Talbot Baines Reed, typefounder and sailor
Talbot Baines Reed was born in 1852 and he died in 1893, a premature death for someone who might in later years have been able to contribute even more than he did to our knowledge of the history of his trade, which was that of typefounder.
This is in some ways a personal essay. I have known Reed’s handwriting intimately for all my working life, mostly from the well-informed notes on the types in them that he wrote in the books that he accumulated. Some of them were battered copies that he must have got cheaply in bookshops or perhaps from bookstalls like those in Farringdon Road near the railway station. His handwriting (of which a sample is seen above) was lively and neat, and I recognize it with pleasure wherever I meet it.
These books make up a substantial part of his typographical collection that was given to the St Bride Library in 1900 (the gift was that of J. Passmore Edwards, who had bought it from the family), where this personal element in their choice makes them a happy complement to the more systematically made library of William Blades, who seems to have got much of his material from dealers in England and abroad who had instructions – which they carried out very well – to search for and to supply the literature of the printing trades.
Here is Reed’s note in an item that he bought at an auction sale of 1886 at which he and Blades both got more books more cheaply than they had dared to hope.
Technical note for users of the library’s online catalogue. Each of its books has a unique ‘accession number’ which serves as its identity, with the letters SB in front of it in the full catalogue entry. The accession numbers for Blades’s books were all given a prefix of 20, so that they often have five figures, beginning with 2. The numbers for Reed’s books are more often of four figures. Here is a nice example, a folio volume findable under the name of its printer, Johann Froben, with some types of which the cutting is now attributed to Peter Schoeffer, the son of Gutenberg’s assistant. Erasmus, In Novum Testamentum annotationes. Basel, 1519. Its number is SB5867.
In 1869, after he left the City of London School, Reed began to work at his father’s typefoundry, Sir Charles Reed & Sons, known as ‘the Fann Street Foundry’, and after his father’s death in 1881 he became its director. In 1877 he became associated with Blades in setting up the display that was shown at the Caxton Celebration, an event to mark the five-hundredth anniversary of Caxton’s printing in England that was held at the South Kensington Museum. A year later, with Blades’s encouragement and support, he began to write his History of the Old English Letter Foundries, an account of the British foundries based on extensive reading of printed and archival material that was published in 1887.
It is not easy to say how far Reed was involved in the practical side of the foundry, but there is a surviving document, of which the title page is shown above, that gives us a fascinating hint: the handwritten ‘Catalogue of Hand Moulds’ of the Fann Street Foundry dated 1883 which is among materials that came to the Type Museum, London, with documents from Stephenson, Blake. (Justin Howes listed them and scanned this item.) It was made at a date when we know from other sources that the use of hand moulds was becoming less practical as a part of the operations of a modern typefoundry. Reed may have taken the opportunity to bring together and list this collection of items that were still in use but which were obsolescent and had some antiquarian value.
One item that was inherited by Stephenson, Blake is worth putting on record, the fruit no doubt of Reed’s historical researches. This was ‘safe Q’, which was not a safe at all, but a simple chest of drawers which was located in the ‘tomb’, the store room at Sheffield to which few visitors were admitted. It contained ‘Mr. Reed’s curio collection’, namely some items that in looking through the materials of the Fann Street Foundry he had identified as being of special historical interest: the matrices of some of the undoubtedly old black-letters, those of ‘scriptorial’ types like those of Ichabod Dawks and the so-called ‘Union Pearl’, and the matrices for the capitals of Joseph Moxon’s Canon roman, discarded by Caslon. Later visitors had reason to be grateful to him.
In 1890 Reed gave a talk on ‘Old and new fashions in typography’ at the Royal Society of Arts in which he drew on his historical researches, but most of his ceaseless regular writing, which he greatly enjoyed, consisted of the school stories that were published serially in the Boys’ Own Paper, set in public boarding schools with names like ‘Fellsgarth’ and ‘St Dominic’s’, exotic environments that for the day boy who had attended the City of London School must have provided an exercise in creative imagination.
