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William Caslon is one of the most widely read men in the world – his 18th century typeface was even used for the US Declaration of Independence. Andre Paine discovers the story of this EC1 pioneer of metal type and his digital legacy…

Fonts have become fashionable. Thirty years after the Apple Macintosh offered users a rudimentary selection, we now have a dizzying array of digital type to help express our mood or meaning. However, there’s also an entire history of craft, ingenuity and hot metal, and the 18th century pioneer in EC1 is still celebrated as Britain’s father of fonts. William Caslon (1692-1766) was a shoemaker’s son from Worcestershire, who became an engraver of gun barrels and had a sideline making tools for bookbinders. When his artistry was noticed on a book with “uncommonly neat” lettering, Caslon entered the type trade in Helmet Row around 1722. The main foundry was established at 21-23 Chiswell Street from 1737. Caslon was also famed for his hospitality at his house at the same address, where monthly concerts were staged and ale brewed by Caslon was served.

Caslon’s type soon became noticed in a country that suffered from a “dependence on foreign genius in this grand arena of human skill,” according to A Dictionary of Printers and Printing (1839). Influenced by Dutch baroque, Caslon was the first to produce a distinctive English type with strong serifs (a projection finishing a letter stroke) and solid capitals. The glorious specimen sheets, which first appeared in 1734, show his type family. In the terminology of type, a font – or fount, as it was then called – was a complete set of one particular style and size of typeface that would have been cast in metal by Caslon’s foundry and sold to printers.

There’s a respect for these type traditions at the St Bride Foundation’s printing and graphic arts library and archive in Bride Lane. “This is the typographic DNA,” explains library assistant Bob Richardson, as he shows me the 1,051 boxes of Caslon letter punches in the storeroom. We unpack a set of large English Roman punches and they feel slightly gummy from the Vaseline used to prevent rusting. The index cards detail the year and the punch cutter who engraved each letter (back to front) into the end of a steel rod. We discover a set of Pica Gothick that was cut by William Caslon himself in 1734. “It was a huge job to create a whole family of types,” says Richardson. The process involved punch cutting each letter, to create every size and weight for a typeface; then hammering the punch into copper to create an indented matrix, which was fitted in a mould to cast the type.

Richardson shows me an 18th century, hand-held wooden mould, which would have had a ladle of hot metal – a lead, tin and antimony mixture – poured inside. This type-casting process was mechanised around the 1850s, but punch cutting by hand remained until the late 19th century, when typesetting machines took over. Caslon’s name endures, though, thanks to the strong style that incorporated elaborate loops and tails on his English ‘Old Face’. “They were just beautiful types and printers recognised the quality,” explains Richardson.

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Caslon died in 1766 at his country house in Bethnal Green, though the fi rm prospered under his son, William Caslon II. The roman type was known as the ‘script of kings’ and Caslon’s typeface was famously used for the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, though Richardson says there’s debate as to whether some of the letters are imitation Caslon. From 1816, Caslon Egyptian Type was the first ever sans-serif type - meaning without projections on the letter strokes, like Helvetica - to be sold commercially. “It was not popular – it was so unusual,” says Richardson.

Between 1792 and 1819, there were two separate Caslon family foundries, though it was the original that endured as HW Caslon & Co – but there was a twist. When Henry William Caslon died in 1874, he was the last descendant. So the manager, Thomas White Smith, acquired the firm, kept the name and encouraged his sons to take the surname Caslon, which they passed to their descendants.

‘They were just beautiful types and printers recognised the quality’

A company album from 1902 shows the busy workers and the packages of type, but foundry type was already becoming outmoded and the useful elements of the business were acquired by a rival in 1937. Today the Caslon name continues with a printing supply company run by the Caslon descendants of Thomas White Smith, which was based in Bakers Row until it moved to St Alban’s in 2002. Caslon remains popular for its combination of solidity and style: the body text of The New Yorker magazine appears in Adobe Caslon Pro, the digital revival designed by Carol Twombly in 1990.

Clerkenwell-based designer David Pearson used Caslon for the covers of Penguin’s Great Ideas series, as well as Caslon Doric for a new edition of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. “I often use Caslon typefaces when I’m looking for something robust enough to sit alongside – and support – some florid activity, but above all, it's the inherent Englishness of Caslon that I'm drawn to and the feint whiff of industrialization,” Pearson tells The Post.

Many experts consider ITC Founder’s Caslon the most faithful digital rendering of Caslon Old Face. Justin Howes, the typographer and historian who died in 2005, was an obsessive who scanned the type at various sizes from original sources. For a classic example in EC1, head to St Luke’s where the Caslon family tomb features the distinctive type that was first cut almost three centuries earlier by William Caslon – just a few yards from the churchyard. With thanks to Bob Richardson at the St Bride Foundation.
www.stbride.org

 

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