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John Baskerville - Typographer & Master Printer

Posted: 2015-01-18 19:55

John Baskerville was born in the year 1706, in the village of Wolverley, north Worcestershire. At the age of 17, he taught handwriting to the youth of Kings Norton parish. In 1726, he was appointed as a writing master at Kings Edwards School, Birmingham. In 1728 his father died and the estate, which he inherited would provided a fair income for him. It was about this time he entered the Japanning trade - the skill of decorating metal articles such as tin trays, picture frames, clock cases etc., with layers of varnish - the more valuable items were additionally decorated with paintings. Baskerville did not signature his work, and as a consequence it is not possible to attribute specific works by him. The commonly held belief is he developed the formula for the varnish solution by following the inspiration of a certain Mr.Taylor; who had amassed a fortune in this particular practice. Baskerville's own business acumen and artistic skills would similarly secure his pecuniary future.


A portrait of John Baskerville circa. 1770.

In 1748, he left his house at 22, Moor Street, Birmingham, to reside in his new property, '' Easy Hill ''; which was located approximately a quarter mile from the city centre and was built to a budget of 6,000. A site which can still be visited nowadays near to the present Memory Hall in Broad Street.
'' Easy Hill '', Birmingham in 1749.

He married widow Mrs. Sarah Eaves in 1746, and they had one son who sadly died in infancy. In a letter written letter by Alexander Carlyle mention is made with reference to being entertained by Mr. Baskerville at his new home. He describes the house as completely furnished, '' clean and bright as if it had come straight from the shop ''.Soon Benjamine Franklin, the US President and a senior partner in a Philadelphia printing firm, was also to visit Baskerville in his new home.
John Baskerville was locally renowned for his handsome carriage, drawn by a pair of striking, cream coloured horses. Each panel was lavishly illustrated with a depiction of his trade card; and was often referred to as, ''one of the wonders of Birmingham ''.

In 1761 he was appointed High Bailiff of the city, with responsibilities for the market inspections rectifying weights and dry measures, making proclamations of two fairs per year and to host dinner parties for fellow municipal officers. The purpose of these dinners being to promote business, but, '' It was too early to begin business till the table was well stored with bottles, and too late afterwards ''.

It was not until he reached the age of 50 did he start the work that would eventually make him famous. He spent two years to complete the drawings of letters, and six years to supervise the cutting of punches. In order to eliminate any errors in the text he employed two proof readers; one to name every letter, capital, point etc., that is in English and be able to spell every word correctly. This rather laborious method was necessary though to detect any type imperfections. Baskerville was a perfectionist by nature and was intent on making his work the best one could acquire.

'' Virgil '', was the first book to be set in his designed font.
'' The book is printed in the most beautiful and brilliant purple-blue ink ever seen '',(of his own formula), on a hand press also of his manufacture ''. The paper he made from waste silk. rendered with an innovative polished surface finish accomplished by pressing the sheets between his own japanned plates, but somewhere from some source, he acquired a vision of the Book as a whole ''.
The book went to press after seven years of preparation and is considered to be a landmark in typographic history. The subscribers listed from home and abroad numbered 513. The price of the volume, issued in sheets, was one guinea. Today one can see the letters, VIRGIL , in Baskerville type outside the front of Baskerville House, Broad Street in the city civic centre.

He was appointed Printer to the Cambridge University Press in December 1758, holding this position until 1763. The printing of Bibles and Prayer Books being his stock in trade. It transpired that Baskerville would lose a great deal of money after he had finished his masterpiece Folio Bible in 1763. The last book he printed before his death at the age of 69 was William Hunter's, '' The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus '', published in 1774.

Unable to find a buyer of his type in England, Baskerville's fonts ended up being sold by his widow in 1779 to Beaumarchis, a French Dramatist for the printing of a ninety-two volume edition of Voltaire's Works (1780 - 1789). Many of Voltaire's editions were banned by the French authorities at the time; numerous copies being burned. The volumes were printed in Kekl, Germany then brought back to France for clandestine distribution. The original punches were lost for a number of years before being eventually discovered 200 years later in Paris. The French printing company Deberny & Peignot subsequently presented the surviving punches to the Cambridge University Press. The Special Collections of both the Birmingham Reference Library and the John Rylands University Library, Manchester hold volumes produced by Baskerville.

'' Birmingham has contributed many distinguished men to the industrial armies of England: but there are few of whom she has more reason to be proud than the skilful genius ''.
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