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180: Baskerville: An Incomplete History of Type



From the middle ages to the Middle East, From Futura to Freight, join us on a journey across the type universe and go where no designer has gone before...Welcome to An Incomplete History of Type.


Name: Baskerville

Release Date: 1757

Designer: John Baskerville

Classification: Transitional Serif

Owned By: Well...it’s a bit complicated. The original Baskerville punches are now owned by Cambridge University Press, but the design itself is in the public domain. Many digital adaptations of Baskerville have been introduced over the years, and are owned by the specific type foundries (or individuals) who designed them.

Claim to Fame: Baskerville was praised by U.S. founding father Benjamin Franklin. We’ll get to that a little bit later.


But first, we must travel back in time to learn about the man, the work, the time, and place behind this dearly loved typeface.


So join me...and let’s bask in the glory of Baskerville!


John Baskerville was an English printer, typefounder, and businessman, born in Wolverly, Worcestershire in 1707. Early on in life, Baskerville developed a keen interest in lettering. Around the age of 20, he moved to Birmingham, where became a writing-master, a teacher of calligraphy, and a headstone carver. Later on, Baskerville found employment in the decorative art of Japanning, a European imitation of East Asian lacquerware. In this profession, Baskerville became extremely wealthy and was secured for life. But, he wasn’t satisfied just yet...


With his newly amassed fortune, Baskerville returned to his first true love...letterforms! However, he wasn’t content to make a hobby out of handwriting. Baskerville had a curious mind and was fascinated by all things technology. It was only fitting for him to explore one of the greatest technological innovations of his time – printing!


In 1747, Baskerville leased 8 acres of land, built a luxurious estate, and set up his own printing workshop. He also hired local craftsmen to aid in his ambitious endeavor. John Handy worked as his punchcutter, while Robert Martin became his pressman.


Baskerville set out to develop a new style of printing – something that the world had never seen before. According to F. E. Pardoe, Baskerville’s goal was “to change the overall look and feel of the printed page.” With exacting standards and an eye for detail, he aimed to produce books of the highest possible quality. So, how exactly did he achieve this goal?

Well...Baskerville was an “all-in” type of guy. His holistic approach even earned him the moniker of “the complete printer.” For seven years, he worked diligently to refine every key aspect of the book-making process. He experimented with casting and setting type, adapting the printing press, improving the quality of his paper and his ink, and of course...designing a brand new typeface.


Baskerville's background in calligraphy, stone carving, and Japanning gave him a unique perspective when it came to type design. He cleverly fused his stylistic sensibilities with the meticulous manufacture of moveable type. It was a match made in typographic heaven.

While his peers, like William Caslon, focused on refining the work of earlier punch-cutters, Baskerville drew from the field of calligraphy in his effort to create the perfect letterform. In modeling his designs on written script, he was effectively reviving a method used by printers of the early Renaissance (check out the Talk Paper Scissors episode on Blackletter for more on this).


Now, let's take a look at some of the characteristics that made Baskerville’s typeface so unique.


1: Heightened contrast between thick and thin strokes

As previously mentioned, Baskerville’s designs were inspired by human penmanship, which naturally contains variations in stroke weight. The contrast built into Baskerville had an effect on the typographic colour of the printed page. With additional white space, it had a much lighter appearance than many of its predecessors.


2: Upright stress in rounded strokes

From the 15th century to the 18th century, a prevailing type trend was to shift the stress of rounded characters from oblique (or slanted) to upright (or vertical).


3: Sharp, bracketed serifs

When designing, Baskerville increased the sharpness of his serifs by tapering them. This characteristic would later be exploited (and taken to the extremes) by individuals like Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni, in their Modern type designs.


Baskerville contains several conspicuous characters. These include...


A lower-case, double-story “g” with an open bowl, an upper-case G with a spur, and an upper-case Q with a curvy and dramatic tail. Another defining letterform in Baskerville is its uppercase E, whose lowest arm is longer than its highest. Grace Gibson uniquely explains that this arm “protrudes out like an underbite.”


Today, Baskerville is classified as a transitional serif typeface. Transitional faces were given this name, as they marked a transition between Old Style, low-contrast typefaces like Caslon to Modern, high-contrast designs like those of Didot and Bodoni.


