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LOVE OF LETTERS


Words on a page make language visible. Even after years of reading, the magic does not lessen. I love books that include a note on the typeface, since almost every font you can think of has an interesting story.

The fragment of text above is from The tragicall historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke by William Shakespeare, printed by Doves Press in 1909. It is a rare example of what has come to be known as The Drowned Font.

Doves was established in Hammersmith in 1900 by Emery Walker and Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson. Walker, the son of a coach builder, had already established his own firm of engravers and was a lifelong friend of William Morris. Cobden-Sanderson had been a barrister before he turned to bookbinding. Together the two produced books that, without illustrations or other decoration, depended for their beauty on the clarity and perfection of the typeface. An edition of The Bible in black with red trimmings was their outstanding achievement

Walker designed the Doves font based on the typography of a 15th century Venetian printer. When the two partners fell out, Cobden-Sanderson carried on alone until 1916, when he closed the press. What transpired next has become a legend in the history of print.

At the split an agreement was drawn up that gave Cobden-Sanderson use of the Doves font until his death, when it would revert to Walker. But the bookbinder became increasingly obsessed with the idea that the letters would be used to print undesirable texts, or shoddily produced books, so he set about destroying the font.

First he threw the matrices - the casts for the type - into the Thames. The metal letters took much longer to dispose of, perhaps as long as three years. From the last book printed by Doves Press, Cobden-Sanderson would wrap a couple of pages of the solid blocks of type in brown paper, tie the parcel with string and then walk in the dark to Hammersmith Bridge. It took many hundreds of trips to ‘bequeath’ the Doves font to the river.

Destroying the punches and matrices meant that the font was lost for ever. When he died, his crime came to light, and a furious Emery Walker sued his partner’s widow for £700.

Both my novels have been typeset in Mrs Eaves 13.5. Sarah Eaves was hired by the legendary printer and punch-cutter, William Baskerville, as his live-in housekeeper, and she later helped with typesetting and printing. Mr Eaves had abandoned Sarah and their five children, and within a month of his death she married Baskerville.

The Mrs Eaves font is a traditional serif typeface related to other modern Baskerville typefaces. It was designed in 1996 by Zuzana Licko, and named as a tribute to one of the forgotten women of typography. The flowing tail of its upper-case Q makes me want to find a thousand reasons to include proper nouns like Quebec, Queensland, and Queenie; the open lower-case g with its little quaint ‘ear’ is one of the distinguishing features of the typeface.

With word processing programs on computers, we all have the ability to choose how people will see what we write, an unimaginable when we depended on typewriters. But do we always know what style the font we choose is communicating? What makes us reach for Times New Roman as opposed to Gill Sans? The answers are to be found in Just My Type by Simon Garfield. This is an endlessly fascinating book about fonts, and if you love letters as I do you will be able to spend many happy hours with it.

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