07 November, 2011

Elzevir letter

From time to time those who handle English books of the early 18th century come across the phrase ‘Elzevir letter’ in the lists of new publications that are added at the end by booksellers. It refers to publications that are set in types that are small but elegant, and (it is implied) they are also beautifully printed, like the little books of the Elzevirs or Elseviers, printers in Leyden and elsewhere in the Low Countries during the 17th century. These were often editions of the Latin classics in tiny formats. Later they became the quarry, sometimes sought rather obsessively, of collectors, and several lists of the titles were printed, of which more below. The reputation of the ‘Elzevir letter’ in England was certainly enhanced by the sight of the crisp, competent presswork of the Dutch printers.
Thanks to Google, it is not difficult to put together a pattern of the use of this term in the English book trade. It begins quite late, some time after the period of the greatest commercial activity of the Elsevier family in the Netherlands. There are several examples in announcements of books in England from about 1712 to 1715, some of them from Curll and Lintott, and there is occasional use of the term during the later 18th century. According to its publicity, the London Magazine, or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, launched in January 1760, was to be ‘beautifully printed on a new Elzevir letter, and fine paper’. The earliest example that I have found is in an announcement in the London Gazette in 1712:

For ‘Elzevir letter’, the OED has: ‘Used [attributively], an edition published by one of the Elzeviers; formerly applied also to editions printed in the small neat form and with the kind of type adopted by them.’ And then, ‘The style of type used by the Elzeviers in their small editions of the classics. Now used as the name of a special form of printing types.’
The term ‘Elzevir letter’, as used by the English booksellers, however ill-informed its terms of reference, was evidently intended as praise. But what are we to make of this succession of phrases from D. B. Updike’s Printing Types (1922): ‘The Elzevirs are popularly remembered nowadays by their little editions in 32mo, with engraved title-pages, narrow margins, and compact pages of a solid, monotonous type which is Dutch and looks so.’ (ii. 15). Later he writes of ‘compact monotonous type’ (ii. 17), and then: ‘To have seen one Elzevir volume … in this format, is to have seen all—or certainly as many as one wishes to see! How anyone ever read with comfort pages so solidly set in such monotonous old style type passes understanding—or at least mine.’ (ii. 17). We begin to get the point that Updike is making: Dutch types are dull and boring, perhaps (though he does not quite dare to say it) like Dutch people.
Commenting on the type specimen sheet of types ‘cut by the late Christoffel van Dijck, issued by the widow of Daniel Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1681’ (a sheet repoduced in Type Specimen Facsimiles, 1963, no. 12, and quite often elsewhere too), Updike wrote, ‘Most of these types are recognisable as Dutch by their sturdy qualities of workmanship, and, particularly in the smaller sizes of roman and italic, by a tiresome evenness of design.’ (ii. 20).
Monotonous? Tiresome? Is this an example of Bostonian impatience with the lingering Dutch heritage of New Amsterdam? Possibly. But a longer and more involved story appears to lurk behind this display of bad temper. In 1880 a writer in Belgium published a study of the Elzevirs and their books, a major contribution to the listing of the books made by this family. Les Elzevier, by Alphonse Willems, offered a solution to the problem of the origin of the types, which was one that had exercised several bibliographers. (This is my rendering of his French text.)
“All the writers who have investigated and appreciated the masterpieces that came from the presses of the Elzevirs have had repeatedly to ask the name of the artist who devised and engraved the types, with their delicacy of design, their happy proportions, and their accomplished fitting, which their editions so prized that they are quite incomparable. Whoever created the type that was so elegant and perfect of its kind, so that the term ‘elzevirian’ that is normally applied to it has become a synomym for perfection, was no ordinary artist, and deserves to have his name known to posterity, no less than that of the Elzevirs themselves. This question of attribution was raised long ago, and – lacking solid proof as we do – it has been resolved by more or less ingenious guesswork. As ever, the first guess was in the direction of the best-known punchcutters, Claude Garamond or the Sanlecques. A. Didot was the supporter of the first of these names, and Adry, relying on an early document, preferred the others. Garamond, whose work of this kind, especially the fine greek types he made to the order of François I, entitled him, in the words of Vitré, to be named among the great artists, and was worthy of being associated with the Elzevirs. There was only one problem. Garamond died in December 1561, nearly three-quarters of a century before the Elzevirs began to issue their first masterpieces, and the specimens of his style that we know are very different from that of the Elzevir types. In fact, the types of the Sanlecques have similarities that cannot be mistaken. Moreover, the Sanlecques were contemporaries of the Elzevirs, and – a detail that has its importance – the younger brother Sanlecque became a protestant, and thus professed the same religion as the famous Dutch printers.”
Willems then delivers what may be called his punch line: “There is no need to guess any longer. The maker of these marvellous punches was neither Garamond nor the Sanlecques, nor any other foreign master: he was a Dutch punchcutter, and his name was Christoffel van Dijck.”
At Antwerp, in the collection of the newly created Museum Plantin-Moretus, Willems had found the broadside specimen of 1681 bearing the name of Daniel Elsevier, showing the types of Christoffel van Dijck, and he included a photo-lithographic facsimile of the sheet in his book. Here was an Elsevier (the widow of Daniel in this case) offering for sale the foundry of van Dijck. So far as Willems was concerned, it solved the problem of the origin of the Elsevier types, demolishing the claims that had been made on behalf of French punchcutters. But did it do so?
In 1756, in the Journal des Sçavans for May, Jean-Pierre Fournier, Fournier l’aîné, the owner of the Le Bé foundry in Paris, had asserted, ‘I own the foundry of Garamond, the Le Bé family and Granjon. I shall be happy to display my punches and matrices. These are the types that made the reputations of the Estiennes, Plantin and the Elzevirs.’
In 1784, in his Épître sur les progrès de l’imprimerie, Pierre Didot included the line, “Garamond d’Elzévir a cimenté la gloire” – that is, ‘Garamond conferred lasting fame on the Elzevirs’. (The ‘A. Didot’ cited by Willems in the passage above must be ‘F.-A.’ Didot, François-Ambroise, the father of Pierre.)
So far as I can discover, both claims had some justification.
Fournier l’aîné does not appear to have produced a formal specimen of the types of his foundry, which given the extent of its materials and their age would not have been a simple task. But in the Collection Anisson of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. fr. 22189, there are several scattered leaves with showings of types that are attributed to him. No. 65 is a small roman type. It is annotated by hand, ‘Petit Texte by Garamond, used by the Elzevirs’. ‘Petit Texte’ was a small size, roughly equivalent to eight points.