There were two other connections that might have developed further, given time. The Reed foundry was chosen to cast the types cut by Edward Prince for William Morris, who gave his founder an album of the enlarged photographs of early types made by Emery Walker on which his own designs had been based. (One of them appears above.) And Reed was the first honorary secretary, ‘until you find someone better’, of the Bibliographical Society. He signed with the others present at the inaugural meeting on 15 July 1892.
The History of the Old English Letter Foundries, which got its title from a phrase in the idiosyncratic essay of 1778 by the 18th-century antiquarian Edward Rowe Mores, A dissertation upon English typographical founders and founderies, is worth a word here. It is a triumph of rapid and scrupulously exact writing. Modern readers know it from the revised edition that was published by Faber & Faber in 1952. Although the name on the title page was that of the historian A. F. Johnson, the initiative for the new edition, as for so many things of its kind, was that of Stanley Morison, and the new edition of Reed’s work, like so many of the projects that were generated during Morison’s decade or so of headlong activity beginning in the 1920s (the big book on the Fell types is another example), would never have been realised without the patient support of others.
Johnson’s edition, a handsome volume printed at the University Press at Oxford at the height of its capabilities, set in Monotype Bell and bound in green buckram, is (notwithstanding its many virtues) something of an editorial disaster. Huge changes in typographical scholarship had taken place during the sixty years that had elapsed since the work had appeared, but in the larger part of Johnson’s text it is impossible to be sure whether any phrase was written by Reed in 1887 or Johnson in 1952, and the question is often an important one. There are one or two sensible examples of major surgery: the account of William Caslon and his earlier types is wholly imported from one of Johnson’s own published studies in which he established, for example, that the traditional account of the first use of one of Caslon’s own types, in Bowyer’s Selden of 1726 (which had misled Updike and lured him into a characteristic anti-Dutch rant), was nonsense. Conversely, however, Reed’s first chapter, which gives a lucid summary of theories concerning the early making of printing type, is given almost wholly in his own words with the minimum of interference, but without some effort one cannot be quite sure of this: Johnson had a habit of tinkering with his text. One example of inadequate editing among rather too many is his treatment of a reference by Reed to ‘our copy of Cottrell’s specimen’ (Reed 1887, p. 292). In his text of 1952 Johnson altered this to ‘the St Bride copy of Cottrell’s specimen’ (Reed-Johnson, p. 292), presumably on the grounds that Reed’s own books had come to St Bride’s. But he might have checked that this was so: Reed’s reference was in fact to the Fann Street Foundry’s ‘house’ copy of the specimen, which remained with the foundry and was transferred with it to Stephenson, Blake in Sheffield when they acquired the Reed materials. It should now be with the specimens that were acquired by the Type Museum. (I write ‘should be’ because the earlier of the specimens acquired from Stephenson, Blake cannot currently be located there.)
However, it should be said that Johnson added a great deal of invaluable material to his edition, extending the period that is covered to the later 19th century, and his book is indispensable to any reader concerned with British typefounding. But then so too is Reed’s original work. As I say, Johnson was capable of changing any phrase at his whim, and as the above example shows it is impossible to be quite sure of the status of the modern text without having both editions open side by side. A reader should not be compelled to work under such tiresome conditions.
The printer’s copy for the text of 1952, which survives at the St Bride Library, is a nice reminder of the trials that were then imposed on its compositors by the scholarly printer: it is simply a torn up copy of Reed’s book corrected in handwriting by both Morison and Johnson.
Morison had intended to take a more active part in the making of the new edition than he was able to give to it. The bibliography at the end of his article ‘Printing types’ that appears in the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica includes this title: Reed, A history of the old English letter foundries. new ed. A. F. Johnson and Stanley Morison, 2 vols. 1929. This is the bibliographical ghost of a book that never existed: Johnson would eventually realise the edition that Morison had planned. But (with some encouragement and the lavish editorial help that The Times provided him with on behalf of its official history) Morison did produce the memoir of Reed that he had intended to add to it: Talbot Baines Reed: author, bibliographer, typefounder was printed and distributed in 1960 by Brooke Crutchley, the University Printer at Cambridge. Other sources for Reed’s life include the memoir by his friend John Sime that was added to his last book Kilgorman (1895), and the revised entry in ODNB.
