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Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 4

Art in Typefounding

page 6

Art in Typefounding.

Our article in May, 1888, on « Typefounders and Trade Journals, » was copied into nearly all the English trade papers—in two of them taking the place of the ordinary leading article—and its essential portions translated into German, occupied a prominent place in a leading trade paper published in Leipzig. It has also brought us communications from more than one of the great English foundries, explaining, in some measure, the reason of the attitude they assume towards trade journalism—one which tends, we are still convinced, more to their own disadvantage than to that of the flourishing journals they ignore. We have no desire to return at present, except incidentally, to the subject then dealt with; but we will take up a point briefly touched upon in the article referred to— the barrenness of design (from an artistic point of view) of the English houses as compared with American, and still more noticeably, with German houses.

We have for many years made a study of type designs; but until ten or twelve years ago, knew them only from English specimen books. Beyond the fact the great majority of the beautiful combinations in Figgins's Epitome were described as « French Borders, » there was no indication that the borders and other decorative material were not original. Such, however, is the case. The specimen book of any large German foundry not only shows a wealth of design that far exceeds that of any English manufacturer, but claims many of them, with pardonable pride, as « Original productions of this house; » while careful inquiry proves that scarcely an important combination shown in the English books is original. In fact, to our great surprise, we have been told on good authority, that in the case of one ingenious design—though it was originated and patented by an English house—the punches were cut in Paris!

The « Banners border of Caslon's is one of the best achievements of English combination work; but it is defective in the joining up of the ornamental ends with the special metal rule. However, as a specimen of punch-cutting it ranks high; though the statement of the proprietors (Circular No. 2) that the production of the thirty punches occupied nearly eighteen months—that « almost every punch had to be re-engraved, and some a third time altered, before perfect accuracy was secured » —is a little startling. Surely this was not necessary! If so, how can the enormous continental combinations— running in one case up to over four hundred characters, all adjusted with the nicest care—possibly be produced without heavy loss to the founders? We understand that very few of the English houses possess the requisite appliances for the origination of elaborate combinations; and if so, there is a risk of ornamental punch-cutting becoming, so far as England is concerned, a lost art.

We are far from disparaging the fine work produced by English houses in their own special field. In the plain romans and old eng-lish styles—in the almost innumerable body-founts for bookwork to be found in their specimens, there is attained a degree of excellence, a harmony of proportion, and an accuracy of cut and lining, not only unsurpassed, but elsewhere unequalled. The finest roman faces in the continental books are avowedly of English cut. And this has had a reflex action on the printing of the different countries. The English compositor lacks the patience and artistic taste exhibited by his German brother in the arrangement of ornament, but he far excels him in the display of lines of type. In the best German work there is often a weakness and lack of balance in the lettering which greatly detracts from the general effect—in all good English work this is the strongest point. American display is worse still: we know of no greater horror than the average Yankee title-page.

In certain limited branches of ornamental work, the English houses have attained great excellence. In their isolated ornaments— vignette sketches, &c, they have shown much taste, and Caslon's exquisite ornamental corners have been reproduced with great appreciation on the Continent. But these corners, being emblematic, are necessarily limited in use. A sporting subject would be out of place in an auctioneer's catalogue, nor would the muses of painting and sculpture fittingly grace a nurseryman's list. It is in the rare cases where floral and other combinations are attempted that the weak point of the English houses appears. Take, for example, the « Primrose » designs of two or three founders—all stiff and unmanageable, and not one an artistic success.

It may be said that the combination border is a luxury with which the printer may dispense. The man of severe tastes may condemn it as « frippery, » « millinery, » &c.; but we hold, as we have consistently maintained in our pages, that type is an art material, and is capable of producing artistic effects obtainable by no other means. If this be admitted, the English typefounders make a mistake in allowing a branch of art to drift away into other lands.

We believe they make a commercial mistake—for the ornament, curiously enough, is the only character of universal application. Fortunes have been spent by the great English houses in cutting Greeks, Hebrews, Arabics, and the peculiar characters used in the dialects of India—for many of which not one printer in a thousand could have any use. The Roman character is as yet far from being universal; the German is still more restricted, and the Russian is scarcely known outside of its own territory. But the old combinations brought out by Derriey some fifty years ago—a wonderful novelty in their day—have reached every corner of the earth. For a good combination, the whole world is the field. This is the secret of the amazing progress of some of the German foundries. The sale of their body-founts outside of their own country is infinitesimal; but their borders are produced by tons, and sold in all parts of the world. No one in these colonies (except an occasional « crank » ) buys Yankee body-founts. They are not equal to English, and are more costly. But the « Glyptic » and the « Filigree » are found everywhere, and the « Victoria » and « Washington » and « Lafayette » figure in the same page as English text and classic borders from Leipzig or Frankfort-on-the-Main. It is the same in England itself. Right under the eyes of the wealthy foundries, their ornamental productions are being supplanted by the foreign article. They possess wealth, and their country has artists and designers who could rival or surpass the best foreign work. If they bestirred themselves, we might find in another ten years English borders taking the lead in Paris, Leipzig, or New York, and penetrating to the farthest corners of Europe and the most distant isles of the sea.

There is but one excuse: « Our original designs are pirated as soon as issued, and the law gives us no effectual protection. » This is no longer the case. The protection may be costly and the procedure cumbrous, but it does exist, and American and German houses find it efficient. The pirates still show the old « Japanese » and « Orient » combinations, but they do not venture to lay hands on the later American designs. Where there is a will there is a way. What Typo wishes to see is English art applied to English typefounding—a new « combination » that would take the world by storm.

Who should fix the terms on which work is taken—the printer or the customer? A certain amount of contempt is felt for the retailer who allows the buyer to fix his prices; and we hold that the business man who submits to dictation from his customer is deficient in self-respect. Let us take a suppositious case: Enter a new patron, « I am going into business: shall require a good deal of printed stationery.

page 7

I like your style of work; but of course shall want everything as low as possible. Times like these, you know, » &c. Then he takes up an hour or so of time with specimens and instructions, and prices are arranged for a total, say, of twelve pounds' worth of work. The order is noted, when the customer adds: « Oh, by the way, perhaps I shall not want some of this work at all, and it will be nine or ten months, probably, before so-and-so is required. But I must ask you, before undertaking the contract to give me a marked cheque for ten pounds, which I will hold as a security for due performance of the work. That cheque I will cash and pay into a special account, and return when the contract is, to my satisfaction, completed. In case of any delay or irregularity on your part, I will retain the money. » Would not the first impulse of the ordinary printer be to kick the man out? During the past month we have received two proposals of exactly the same kind from local government bodies. We are expected to spend time making up an estimate on elaborate specifications for a few trumpery jobs, and then to lend a substantial sum of money for twelve months without interest or security, and with the risk of losing it on some paltry quibble! No, Messrs Local Bodies. It is not good enough. We have waste-basketed your specimens and specifications, and if any printer takes the work on your terms, Typo wishes him much joy of his contract.