14 February, 2007

Richard Austin’s Address to Printers, 1819

The English punchcutter and typefounder Richard Austin is the subject of the second Justin Howes lecture by Alastair Johnston at the St Bride Institute on 20 February 2007. This is the preface to Austin’s type specimen of 1819, in which he set out his reservations about some tendencies in current type making. (The printed date was cut from the title page of the copy in the St Bride Library, shown here, which has later matter added to it and a price list dated 1827.)

It must be evident to every intelligent person that the British press claims a superiority over that of every nation in the world: to its unlimited freedom we are indebted for our immense stock of literary productions, which diffuse human knowledge to every part of the world. Hence the Type-founder, Printer, &c. meet with a proportionate encouragement to exert themselves to bring to perfection an art of such vital importance to the well-being and civilization of man. Among the ingenious mechanical arts, of which I have always been an admirer, those of letter-founding and printing have excited my attention more than any other; and having in a professional way devoted the greatest part of my life to the practical parts of letter-founding , particularly punch-cutting, which I have much pleasure in saying has been approved of in a manner highly flattering to my feelings, I have at length been induced, at the suggestion of many eminent Printers, who wished to have such shaped types cut as their own experience has proved to be best adapted for durability and elegance, to commence the Imperial Letter-foundery, which the Printers in general are respectfully informed will be conducted on the most liberal scale; and the success my endeavours have uniformly experienced shall add a fresh stimulus to my exertions, and no labour or expense shall be spared to render it in every respect worthy the patronage of every ingenious Printer and promoter of typography in the kingdom.
The modern or new-fashioned faced printing type at present in use was introduced by the French, about twenty years ago: the old shaped letters being capable of some improvement, it was judged expedient to re-model the alphabet to render them more agreeable to the improved state of printing; but unfortunately for the typographic art, a transition was made from one extreme to its opposite: thus instead of having letters somewhat too clumsy, we now have them with hair lines so extremely thin as to render it impossible for them to preserve their delicacy beyond a few applications of the lye-brush, or the most careful distributions: thus may types be said in a worn state ere they are well got to work. The hair lines being now below the surface of the main strokes of the letters, the Printer, in order to get an impression of all parts of the face, is obliged to use a softer backing, and additional pressure. This is a source of much inconvenience to the Printer, and militates against all good printing; for in forcing the paper down to meet the depressed part of the face, it at the same time takes off the impression of part of the sides, as is evident from the ragged appearance of printing from such types. It is in this condition that types have to perform, I may safely say, two thirds of all the work they go through. This is a general complaint, and is known to every ingenious Printer, though it may not be to every letter-founder, or it is difficult to account why they should have cut whole founderies on this plan, wherein whole years of labour have been employed, and thousands of pounds expended, to produce what can neither tend to the advancement of typography nor the advantage of the Printer: for how can it be expected that types cut nearly as thin as the edge of a razor can retain their form for any reasonable length of time, either to produce good work, or remunerate the Printer for his labour? Besides this, in the drawing of the letters, the true shape and beauty are lost, and instead of consisting of circles, and arcs of circles, so agreeable to the eye, some of them have more the appearance of Egyptian characters than good Roman letter. For my on part, though I admire the improvements that have taken place in printing-presses, ink, &c. yet it is but labour thrown away on indifferent types; and I am bold to say, with all the pretended improvements in the face of types, the majority of them look worse when put to the test of work than those cut thirty years ago, and this at a time when the arts have arrived at such perfection in this country. Surely if founders had been their own punch-cutters, they would have foreseen the disadvantage of such a false style of cutting, now so generally complained of. If such types were examined with eye-glasses when they come from the founder, numbers of them would be found imperfect in the hair lines; so extremely difficult is it for the caster to make the metal run into lines so excessively thin; and for the purposes of stereotyping, now so much in use, they are, for the same reason, as ill adapted. The punches of the Imperial Letter-foundery will be cut in a peculiar manner, to assist this useful invention.
In point of economy, it is of much importance to the Printer to have the utmost durability united with the most elegant shape; thus enabling him the better to meet the reduced price now paid for printing. These desirable qualities will be found in an eminent degree in the types of the Imperial Letter-foundery, which will be warranted to bear considerably more working than those from any other foundery in England.
AUSTIN, Letter-founder and Punch-cutter.
Worship-street, Shoreditch.