As well as the connection with St Bride’s I have another link with Talbot Baines Reed. A Reed family memorial, on which he is commemorated, is in Abney Park cemetery, not far from my front door. It is a large and striking Celtic cross, the work of the O’Shea brothers, the family practice of stonemasons and sculptors from Ballyhooly in County Cork who had collaborated with Ruskin on the sculptural work of the Oxford Museum of Natural History. This is how the inscription for T. B. Reed, which is now obscured and unreadable, looked in 1990.
In 1876 Reed had married Elizabeth Jane, daughter of Samuel MacCurdy Greer, a County Court judge who had briefly been MP for Londonderry County. He enjoyed swimming and sailing, and the family holidays had long taken place in the northern Irish counties, which he loved. At 17 he saved the lives of his younger brother and a cousin who had got into trouble while they were swimming.
Reed’s last published work, issued in 1895 after his death, was Kilgorman: a story of Ireland in 1798. Near the opening is a scene in which the narrator, a lonely child with mysterious ancestry, spots a French gun-runner skilfully navigating the perils of the lee-shore by Fanad Head at the opening to Lough Swilly, on a coast that he knew very well. It is a piece of vivid, virtuoso writing with which I shall conclude this piece, leaving readers of Patrick O’Brian with the suggestion that this passage must surely (along with Conan Doyle’s Rodney Stone, and countless other scattered sources) have been among the texts that were known to him and that were drawn on in his published works:
I tried to get up on my feet, but the wind buffeted me back before I reached my knees, and I was fain to lie prone, with my nose to the storm, blinking through half-closed eyes out to sea.
For a long time I lay thus. Then I seemed to descry at the point of the bay windward a sail. It was a minute or more before I could be certain I saw aright. Yes, it was a sail.
What craft could be mad enough in such weather to trust itself to the mercies of the bay? Even my father, the most daring of helmsmen, would give Fanad Head a wide berth before he put such a wind as this at his back. This stranger must be either disabled or ignorant of the coast, or she would never drive in thus towards a lee-shore like ours. Boy as I was, I knew better seamanship than that.
Yet as I watched her, she seemed to me neither cripple nor fool. She was a cutter-rigged craft, long and low in the water, under close canvas, and to my thinking wonderfully light and handy in the heavy sea. She did not belong to these parts—even I could tell that—and her colours, if she had any, had gone with the wind.
The question was, would she on her present tack weather Fanad Head (on which I lay) and win the lough? And if not, how could she escape the rocks on which every moment she was closing?
At first it seemed that nothing could save her, for she broke off short of the point, and drove in within half-a-mile of the rocks. Then, while I waited to see the end of her, she suddenly wore round, and after staggering a moment while the sea broke over her, hauled up to the wind, and careening over, with her mainsail sweeping the water, started gaily on the contrary tack.
It was so unlike anything any of our clumsy trawler boats were capable of, that I was lost in admiration at the suddenness and daring of the manoeuvre. But Fanad was still to be weathered, and close as she sailed to the wind, it seemed hardly possible to gain sea-room to clear it.
Yet she cleared it, even though the black rocks frowned at her not a cable’s length from her lee-quarter, and the wind laid her over so that her mast-head seemed almost to touch them as it passed. Then, once clear, up went her helm as she turned again into the wind, and slipped, with the point on her weather-quarter, into the safe waters of the lough.
I was so delighted watching this adventure from my lonely perch that I did not notice the October afternoon was nearly spent, and that the light was beginning to fade. The storm gathered force every moment, so that when at last I turned to go home I had to crawl a yard or two to shelter before I could stand on my feet.
Lough Swilly (Wikipedia)