John Baskerville — Modern Typeface Inventor

John Baskerville [Birmingham Portrait Collection]

When I started work in the library everything about Birmingham was new to me.  Like any urban metropolis, the city has its towering new buildings, sprawling roads and tramlines. However, in the milieu of glass and steel, Baskerville House in Centenary Square makes an impressive statement. At a passing glance, the classic columns, grand entrance reached by steps and stylized windows are noticeable and makes one reflect on how architecture has evolved through the years. The historical background behind the building only became known to me from a photographer who used the Story Steps in the Children’s Library to take photographs from varied angles. In our conversation, I found out the building is named after the 18th century inventor and typographer John Baskerville, who invested in establishing a home and printing presses on the grounds where the building stands today.

Aerial view of Baskerville House (left) [WK/B11/8944] and the entrance to Baskerville House (right) [Broad Street 57]

Baskerville was way ahead of his times and introduced a simpler font which marked the departure from the earlier ornate appearance of fonts in book production. In ‘An History of Birmingham,’ William Hutton writes, ‘he spent many years in the uncertain pursuit, sunk 600 pounds before he could produce one letter to please himself.’ Such new methods seemed drastic at the time, however today the Baskerville font is preferred for its brevity and dignified appearance.

Baskerville experimented with paper and ink manufacturing to make reading more legible and easier. The main contrast between earlier typefaces and the Baskerville one is mainly the use of strokes. Baskerville focused on creating a higher contrast between thick and thin strokes and making the round strokes more circular. As an avowed atheist [Editor’s note 12/04/2022: Dr Caroline Archer-Parré says that ‘…this is a misapprehension I am trying to stamp out! Baskerville was probably a Deist…. He believed in God but not organised religion.’], Baskerville was not afraid to let his views be known, but that did not come in the way of understanding the demands of religious books.  Among his most notable works of printing are Milton’s Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Virgil’s poetry, the Book of Common Prayer and the 1763 edition of the Bible.

‘The Works of Virgil,’ was the first book printed and the edition was advertised for sale in ‘The London Press.’ Many famous names are to be found among the subscribers of the book printed, but no name is more interesting than that of Benjamin Franklin. How Franklin obtained knowledge of Baskerville and the new press is unknown, but it is likely his interest in printing acquainted him with Baskerville’s inventive printing techniques. The first edition of ‘Virgil’ is also known for the ‘glaze,’ surface of the paper. The exact method by which he glazed the paper was a trade secret Baskerville never revealed.

Archives and Collection holds books printed by John Baskerville in the Early and Fine Printing Collection. The original 1757 edition of ‘Virgil,’ is also part of the collection. On opening the book, I was immediately struck by the quality of the paper. The first few pages distinctively shows the weaves of the laid paper. Laid paper has a ribbed texture. When the paper is held to the light, one can see darker strips running along the chains. The rest of the pages in the book are of wove paper which has smooth surface and no rib lines show running across the sheet. ‘Virgil’ is attributed to be the first printed book with wove paper. The paper was invented by papermaker James Whatman. This type of paper is considered stronger than laid paper and the ink does not spread out.

Example of the ribbed texture of laid paper in the 1757 edition of ‘Virgil’

Although Baskerville chose wove paper for ‘Virgil’ most of his later books were printed on laid paper. The evidence that his own inventive printing techniques led to the discovery of a better version of paper is proof that he played along with new ideas. His clarity, vision and depth to simplify solutions, led to the discovery of newer inventions.

To view materials from the John Baskerville Collection, please contact archive.appointments@birmingham.gov.uk for further information.

Salima Yakoob, Library Services Assistant

Sketch of Baskerville House, 1791 [Broad Street 56]