Book Excerpt



New York: R.R. Bowker Co. 1983. 4to. cloth, dust jacket. xvi, 389 pages. Second edition, revised and enlarged. This work is more than a chronicle for antiquarians, bibliophiles, collectors, historians, and printing enthusiasts. Roderick Cave transcends a factual documentation of private press activities and brings to a full-bodied text the personal observations and insights of a 25-year involvement with the private press phenomenon. This selective history spans the private press movement from the origin of... READ MORE

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Chapter 24


In most cases, the private presses that existed before the nineteenth century used types that were publicly available through the usual trade channels. To distinguish between “public” and “private” presses in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is difficult, as we have seen. A number of the early printers worked in a way we may with hindsight regard as being closer in spirit to the private press than to commercial printing, but in most of these cases there is little reason to believe their types were specially designed as part of the aesthetic policy of the printer. No doubt in the fifteenth century, before typefounding had emerged as a separate trade, there was close involvement between the printer and punchcutter and that in the Aldine printing house, for example, Francesco Griffo’s introduction of new sorts followed discussion between himself and his master. Deliberate and self-conscious designing of types as one aspect of fine printing certainly came before William Morris and his followers at the end of the nineteenth century, but not typically from private presses.

One possible exception to this general rule is to be found in the work of the Italian writing masters of the early sixteenth century. Lodovico degli Arrighi da Vicenza, a “scrittore de’ brevi apostolici,” as he described himself, produced at Rome in 1522 the first manual on writing to be published, La Operina. The first part of this was printed entirely from wood blocks, but the second part, Il Modo di Temperare le Penne, contains several pages printed in a very fine italic typeface modeled on the “cancellaresca formata” hand. The type was fairly obviously derived from the hand used by Arrighi himself; it seems likely that the punches were cut by his partner, who can with reasonable certainty be identified as Lautizio de Bartolomeo dei Rotelli, of whose skill as an engraver of seals Benvenuto Cellini speaks with respect in his Autobiography. From 1524 until the sack of Rome in 1527 (in which it is presumed that Arrighi perished), the two partners produced a series of small books printed either in this typeface or in a second chancery italic typeface. If Arrighi’s press was not “private” in that he apparently published for profit, nevertheless the style of his production was more that of a man interested in producing a handsome effect than making much money. His types were large (about 16 point) with generous ascenders and descenders; he eschewed all ornamentation and favored a severe style. With the exception of one or two small initials in one of his books, he used no decorative material, but instead affected the manner of the manuscript, with blanks for initials to be filled in later by illuminators.

Arrighi’s manner and his type designs were widely imitated in his own day by such printers as Tolomeo Janiculo. Giovanni Antonio Castellione of Milan used a similar, upright, chancery letter; and the same handsome font was employed by Gaudentius Merula at his private press in Bergo Lavezzaro, near Novara, in 1542. In the great revival of classical typefaces in the 1920s, Arrighi was well served: Under the direction of Frederic Warde in 1925, Plumet of Paris recut his faces for a new edition of Arrighi’s writing book that was printed by the Officina Bodoni, a press that has made distinguished use of the Arrighi faces in its books. Warde’s version of the first Arrighi face needed a good deal of revision for machine composition as a companion face to a roman type, but when issued by the Monotype Corporation married to Bruce Rogers’s Centaur type (based upon the Venetian roman used by Jenson in the 1470s), it was an entirely happy union. To accompany the fine recutting of the type used by Aldus Manutius in the Poliphilus, which the Monotype Corporation undertook in 1923, Arrighi’s second italic was used as a model. Named Monotype Blado, after the printer Antonio Blado who used the type in the 1530s, it is one of the handsomest of italic types. The design of Monotype Bembo italic follows it closely.

