26 July, 2008

Cast brass matrices made for Pierre Didot

An earlier post (March 2008) described the big 16th-century letters that were acquired in the 18th century by Johannes Enschedé, and which were known to him, because they were supposedly derived from punches cut in brass, by the name Chalcographia. To modern writers it has seemed more likely that punches for the alphabet were cut in steel, and that the surviving brass matrices were castings in sand that were made by using as patterns an intermediate set of strikes in lead from the steel punches.
The post concluded with a quotation from an account published in 1851 by Ambroise Firmin-Didot of the use that had been made of this technique to make brass matrices for a set of very elaborate and delicate ornamented capitals for the gothique ornée of the Didot typefoundry, for which the punches were cut in steel by a punchcutter called Cornouailles. Brass matrices were made by striking the punches in lead, making casts in brass using the lead strikes as patterns, and finishing off the resulting matrices by driving the steel punches into them.
The punches and matrices for these capitals appear to be identifiable with sets that are also in the Enschedé collection (type 1489), to which they were added when the materials of the foundry of Pierre Didot and his son Jules were acquired in the early 19th century. They were shown in a Specimen des caractères de la Fonderie Normale à Bruxelles, provenant de la fonderie de Jules Didot et de son père Pierre Didot, printed by Joh. Enschedé en Zonen in 1914, and reprinted in 1931.
The capitals are about 21 mm square. The images at the head of this post show the punches, which are cut with a degree of precision that makes them look oddly like the product of one of the pantographic engraving machines of the end of the 19th century.
Here is one of the punches, set in the matrix to which it belongs.
And here is one of the brass matrices, which has been fitted in a block of steel, followed by an impression from type cast from it.

The lead strikes, having served their purpose, appear not to have survived. These images, except for the one just above, were made by Johan de Zoete, curator of the Stichting Museum Enschedé, Haarlem, to whom I am grateful for his interest, and for his permission to reproduce them.