The tenth of March, 2011: lower-case serifs, and an Impudent Abuse of Common Sense

I’ve unearthed a new hero: the eighteenth-century printer John Baskerville (1706–1775). That’s ‘Baskerville’ as in Baskerville Old Face, Baskerville Open, Baskerville Normal and so on – yep, the man’s legacy lives in the drop-down fonts menu in MS Word (or, rather, it usually doesn’t, but can do, if you’ll only download it for free).

Isn’t it nice? Here’s what typophile Paul Bennett has to say about it:

BASKERVILLE, the fine transitional face named for the eighteenth-century English printer, is available in several contemporary versions. For twenty years Baskerville has been a favored type with American bookmakers.

Not very informative, I know, but I just wanted to squeeze something in from Books And Printing: A Treasury For Typophiles, Paul A. Bennett ed. (Frederic C Beil, 1991), a splendidly smart book that I’ve just discovered. Here’s a more technical analysis:

As a matter of fact, with its generous proportions, the Baskerville appears not very different from its predecessors. But the difference between fine and bold strokes is more marked, the lower-case serifs are almost horizontal and the emphasis on the stroke widths is almost vertical.

Thank-you to ABC Typography.

Anyway, much as I’m fond of the font, Baskerville isn’t the reason I think John Baskerville is great. My admiration is based on his brilliantly irascible godlessness.

Baskerville (the man, not the font) gave instructions that, after his death, his body was to be interred at an unconsecrated mausoleum – a ‘Conical Building’, adapted from a disused mill, at his home at Easy Hill, Birmingham.

He wrote:

This Doubtless to many may appear a Whim perhaps It is so—But it is a whim for many years Resolve’d upon, as I have a Hearty Contempt for all Superstition the Farce of a Consecrated Ground the Irish Barbarism of Sure and Certain Hopes &c I also consider Revelation as it is call’d Exclusive of the Scraps of Morality casually Intermixt with It to be the most Impudent Abuse of Common Sense which Ever was Invented to Befool Mankind.

Ha! Great stuff. His self-penned epitaph picked up the theme with only slightly less vinegariness:

Stranger—Beneath this Cone in Uncons[e]crated Ground

A Friend to the Liberties of mankind Directed his Body to be Inhum’d
May the Example Contribute to Emancipate thy mind
From the Idle Fears of Superstition
And the wicked arts of priesthood.

Take that, idle fears of superstition!

There are some sadnesses to this story. One is that the mausoleum at Easy Hill was burnt down during riots in 1791 (Baskerville’s body was eventually re-buried without ceremony in a vault in Christ Church, Birmingham, in 1829, and, later, when Christ Church was knocked down, beneath the chapel of the Church of England cemetery on Warstone Lane (this church, too, was demolished, and the vault bricked up: let’s call it the Curse of Baskerville, just for fun)).

A second is that Baskerville’s fame as a printer largely rests on the folio Bible he published in 1763. Bah! Still, a man has to make ends meet.

Here’s a nice tribute to this splendid son of the second city:

In private life he was a humourist, idle in the extreme, but his invention was of the true Birmingham mould, active. He could well design, but procured others to execute; wherever he found merit, he caressed it: he was remarkably polite to the stranger, fond of shew: a figure rather of the smaller size, and delighted to adorn that figure with gold lace.—Although constructed with the light timbers of a frigate, his movement was as solemn as a ship of the line… Whatever passed through his fingers, bore the lively marks of John Baskerville.

From the historian William Hutton‘s obituary of Baskerville, published anonymously in the European Magazine in 1785.


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