21 July, 2009

A lost Caslon type: Long Primer No 1

When the 18th-century types of the Caslon foundry were recast from surviving matrices in the 19th century, not all of the original types were revived. One of these missing types is the subject of this essay.

The first surviving Caslon type specimen sheet, issued from Ironmonger Row and bearing the date 1734, shows two roman types with the body of Long Primer (very approximately ten points), No 1 and No 2. They share the same capitals. The image above is from the first widely published printing of this sheet, with the foundry’s new address in Chiswell Street, as it appeared in the second edition of Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, London, 1738. It is never easy to know how to interpret the meaning of the ordinal numbers attached to the types of English founders, but in this instance it looks as if No 2 was the earlier type. It is used in Thomas Parsons, A Sermon preach’d at the Funeral of John, Earl of Rochester, 13th edition, London, 1728, whereas the earliest use that has been found of the No 1 (which is the better of the two), is in the Gentleman’s Magazine for May 1732.

This was an appropriate place to find it, since this type became ubiquitous in English newspapers and magazines during the middle years of the 18th century.

Here it is, above, many years after its creation, in a detail from the two-column octavo page of the Annual Register for 1779, recording the words of the President of the Court Martial that acquitted Admiral Augustus Keppel of the charge of lack of zeal in pursuing the enemy, in language that will be familiar to readers of Patrick O’Brian.

It is well known that John Wilkes was charged with seditious libel for publishing number 45 of of his weekly journal The North Briton in 1763. It is rather less widely known that the administration, having failed to find evidence to tie him to the printing of the original No 45, suborned the workmen who were reprinting the whole journal in his own house in Great George Street. This elegant little foolscap octavo edition was set in the Long Primer. Another work begun at the press was a pornographic Essay on Woman that was mostly the work of his more disreputable friends. The proofs of this text, which were secured by government spies, were used to bring a simultaneous charge of obscene libel. This fatal measure – the setting up of his private press – was his undoing, said John Almon.

A work of political scepticism, Recherches sur l’origine du despotisme oriental, written by the encylopédiste N. A. Boulanger, was also set in the Long Primer No 1 and printed at Wilkes’s press; it completed the trio of challenges to contemporary received ideas. The two first titles led (when he omitted to turn up to answer the charges) to Wilkes’s outlawry and a not unenjoyable period in France and Italy. This was followed by his triumphant return, and, after two years in prison to purge his crime, to his re-election as a member of parliament and election as Lord Mayor of London.

The materials for the private press that Wilkes so rashly created had been supplied by Dryden Leach, a printer in Crane Court, Fleet Street, who had stepped in to print two numbers of the regular North Briton (25 and 26) when its first printer had been frightened off by government menaces, and was able to collect substantial damages for his arrest on the unjustified charge of printing No 45. In 1763 Leach had printed the first of the type specimen books of the Caslon typefoundry.

Here is a close detail of the Long Primer No 1, from the printing of 1766. (It was from this impression that the complete facsimile of the specimen in Journal 16 of the Printing Historical Society was made.)

Leach, who had a reputation as one of the more distinguished London printers, produced some texts for a demanding client, Edward Capell. Capell’s Prolusions, or select pieces of antient poetry, was published in 1760, with long s used only for the unvoiced sound of the consonant (so ‘apprise’ with its voiced consonant in the text above has a ‘short s’) and with a colophon evidently designed to echo the practice of early printers, naming Leach as the printer and giving the date of the completion of printing in 1759. It was set in the Caslon Long Primer No 1 and excellently printed on wove paper that was presumably supplied by James Whatman. (It is among the earliest examples of the use of such paper.) The Long Primer was also used for Capell’s edition of Shakespeare, another small octavo, printed on wove paper like the Prolusions, which Leach began to set in 1760.

A popular collection of contemporary poetry during the 18th century, with a steady sale, was the Collection of poems in six volumes by several hands, published by R. & J. Dodsley. Gray’s Elegy opens the fourth volume of the fifth edition, 1758. The work was set in the Long Primer No 1 and printed by J. Hughs, who like Leach had a contemporary reputation as a good craftsman, conscientious and capable of excellent, simply designed work. The poems in Dodsley’s Collection are divided by lines of the type ornaments, many of which are derived from 16th-century models, that came from the Caslon foundry.

To those who consult original printed texts of the 18th century, a work set in Caslon’s Long Primer No 1 can give a pleasure for reasons of which the reader may be barely conscious and can hardly analyze. It is not an overtly elegant type. To work well on so small a scale the type needs its rugged and slightly reinforced detail, features that if need be can survive contemporary presswork at the wooden hand press on laid paper that is not always of the finest quality. The detail of the the specimen of 1766 above shows type that is rather too heavily impressed but being relatively newly-cast, it clearly shows the elements of the design.

The Long Primer No 1 is a type with generous proportions and and it was normally cast with letter-spacing that was not too tight, characteristics that are needed in types on a small body. And yet it is so soundly made that words that are set in it keep their shape and are comfortably readable. The nearest parallel that I can think of in later metal types is among the smaller sizes of Imprint, the typeface made by Monotype in England in 1912, which was intended as an interpretation of Caslon Old Face for 20th-century machine setting and printing. Imprint is not an obviously elegant typeface, but it is one that, well set and machined, can be deeply satisfying to read. It is a pity that its adaptation was one of the least successful results of Monotype’s conversion of its fonts to digital form. It is equally regrettable that the matrices of Caslon’s Long Primer No 1 were not used when Caslon Old Face was revived in the 19th century. They seem not to have survived. The recast Long Primer type was from the matrices of the relatively mediocre Long Primer No 2.

None of the images shown here on screen can give a true idea of the charm of this type at first hand on its original scale and as it was intended to appear. For that experience one needs to read original 18th-century materials, but they need not be elaborate or grandiose editions. It is a type that works best in the narrow measure of a two-column page or in quite modest octavos.

The Caslon Long Primer No 1 has been revived, but on a scale and in a medium that have little to do with typography.

On 24 May 1738 an Anglican minister, John Wesley (1703–91), attending a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street, just outside the City of London, felt his heart ‘strangely warm’d’. He was moved to undertake the life of tireless itinerant preaching that led to the founding of Methodism. In about 1980 a group of Methodists, wishing to commemorate his experience on the spot where it had taken place, had the idea of setting up a memorial in the form of a flame, about fifteen feet high, cast in bronze, on which there was to be visible the description of Wesley’s account of his conversion in his own words, as printed in the first edition of his journal. Would it be possible, they asked, to reconstruct the printed page, on a monumental scale, but as exactly and faithfully as possible.

This seemed likely to be a hugely demanding operation, calling for great sensitivity and skill on the part of the foundry. The type used for the text of the Journal was the Caslon Long Primer No 1. A photograph was made from the showing of the type in the Caslon specimen of 1766 at the St Bride Library. From this image, large relief pattern letters were made, with which the page of text was recreated for casting. A few of the patterns slightly misinterpret the form of the type (lower case i is one of these), but by and large the project was realized very well. The flame memorial, dedicated in 1981, can be seen just outside the entrance to the Museum of London on the pedestrian walkway that crosses what remains of Aldersgate Street after the rebuilding of the area that is now known as the Barbican. Among the credits discreetly added to the memorial is one giving the name of the original maker of the letters, William Caslon.