John Baskerville, the man of transition by Nicholas Fabian.
The man of transition
John Baskerville, Type Designer

by Nicholas Fabian

John Baskerville was born 1706 at Sion Hill, Wolverley, Worcester, England. By 1723, he had become a writing master and skilled engraver of gravestones. In 1738 he started a very successful varnishing ("japanning") business in Burmingham and within a decade he became a very wealthy man. Around 1750, he began experimenting with paper making, ink manufacturing, type founding, and printing, and about 1754 Baskerville produced his first typeface. (The punches were cut by John Handy who worked for him for 28 years, until Baskerville's death.) Three years later, in 1757, Baskerville published his first work, the Virgil, which was followed by some fifty other classics.

Baskerville sample 1
The title page from Baskerville's Virgil's Bucolica,
Georgica et Aeneis,
printed in Birmingham in 1757.

In 1758, Baskerville became a printer to Cambridge University, where on July 4, 1763 he published his masterpiece, a folio Bible, which was printed using his own typeface, ink and paper. This was a monumental difference from the accepted practice of his time. For instance, the papermaking mould’s wires run parallel to each other to produce laid paper, but they are woven together into a fine wire mesh for wove paper. The originator of this new papermaking technique was James Whatman (1702-59) from Kent, England but it was Baskerville who commercially introduced the new paper. The surface of wove paper was much smoother so it could receive a more gentle, “kiss” impression in Baskerville’s metal reinforced press, using his superior rich opaque black ink. Soon thereafter the usage of wove paper migrated from England to France and other European countries. From the 1760s the use of wove paper became the preference if not prerequisite to print the emerging new type designs of John Baskerville, Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni.

Baskerville folio Bible
The title page from the Hathorn family's Baskerville folio Bible
Volume 2, New Testament.
(Photo courtesy Gayle Hathorne.)

The use of heated copper cylinders to give a crisp finish to the printed pages indicates the unusual effort he would make to achieve excellence in printing. He died January 8, 1775. From the viewpoint of type development, Baskerville's typeface is classified as "transitional", positioned between the typefaces of William Caslon (Old style); and Giambattista Bodoni and Firman Didot (Modern).

Baskerville folio Bible 2
Inside page from the Baskerville folio Bible with Hathorn
familiy entries in pen script.
(Photo courtesy Gayle Hathorne.)

Baskerville designed type with great delicacy and visual eloquence. In spite of being surrounded by the ostentatious onamental style of his generation, Baskerville chose simplicity and quiet refinement both in type design and in his printing. His tastefully composed pages of type have the elegant appeal of superior design. As a designer, Baskerville's guiding principle is clarity and he permits nothing on his pages to interfere with the message.

Baskerville type close up
Extreme type close up from Baskerville's folio Bible.

As a personal challenge, he wanted to improve the great typeface of William Caslon. Baskerville had no formal training as a printer or punch-cutter so he crossed the technically safe boundries and existing conventions of his peers without any hesitation and experimented to obtain the desired results. Although an excellent designer, he did not improve on the Caslon face, but it is historically accurate to say that he did create a new masterpiece in type design named Baskerville.

Baskerville sample 2
Sample Baskerville inside page from Virgil's Bucolica,
Georgica et Aeneis,
printed in Birmingham in 1757.

In 1762 Baskerville published a type specimen sheet, displaying all the various fonts of the Baskerville typeface family. It was the first Type Specimen with a border. The Baskerville fonts were:

  • Five Line Pica.
  • French Cannon.
  • Two Line Double Pica.
  • Two Line Great Primer.
  • Two Line English.
  • Double Pica Roman with Double Pica Italic.
  • Great Primer Roman with Great Primer Italic.
  • English Roman with English Italic.
  • Pica Roman with Pica Italic.
  • Small Pica Roman with Small Pica Italic.
  • Long Primer Roman with Long Primer Italic.
  • Burgeois Roman with Burgeois Italic.
  • Brevier Roman No. 1. with Brevier Italic No. 1.
  • Brevier Roman No. 2. with Brevier Italic No. 2.
  • Nonpareil Roman with Nonpareil Italic.

Contrary to popular belief, after becoming wealthy, Baskerville did not abandon his business to focus his attention solely on type design, printing, publishing, papermaking and ink manufacturing. The historical records show that Baskerville maintained his business interests in his "japanning" (lacquering) business from around 1738 right into the year 1773, just two years before his death. It was his ongoing japanning business that generated the cash-flow, which financed Baskerville's Research & Development and his magnificent personal ambition of excellence in the graphic arts.

