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
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
in black with red trimmings was their outstanding
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
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
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.
Other musings on the Writing Life ...