and the uncritical reverence attending his types and books to situate him and his work within the broader cultural context of eighteenth-century England. Drawn from the papers presented by both practitioners and academics at a 2013 conference organized by the Baskerville Society, the book covers the arc of Baskerville's life and his activities from writing master to japanner to printer.
Baskerville's printing and the typography of his books do not feature prominently in the volume. Only three essays touch on those subjects and none directly, other than Gerry Leonidas' discussion of Baskerville's little-known Greek types, cut for the Oxford University Press in 1763. Leonidas explains that their negative reputation can be attributed to the classical bias of Robert Proctor and Victor Scholderer, who have most defined the attributes of a Greek typeface. But he sees Baskerville's Greeks as part of a trend toward simplification in the eighteenth century, a design that is fully typographic in contrast to the calligraphically oriented Greeks that prevailed then. He argues that Baskerville's Greeks are deserving of more respect. Baskerville's celebrated roman types are only obliquely discussed in Ewan Clayton's essay, which focuses on discovering their calligraphic precedents. Clayton has found examples of French and British roman lettering (particularly one by John Ayres from 1697-1698) that show how George Shelley's 1710 alphabet (linked to Baskerville in 1927 by Beatrice Warde) was part of a longer tradition. It was a tradition that relied not on the pointed pen commonly associated with the masters of the Golden Age of handwriting, but on a broad yet narrow-edged quill with an asymmetrically cut slit. This surprising discovery previously appeared in Clayton's book The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing (2013).
Martin Killeen's essay is about the use of Baskerville's types by others, both during his lifetime and after his death in 1775 and their sale the following year, but not about Baskerville's own use of them or their design. Killeen traces the types in books printed by Thomas Holliwell, Christopher Earl, Pearson and Rollason, James Bridgwater, Thomas Chapman, and James Smith as well as by Baskerville's printer, Robert Martin, and his widow Sarah between 1767 and 1790. Killeen finds the books issued by Sarah Baskerville to be the best of those done by others. Those by Martin--the only printer to use Baskerville's types during his lifetime from 1764 to 1768, when Baskerville had withdrawn from printing--are described as poorly printed and typographically mediocre. What is most interesting is how all these printers not only used Baskerville's types but sought, with varying degrees of success, to emulate his distinctive typography. Killeen briefly touches on the influence of Baskerville's types on other punchcutters, noting William Martin's types for William Bulmer's Shakespeare Press and taking an unjustified swipe at Isaac Moore's 1766 types as intellectual theft. These topics deserve further discussion.
The book does an excellent job at expanding our understanding of Baskerville. Essays on the places where Baskerville lived, his social network, his japanware, his marbled papers, and the bindings of his books create a fuller portrait of the man that goes beyond the caricature of a social and religious iconoclast. Both John Hinks and Susan Whyman provide an informative picture of eighteenth-century Birmingham as an energetic industrial town propelled by savant-fabricants, who applied scientific knowledge to technical innovations, and uneducated but ambitious, self-made men. Baskerville was both and thus was part of a social network that included other industrialists such as Matthew Boulton and literary figures such as the poet William Shenstone. Whyman's portrait of Baskerville as a "rough diamond", complete with feuds and snubs, accounts for the negative response his books and types received from London printers, though she does not talk about them specifically. Given her emphasis on the contrast between the bookseller William Hutton and Baskerville, she might have explored the reasons why Baskerville's admirers tended to be non-British.
George Demidowicz's essay on Baskerville's origins and the places he lived is absorbing for its use of what he calls historical geography, although the essay is made difficult by a profusion of undefined legal and real estate terms. His discovery that Baskerville was born to an innkeeper (and possibly brothelkeeper) at the bottom of Sion Hill casts Baskerville's origins more modestly than previously believed. Essays on japanning by Yvonne Jones, decorated papers by Barry McKay and Diana Patterson, and bindings by Aurelie Martin attempt to fill out the broader picture of Baskerville. They fall short since no examples of his japanning have been identified; his marbled papers--noted for their lack of combing--were praised but then denied a prize on the grounds that a sufficient quantity had not been produced; and the binder of the small number of his books that were sold bound has not been identified.
The introduction by Dick and Archer-Parre and the closing essay by Archer-Parre combine to trace Baskerville's reputation over the centuries. Dick mentions Baskerville's influence on Alexander Wilson but fails to examine his impact on the punchcutters Isaac Moore, William Martin, Isaac Drury, or Richard Austin. Archer-Parre relegates mention of Josiah Benton's 1914 biography to a footnote, says nothing about how and why Fry's Baskerville differs from Baskerville's types, and ignores revivals of his types after 1924. Her focus on the Baskerville Club in Cambridge will be of interest chiefly to bibliographers. The volume concludes with three appendices: a bibliography of Baskerville bindings, a list of members of the Baskerville Club, and--the most useful--a comparative bibliography of known Baskerville imprints.
As with many academic books on typography and graphic design, the design is serviceable, but there are not enough images to support the points of the various essayists, and those that are there are not in color--unfortunate for McKay and Patterson's essay on decorated papers--and often too small. These few reservations aside, the book is a very useful supplement to the biographies by Ralph Straus and Robert Dent, Josiah Benton, and F. E. Pardoe--all out of print. What is needed next is a fresh look at Baskerville's types and typography, one that places him more deeply in the context of his typographic contemporaries both in England and on the Continent from William Caslon to Firmin Didot.
Review by Paul Shaw.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2018|
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