It must be clearly understood that, for potential customers, using Baskerville’s printing shop was, expensive. He used custom materials, on customized equipment, combined with customized print-production and finishing methods. At the time, the average cost of printing a sheet at most other printers was around 18 shillings; Baskerville charged three pounds, ten shillings! For most publishers Baskerville’s obvious qualitative difference in design and printing could not be cost justified. Clearly, Baskerville had focused his energies primarily on deluxe editions, publications that would surely guarantee his immortality. Which his magnificent 1757 Virgil and 1763 folio Bible certainly did.

It is unquestionable that the greatest influence of Baskerville’s type design, book design, and superb printing skills were not manifested in England but in France, Italy and the Low Countries. This appreciation was formally expressed by Jansen’s “Essai sur l’origine de la Gravure,” in Paris, 1808 when he wrote, “Incontestably, it is Baskerville who, not only to England but even to the whole of Europe, has given to the roman letter the most geometric proportions joined to the greatest elegance.” A well deserved tribute to a great master of typography.

The Baskerville types did not gain favor with the English printers which resulted in the decline of his fonts from the commercial market into relative typographical obscurity for more than 150 years. The undisputed historical fact is that, in spite of his fame (or perhaps because of it), up to 1773 no English printer ever bought any type, mats or punches from John Baskerville. Marginal sales from his type foundry during the last two years of his life only confirmed the massive rejection of his fonts by English printers. Free thinkers and innovators were frowned upon by the narrow minded and overly tradition bound craftsman-merchants of the English printing trade. In every creative respect including applied research & development, paper and ink technology, printing press innovations, type and book design, and precision printing Baskerville was years ahead of his time. At the end, it was not his envious and bickering compatriots but History that became the ultimate arbiter of his achievements. Based on overwhelming evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that John Baskerville had reached a level of excellence that few had ever equaled, or will ever equal, in the graphic arts.

Almost a hundred and fifty years later, the "Baskerville revival" was started by the Stephenson Blake Foundry in 1909 when they offered some limited versions of Fry's Baskerville fonts. Next, Morris Fuller Benton produced a Baskerville font in 1915, which was also based on Fry's Baskerville model. The real Baskerville's fonts were re-introduced by Bruce Rogers in 1917, which triggered the release of new Baskerville fonts by Monotype in 1924, Stempel in 1928, German Linotype in 1928, English Linotype in 1931, Deberny & Peignot, with new mats made from the original punches, in 1931 and Intertype in 1932.

Occasional use of Baskerville types can be found during this dormant period. Twenty years after his death, Edmund Fry’s 1795 type specimens did include (imitation) Baskerville types . But probably the most famous reference originates from late nineteen century England. Arthur Conan Doyle received his inspiration for the family name in "Hound of the Baskervilles" from the Baskerville types used in Strand Magazine, where the Sherlock Holmes serialized stories first appeared in 1891-93.

After Baskerville's death in 1775, his widow sold his original equipment, punches, matrices and type stock to Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beumarchais in France for 150,000 francs. Baskerville's fonts first were used in Kehl, near Strassbourg, for an edition of Voltaire issued in 1784, and later for the official journal of the French Republic. "Beumarchais brought the type back to Paris in 1790, set up a foundry and sold the type to a number of French printers, including the Iprimerie Nationale. In 1818 Beumarchais' daughters sold the material to Pierre Didot." TYPE DESIGNS & Their Development The Evolution of the Modern-Face Roman p: 71 by A.F. Johnson.

This Baskerville folio Bible was given to John Hathorn and his wife, Elizabeth Welling, in 1772, probably as a wedding present when they were married in Warwick, NY. John became a Colonel in the Militia of that town, led the Battle of Minisink, and later served in the first Congress of the United States, serving sixteen years, total. (Gayle Hathorne, Hathorne family archives.)

With a start-up capital from his inheritance in1738, the year his father died.

Benjamin Franklin visited John Baskerville in the summer of 1758, during his trip to Cambridge. He had subscribed for six copies of Virgil, and also purchased some of Baskerville’s japanned wares to take back to the United States.