The ‘early document’ referred to by Adry and cited by Willems was the Epreuves des caractères du fond des Sanlecques (Paris, 1757). This specimen does indeed include a ‘Petit Texte’ that appears to match the type shown on the leaf of Fournier l’aîné. Moreover, the introductory note says that the types shown have been used in the much-appreciated books of Cramoisy, Vitré ... the Elzevirs and others.
There is a fundamental point to make here. As we have seen, Willems used the age of the materials of Garamont (d. 1561) as an objection to the possibility of their use by the Elzevirs. But we are now aware that punches could be used to make many different sets of matrices, and that, used for casting by hand, these would go on producing good types for some hundreds of years. In Paris alone, the Garamont Petit Texte was represented by matrices in the stock of the Le Bé foundry, in that of Lamesle, and also of the Sanlecques.
So what type did the Elzevirs use? Using the example that I have closest to hand, the little Ovid of 1629, I find that its text is set in the Petit Texte roman of Garamont, a type with a body of 2.9 mm (Hendrik Vervliet, French Renaissance printing types: a conspectus, 2010, type 20). Whether it was supplied by the Sanlecques or the foundry of Le Bé is of no consequence.

Where an italic was called for in the little Ovid, the type used was a Brevier italic by Robert Granjon.

There was much that was trivial, even rather hysterical, in the assertions that were made by both Willems and Updike. Willems, writing in French, displayed open Flemish loyalties and was delighted to diminish the claims that had been made on behalf of French types and to promote appreciation of the skills of a Dutch punchcutter. Updike was unwilling to express appreciation of anything Dutch. Neither of them attempted to name the types that had been used to set the text of any specific book. Updike was all too willing to believe, with Willems, that the Elzevir types were Dutch, and in his view they must therefore share certain inevitable characteristics.
(Updike’s classic blunder in the same work, Printing Types, apparently driven by prejudice, relates to the text of the edition of the first volume of the Works of Selden, printed in London by William Bowyer in 1726, which had been identified mistakenly during the 18th century by John Nichols as an early use of type cut by William Caslon. Updike comments, ‘To the student who has been looking at earlier English books printed with Dutch fonts, the pages of the Selden are a relief to the eye – they are so easy to read, so clear and beautiful.’ As A. F. Johnson was later able to show, the types of the Selden were Dutch, not English.)
I have given just one example of the use in 1629 of the Petit Texte of Garamont. It is entirely likely that other books of the Elseviers, especially later ones, made use of types from founders in Amsterdam or elsewhere in the Low Countries. But supporters of the idea should supply exact details: the title of the book, the name of the type body and the founder, based on printed evidence of some kind, preferably a reliably dated type specimen. Specimens of the foundries of Christoffel Van Dijck and Voskens, with attributions of the types, have long been available in facsimile (Type Specimen Facsimiles, ed. John Dreyfus. 1963), and more recent scholarship has added greatly to our knowledge of typefounding in the Low Countries. Some patient, exact work on the identification of the types used in individual books of the Elseviers would be a welcome contribution to the discussion.


Jean Félicissime Adry, Notice sur les imprimeurs de la famille des Elzévirs … par un ancien bibliothécaire (Paris: Delance, 1806).
Simon Bérard, Essai bibliographique sur les éditions des Elzévirs (Paris: De l’imprimerie de Firmin Didot, 1822). Uses Adry’s study as a basis.
Charles Pieters, Annales de l’imprimerie des Elsevier (Gand, 1858).
Alphonse Willems, Les Elzevier, histoire et annales typographiques (Bruxelles, 1880).

My thanks to Stephen Lubell for an image.