During the three centuries that followed the invention of printing, a good number of typefaces were cut for semiprivate use. We can see examples of such in the magnificent Greek face used in printing the New Testament in the Complutensian Polyglot, completed by Arnão Guillen de Brocar in 1514; or in the “Romain du Roi” types cut for the Imprimerie Royale at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For scholarly printing in particular, it was often necessary or desirable to obtain special typefaces. Thus Sir Henry Savile (1549–1622), the Provost of Eton, having vainly attempted to obtain a font of the French “Grècque du Roi” types for an edition of St. Chrysostom he was interested in producing, eventually imported a special font from the firm of Wechel in Frankfurt am Main. This typeface was based fairly closely on the French Royal Greeks and became known as the “silver type” from the legend that it was cast in silver matrices. The preparation of the Chrysostom cost Savile the enormous sum of £8,000, and the book was completed by John Norton in 1612.

Similarly, when the Anglo-Saxon type used by William Bowyer the elder to print the specimen for Elizabeth Elstob’s Anglo-Saxon grammar was destroyed in the disastrous fire that devastated Bowyer’s printing house in 1712, Lord Chief Justice Parker undertook to pay the cost of casting a new font of type with which to print her work. This typeface ought to have been a great success, as the drawings for the new design were (at Lord Parker’s request) made by the eminent Saxonist Humfrey Wanley. But Robert Andrews, the punchcutter entrusted with the task of translating the designs into type, failed miserably.

I did what was required [commented Wanley] in the most exact and able manner that I could…. But it signified little, for when the alphabet came into the hands of the workman (who was but a blunderer), he could not imitate the fine and regular strokes of the pen; so that the letters are not only clumsy, but unlike those I drew. This appears by Mrs Elstob’s Saxon Grammar.

The verdict of history agrees with Wanley; although the type was used by Bowyer and his son occasionally after the appearance of the Grammar in 1715, it was not used at Oxford University Press (into whose possession the punches and matrices eventually passed in 1778) until 1910, when with the addition of some extra sorts it was used as a phonetic script by Robert Bridges in his Tract on the State of English Pronunciation.

An outstanding instance of devotion to scholarship can be seen in the punchcutting undertaken by Charles Wilkins, who was in the Civil Service of the East India Company. Early in the 1770s, William Bolts, judge of the Mayor’s Court in Calcutta, provided the London founder Joseph Jackson with designs for a Bengali font of type with which the East India Company intended to print a grammar. Only a primary alphabet was completed, as the result was too poor to justify continuing. The project might well have languished, had it not been for the fact that Wilkins, that in his twenties, had been experimenting with the cutting and casting of Bengali type as a hobby. It was to remain a hobby for a very short while only. In the words of the preface to Halhed’s Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778):

The advice and even solicitations of the Governor-general prevailed upon Mr Wilkins … to undertake a set of Bengal Types. He did, and his success has exceeded every expectation. In a country to remote from all connection with European artists, he has been obliged to charge himself with all the various occupations of the Metallurgist, the Engraver, the Founder, and the Printer. To the merit of invention he was compelled to add the application of personal labour. With a rapidity unknown in Europe, he surmounted all the obstacles which necessarily clog the first rudiments of a difficult art, as well as the disadvantages of solitary experiment.

As the founder of Bengali typefounding, Wilkins was no longer, of course, in the position of an amateur, for typefounding became his chief concern. He trained as Indian assistant, Panchanan Karmakar, as punchcutter and founder, and it seems likely in fact that he was the real craftsman in the enterprise, and that Wilkins’s skills were far less than those of his pupil. At any rate, Karmakar continued to run the typefoundry set up in Calcutta after Wilkins returned to England in 1786. Subsequently he entered the service of the Mission Press in Serampore and was responsible for training the other punchcutters whose skill made the work of the Baptist Mission Press so well known in the nineteenth century.

After his return to England, Wilkins continued his linguistic and typographic pursuits, once more at his own initiative and expense.

At the commencement of the year 1795 [he wrote in the Preface to his Grammar of the Sanskrita Language] residing in the country and having much leisure, I began to arrange my materials and prepare them for publication. I cut letters in steel, made matrices and moulds, and cast from them a fount of types of the Deva Nagari character, all with my own hands; and with the assistance of such mechanics as a country village [Midhurst] could afford, I very speedily prepared all the other implements of printing in my own dwelling house; for by the second of May in the same year I had taken proofs of 16 pages.… Till two o’clock on that day everything had succeeded to my expectations; when alas the premises were discovered to be in flames, which, spreading too rapidly to be extinguished, the whole building was presently burned to the ground.… I happily saved all my books and manuscripts, and the greatest part of the punches and matrices; but the types themselves … were either lost or rendered useless.