During his stay at Harward University Press, Bruce Rogers actually started the new commercial use of Baskerville types by publishing "The Cemetery at Sousain" in 1921, using newly cast type from original Baskerville mats acquired from Plon, Nourrit &Cie; of Paris. (This was three years before Monotype produced the first set of "new" Baskerville fonts.) While at Harward University Press, Bruce Rogers printed six more books using Baskerville type.

The “Fry Baskerville” type was only a Baskerville imitation by Isaac Moore, cut in 1766.


This following newspaper clipping (probably the Birmingham Post or its ancestor) is dated May 1827.

" Disinterment - On Friday the remains of the celebrated John Baskerville, were disinterred in Birmingham. This gentleman, well known for the improvement he made in letter founding; was buried by an express direction contained in his will, in his own ground, in a Mausoleum erected for the purpose previous to his death. After his death the ground passed into the hands of Samual Ryland, Esq., who demised it to Mr. Gibson, who has since cut a canal through it. Soon after Mr.Ryland became possessor of this property, the Mausoleum erected for the purpose, which was a small conical building, was taken down and it was rumored at the tine, that the body had been removed. This proves to be ill founded, for it appears that a short tine before Christmas last, some workmen who were employed in getting gravel, discovered the leaden coffin. It was however immediately covered up, and remained untouched until Friday last, when the coffin was disinterred. The body was in a singular state of preservation, considering that it had been underground for about 46 years. It was wrapped in a linen shroud, which was very perfect and white, and on the breast lay a branch of laurel, faded but entire, and firm in texture. There were also leaves and sprigs of bay and laurel in other parts of the coffin and on the body. The skin on the face was dry but perfect. The eyes were gone, but eye brows, the eye lashes, lips and teeth remained. The skin on the abdomen and body generally was in the same state with the face. An exceedingly offensive and oppressive effluvia strongly resembling decayed cheese, arose from the body, and rendered it necessary to close the coffin in a short tine, and it was reentered. The putrefactive process must have been arrested by the leaden coffin having been sealed hermetically, and thus access of the air prevented. Mr. Baskerville was born at Wolverly, in this county, in 1706 and inherited a small paternal estate. He was Possessed of a natural elegance of taste, which distinguished every thing which came from his hands. His house, planned by himself, was more decorated with architectural ornament than any in Birmingham. The panels of his carriage were elegant pictures, and a pair of beautiful cream horses drew him. He loved fine clothes, and indeed seems in all respects to have been fond of show, united with something of singularity."

Details from a handwritten document dated circa 1900.

"John Baskerville a native of Worcestershire and printer is entitled to notice only for the beautiful type which he employed in the printing of several works which are distinguished by the name Baskerville editions. The same John Baskerville a celebrated letter founder and printer in the forms of the types and various print processes of printing. He raised the art to a higher state than it had reached before, but his labors appear to have been but faintly appreciated. It has been remarked that his books are more elegantly than correctly printed. Gainsborough painted John Baskerville's portrait. He was buried, by his own desire, in a tomb in his own garden. He was born at Wolverley in Worcestershire in 1706 and died 1775." Contributed by Mike Caswell June, 1999.

A real human interest story.

There is a copy of "the Baskerville Bible of 1763 which belonged to Baskerville's wife Sarah. Formerly the wife of Richard Eaves she had lived with Baskerville since 1750, after being deserted by her husband, who had fled the country after carrying out a forgery in a will. On Eaves's death in 1764 Baskerville married her and the book label he printed for her bears this date.

Sarah's Bible label
The book lable from Sarah's presentation copy of
the magnificent Baskerville Folio Bible.

The book was inherited after her death by her nephew-in-law John Ryland, whose grand-daughter Louisa Ann Ryland donated Cannon Hill Park to the City of Birmingham. This Bible now has joined the Baskerville collection in the Heslop Room, given in 1954 by J W Hely-Hutchinson in memory of his brother Victor, Professor of Music". (Research Libraries Bulletin - ISSN 1355-9877 Number 6 Autumn 1998)

Additional references:

John Baskerville of Birmingham: letter-founder and printer by F. E. Pardoe

John Baskerville; a bibliography by Philip Gaskell

John Baskerville, A Memoir by Ralph Srauss and Robert K. Dent

John Baskerville, The Birmingham Printer, His Press, Relations and Friends (Vol. 1 1937; Vol 2 1939) by William Bennett

John Baskerville, Type-Founder and Printer (Boston, 1914; 2nd. ed. New York, 1944) by Josiah Henry Benton

See the Baskerville Family web site!

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