In 1757, Baskerville’s typeface made its striking debut in a collection of Virgil’s poetry. His forms were crisp, clear, and consistent. The typeface was a remarkable feat, however...it wasn’t without its critics. Many of Baskerville’s English contemporaries disapproved of his work, dismissing him as “a silly amateur.” Others complained that the contrast in the typeface was too high and that reading it hurt their eyes. Perhaps they were all a bit jealous of his accomplishments.


Nevertheless, Baskerville did have several eager patrons and supporters, including the statesman, printer, and contemporary star of the American $100 bill...that’s right, Benjamin Franklin! Baskerville’s designs grew more popular abroad than they were in England, and were particularly influential in France and Italy.


His reputation as a fine printer began to spread, but unfortunately, his fame didn’t lead to fortune. The process of printing with moveable type was time-consuming and costly. Because of this, Baskerville’s printed classics and breathtaking Bibles were sold at very high prices, and could only be afforded members of the educated elite.


Frustrated by his fate and disheartened by hostile critics, Baskerville temporarily retired in 1764, before returning to print a final series of classics between 1770 and his death in 1775.

After John Baskerville died, his widow, Sarah, sold his printing materials to the French dramatist Pierre Beaumarchais. Baskerville’s typeface was used to print the works of Voltaire as well as pamphlets during the French Revolution. In time, his designs went out of style and fell out of circulation. In fact, his typeface could have been lost for good, had it not been for an accidental discovery of his original metal punches in 1917. Baskerville was reintroduced to the world by an American typographer named Bruce Rogers, and gradually expanded in popularity.


Over the years, Baskerville has undergone countless revivals. The first modern renewal came in 1923, thanks to Stanley Morison of Monotype. In 1978, the Mergenthaler Linotype Company released an updated version of the typeface, which included additional line weights. Then, in 1996, an innovator in digital typography named Zuzana Licko adapted Baskerville into a family called Mrs. Eaves. Her character sets, named after Baskerville’s wife Sarah Eaves, contain over 200 distinctive ligatures and were released by a type foundry called Emigre.


Today, more than 250 years after it was created, Baskerville is everywhere! With clean-cut letterforms that retain their legibility at a range of different sizes, the typeface is useful for both display and text. It can be seen in books, newspapers, magazines, and signage all around the world. Modern adaptations of the typeface can be found in the branding of Kate Spade New York, The Metropolitan Opera, and even in the corporate identity of the Canadian government.


Baskerville’s endurance is a testament to its simplicity and adaptability. To the modern-day reader, it may look standard, bookish, and even somewhat plain, but it was radical and unconventional in its time.


John Baskerville was ambitious, goal-oriented, and forward-thinking. With a bold new vision of what typography could be, he’s had a pretty darn great legacy.

So thank you, Mr. Baskerville, for poring over your letterforms, pouring that hot molten metal, and pouring your heart into all that you did.


And thank you for joining me on this journey through An Incomplete History of Type.






References:


Archer-Parré, C., Carey, A. M., & Adcock, K. (2020). The Baskervillepunches: Revelations of craftsmanship. Midland History, 45(2), 176-189. https://doi.org/10.1080/0047729X.2020.1767973


Beier, S. (2015). The design process seen through the eyes of a type designer.Artifact (London, England), 3(4), 8.1-8.8. http://dx.doi.org/10.14434/artifact.v3i4.6199

Boardley, J. (n.d.). Transitional faces. Google Fonts. https://fonts.google.com/knowledge/history_of_type/transitional_faces


Gibson, G. (2016, October 9). Sometimes basic is good. Medium. https://medium.com/@gracegibsonE4/sometimes-basic-is-good-e59b66e8a7b5


History West Midlands. (2012, November 27). John Baskerville and the beauty of letters [Video]. YouTube.


ITC New Baskerville. (n.d.). Fonts.com. Retrieved January 27, 2024 from https://www.fonts.com/font/itc/itc-new-baskerville/story


Kate Spade font. (n.d.). FontMeme.com. Retrieved January 27, 2024 from https://fontmeme.com/kate-spade-font/


McCarthy, S. (2013). Each go hide inside me: Black Baskerville remixed. Visual Communication (London, England), 12(2), 198-206. https://doi.org/10.1177/14703572124540




About Our Guest:


Hi there! I’m Audrey. I’m a fourth year student at Toronto Metropolitan University, majoring in Creative Industries and minoring in Communication Design. My passions lie in art history, branding, and visual storytelling. With a playful personality and an inquisitive mind, I’m here to share stories that are one-of-a-kind!












Music (public domain): TRG Banks - Above the Earth


Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle


Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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