Subsequently the East India Company directors persuaded Wilkins to resume his efforts, and his work was published in 1808. It was not from his private press (as he had originally intended) but from that of Bulmer. Specimens of Wilkins’s types were shown in Johnson’s Typographia.

Similar special casting of exotic typefaces was probably commoner on the continent than it was in England. In the New World, typefounding was strictly a normal utilitarian trade and was to remain one for very much longer; not until the beginning of the twentieth century were special private press faces cut. But there is some evidence to suggest that long before the first commercial typefounding in Mexico, in 1770, type had been specially cast for the Mission Press operated by the Jesuits in Paraguay.

The Jesuit Republic of Paraguay was one of the most remarkable of all European essays in colonialism, although most of us know little more about it than the distorted picture given in Candide. The Paraguayan Indians had extraordinary skill in handicrafts; Francisco Xarque, writing in 1687, commented that they were able to copy a printed missal with the pen so exactly that only the closest examination enabled one to distinguish the written from the printed text; and in 1711 Father Labbé commented on their skill. “I have seen,” he wrote, “lovely paintings from their hands, books very correctly printed, others written with much delicacy….” With such assistants available, one wonders less that the Jesuits were able to establish a press that between 1705 and 1727 produced several of the works used in their own Christianization. This printing was carried out “sin gastos, asi de la ejecion, como en los caracteres propios de esta lengua” (without expense in the execution, and in the correct types for the language), and although there is no more than circumstantial evidence to suggest that the type was cast by the Indians, the great Latin American bibliographer, José Toribio Medina, was satisfied that the mission printers were the first typefounder in the Americas.

When Benjamin Franklin was appointed sole minister plenipotentiary of the United States to the King of France in 1776 and set about equipping himself with a printing press, his press was much more than a hobby. It was as much of an official as of a private nature, and it grew to very large proportions. In 1776 he brought a small font of type from Fournier-le-jeune, much larger amounts in 1778 and 1779, and in May 1780 added typefounding equipment at a cost of 5,000 livres. A foreman and three assistants were employed upon this work. Some of the type was cast for American printers cut off from their usual English sources of supply. But it was also employed in casting a special, private, typeface.

In his position as American minister, Franklin was well aware of the danger of having his official documents (such as passports) forged. He was not unfamiliar with the problem. As printer of much of the paper currency used in the American colonies, he had devised an extremely successful method of nature printing to make the forger’s task very much harder. In his passports he does not appear to have resorted to this method (which was continued in America right up to the 1780s), but instead to have relied upon typographic ingenuity and upon the use of a distinctive ornamental script type, perhaps designed by himself, for which the matrices were cut by Fournier-le-jeune and cast in 1781 in Franklin’s Passy foundry.

In few if any of these private or specially commissioned faces, however, can we sense the particular aesthetic ideals with which the idea of the private press was to become imbued by the end of the nineteenth century. One notable exception is in the Greek typeface used by Julian Hibbert at his private press at No. 1 Fitzroy Place, Kentish Town, in 1827 and 1828. Hibbert is one of the most shadowy and Peacockian figures of the early nineteenth century. Born in 1800 and educated at Eton and trinity College, Cambridge, he was a member of the wealthy Hibbert family with estates in Agualta Vale, Jamaica. His uncle Robert Hibbert was the founder of the Hibbert Trust, and George Hibbert, the West Indian merchant and book collector, was a cousin. Although Julian read for the law at Lincoln’s Inn, he seems never to have practiced, and it is fairly clear from what little we know of him that his main concern throughout his short adult life (he died in 1834, reputedly from shock after being abused by a judge before whom he had refused to swear on the Bible) was to further the cause of free thought and rationalism, in which he was an enthusiastic believer. He did this by lecturing, by generous financial support of Richard Carlile and others when they were imprisoned or otherwise in need, and by his writing and publishing activities. His earliest work was published in Carlile’s Republican, and we can only guess at his reasons for establishing his own press. He may have had aesthetic reasons, or it may have been pure benevolence. In 1826 one of Carlile’s assistants, James Watson, who had received training as a compositor in the Republican office, fell ill. In his own words:

I was attacked by cholera, which terminated in typhus and brain fever. I owe my life to the late Julian Hibbert. He took me from my lodgings to his own house at Kentish Town, nursed me, and doctored me for eight weeks, and made a man of me again. After my recovery, Mr Hibbert got a printing press put up in his house, and employed me in composing, under his directions, two volumes… . I was thus employed, from the latter part of 1826, to the end of March 1828.

The first of the two books on which Watson worked was OPFEWE YMNOI: The Book of the Orphic Hymns … Printed in Uncial Letters as a Typographical Experiment. And Published for the Sum of Three Shillings and Sixpence in the Year 1827. It is pleasantly printed octavo of 122 pages. The uncial type so prominently advertised was, according to Hibbert’s “Preface addressed by the Printer to Greek Scholars” derived in the first place “from the inspection of inscriptions in the Musaeums of London and Paris, and thus it is no wonder, if it still retains more of a sculptitory than of a scriptitory appearance.” The type was deliberately eclectic (Illus. 166). Having read Montfaucon’s Palaeographia Graeca and examined facsimiles of the Herculanean manuscripts, he produced his design.

If I had adopted the alphabet of any one celebrated MS., I should have had infinitely less trouble…. As it is, I have taken each letter separately from such MSS. as I thought best represented the beau ideal of an uncial type; … yet placed side by side, they look very different from a MS.

Hibbert’s aim was twofold: to produce a Greek type that was suitable for ordinary use,

[and one that ] represents with tolerable accuracy the forms of the letters used by the Greeks themselves, in the brightest days of their literature… . I do not mean a type like that used in Bodoni’s Callimachus … ornamented (or rather disfigured) by the addition of what, I believe, typefounders calls syrifs or cerefs.

A second book from Hibbert’s press was published in May 1828: PEPI DESI-DAIMONIAS: Plutarchus, and Theophrastus, on Superstition, a 280-page octavo that was priced at one guinea. This strange composite book, which closes with 10 pages of the principal addenda and corrigenda (Hibbert was clearly like several other private press owners of the period!), includes an entertaining account of the production of the Orphic Hymns. Evidently Hibbert’s typographic experiment was undertaken on a modest budget indeed. Only the Greek types had been acquired when he set up, and when he found he needed to print some Latin, for roman type he had “to send to London … two or three hours being sometimes lost for a single word.” The preface includes an interesting balance sheet for the production of the Orphic Hymns, from which we learn that of 258 copies printed, only some 20 seem to have been sold (including “three copies forced upon H. B. Esq.”), with an income of £3 9s. 6d. and an outlay of £34 iis. 6d.

Hibbert’s experiment was an interesting one, in some respects like Robert Proctor’s revival of the Greek used in the Complutensian Polyglot, or perhaps more accurately like recent private press cuttings of Rustic or Uncial forms of the roman alphabet. As a contribution to Greek typography, however, it was a total failure. It received no notice at the time, and later typographic historians have not often shown in much favor. Although Daniel Berkeley Updike allowed that Hibbert’s font “had considerable charm” most follow Victor Scholderer, who (in his Greek Printing Types, 1465-1927), while recognizing the possibilities inherent in Hibbert’s idea, damns its execution as the work of a man “altogether too much of a dilettante,” whose typeface revealed in its design “for the most part mere wilfulness.”

Dilettante was certainly the right word for Hibbert, as his two prefaces clearly show. But I believe Scholderer did him an injustice in dismissing the design so scathingly. As shown in the Orphic Hymns, the face was in a first experimental form with which Hibbert himself was far from content, hoping it to be “good in theory, altho’ I confess the execution of it is detestable.” Which typefounder Hibbert employed is unknown, and he had not found the experience a satisfying one:

I am tired with attempting to produce a better ranging of the characters. I cannot afford to employ the best workmen and the successive changes made by indifferent workmen are not improvements but only expences… . It will easily be perceived that the forms of some of the letters slightly vary in almost every different half sheet. The letter G, tho’ one of the simplest, has given me extraordinary trouble.

Hibbert’s offer to attempt improvement if enough interest was shown was not taken up.

Nothing further seems to have come from Hibbert’s press after Watson left him in 1828, although it is possible that some more ephemeral pieces were printed. It is evident that Watson and Hibbert parted amicably, for when Watson set up as a printer on his own account in 1831, Hibbert gave him his press and types, and a further legacy of 450 guineas after his death. It is not known whether Hibbert’s Greek type was given to Watson with the rest of his equipment; I have not seen any use of it in Watson’s later work. Updike said that it was melted down, and from Hibbert’s own account this seems likely.

There were other private press typefaces during the first half of the nineteenth century. Cotton, in his Typographical Gazetteer, speaks of one Russell who was said to have printed a duodecimo Natural History of the Bees in Elgin in 1822, in an edition limited to two copies, using types he had cut himself.

More important were the various exotic faces cut for the Baptist Mission Press in Serampore and for some other missionary activities elsewhere. Most of these faces were produced by regular typefounders in the first instance, although one of the most famous, the Cree Syllabic type had different origins.

A Wesleyan Methodist missionary, the Rev. James Evans, had been at work among the Ojibway Indians in Canada since 1822 and had published a Speller and Interpreter in English and Ojibway in New York. Evans, however, like many missionaries, found the roman alphabet less than ideal to represent the sounds of speech in native tongues and eventually (by 1840) perfected a system of 36 syllables he believed would meet all the needs of the Canadian Indian languages.

Adapted to the Ojibway and all the kindred dialects, to the Assiniboins, the Crees, Mushkegoes, the Black Feet near the mountains … indeed with some slight alterations … [it may be used for] writing every language from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains.

Evans reported that those in his mission at Norway House could read and write it with ease and fluency. At first he copied out his syllabics by hand on pieces of birchbark. These proved so popular that he realized he must resort to printing. But there was a difficulty, quite apart from the lack of type for his syllabary: the Hudson’s Bay Company, which controlled all transport, was not in favor of making the Indians literate and refused to bring in a press.

Being a man of much determination, Evans built his own primitive press on the model of the fur presses used at the trading posts. He also overcame the problem of providing type, for which he used musket balls and the linings of tea chests melted down:

I have got excellent type, considering the country and materials; they make at least a tolerably good impression. The letter or character I cut in finely polished oak. I filed out of one side of an inch square iron bar the square body of the type; after placing the bar with the notch over the letter, I applied another polished bar to the face of the mould, and poured in the lead, after it had been repeatedly melted in order to harden it. These required a little dressing on the face and filing to the uniform square and length, but they answer well.

With some coarse paper and with ink contrived of soot and oil, in 1841 Evans printed 100 copies of a 16-page booklet containing the syllabary and some Bible texts and hymns translated into Cree. This effort was enough to overcome the skepticism of the church authorities about the value of his syllabary. They had a regular font of the type cut in England, and the Hudson’s Bay Company withdrew its opposition. With the new type and a small handpress shipped in via Hudson’s Bay, Evans and his successors at the mission continued work under rather easier circumstances.

Evan’s work is the most famous of this kind. But where missionaries did not abandon the roman alphabet, there was less need for such enterprise. Nevertheless, there were occasions when manual dexterity in such work could be of use. In 1879, while at the court of Mutesa, Kabaka of the Baganda, the Anglican missionary Alexander Mackay recorded in his journal how he was printing reading sheets in the Luganda and Swahili languages, using some large wooden types he had cut, and cutting and casting a small font of midsize letters as an intermediate step between the large wooden types and the small-size type supplied with his press. Few of those who undertook missionary work had such skills, however. Even when they had, they resorted to such local production only as a stopgap measure until supplies of superior types became available from Europe.