By Zuzana Licko
This text was first published in 1996 in the type specimen booklet for Mrs Eaves.
I can't remember when I first encountered a type specimen that had been printed by letterpress, or even if this experience preceded my knowledge of phototype technology. However, I do remember vividly, being shocked by the great difference between letterpress type and phototype, especially when comparing specimens of what was supposedly the same typeface design.
What impressed me was not so much the fact that there was a difference; it's expected that different technologies will yield different results. What surprised me was that this difference was so uniquely uniform. Phototype font revivals consistently had an uncanny polished tightness, as though they sought to reproduce the original lead typefaces in some previously unattainable perfection, sometimes with such tight spacing that letters would practically touch; a very difficult task in lead. Perhaps it was their newly-found achievability that made these characteristics desirable at the time. Rarely did designers seek to capture the warmth and softness of letterpress printing that often occurred due to the "gain" of impression and ink spread.
Digital font revivals merely extended the quest for perfection introduced by phototype. This evolution is particularly strange in light of the fact that the development of type manufacturing technology has increased freedom of expression by reducing the mechanical restrictions on the form of type. One might imagine that these technological developments would in fact have also increased the variety of interpretations on the past, instead of reducing them. Ever since then, I have contemplated trying my hand at reviving an "old favorite" in a manner that challenged the common, preconceived method of interpreting the classics.
When selecting a typeface for revival, I recalled reading in various sources that Baskerville's work was severely criticized by his peers and critics throughout his lifetime and after. From personal experience, I could sympathize.
One recurring criticism of Baskerville's type addressed its "sterile" quality. D.B. Updike, in his book Printing Types of 1922, wrote, "As we look at Baskerville's specimen-sheets, the fonts appear very perfect, and yet somehow they have none of the homely charm of Caslon's letter. It is true that the types try the eye. Baskerville's contemporaries, who also thought so, attributed this to his glossy paper and dense black ink. Was this the real fault? The difficulty was, I fancy, that in his type-designs the hand of the writing-master betrayed itself, in making them too even, too perfect, too 'genteel,' and so they charmed too apparently and artfully - with a kind of finical, sterile refinement."
Much of the criticism Baskerville received for his work was fueled by type snobbery and professional jealousy, as is illustrated in the following passage from the book Letters by James Hutchinson:" There's the story that Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Baskerville, told him of a practical joke that he, Franklin, had played on a critic of Baskerville's types.
The critic said that Baskerville's types would be 'the means of blinding all the readers in the nation owing to the thin and narrow strokes of the letters.' Franklin gave the critic a specimen of Caslon's types with Caslon's name removed, said it was Baskerville's and asked for a specific criticism. The critic, an author whose book was printed in the same Caslon face, responded at great length about the faults he felt were very apparent in the type. Before he had finished, he complained that his eyes were suffering from the strain of reading the text."
Sadly, because the proliferation, and consequently the assimilation, of new typefaces occurred at a much slower pace in his time than it does today, Baskerville missed the good fortune, which many "envelope-pushing" type designers enjoy today, of having his work appreciated during his lifetime.
Baskerville's work has in retrospect been classified as the ultimate transitional typeface, being pivotal between old style typefaces, and the modern typefaces that followed. Similarly, from a practical standpoint, Baskerville has achieved the status of a respected text face consistent with today's reading preferences. This illustrates once again that readers' habits do change in time and are influenced by repeated exposure to particular typefaces, more so than by any measurable physical characteristics of the typefaces themselves.
In my rendition of this classic typeface, I have addressed the highly criticized feature of sharp contrast. To a great degree, the critics were wrong; it did not prevent Baskerville from becoming assimilated as a highly legible text face, and in fact, the high contrast between stems and hairlines became quite desirable, as is apparent in typefaces such as Bodoni, which followed in the lineage. However, the criticism did make me wonder about possible alternatives. Thus, I was prompted to explore the path not taken. After all, the sharp contrast evidenced in Baskerville was new at the time of its creation due to recent developments in printing and paper- making technologies.
In his pursuit of "perfect" printing, John Baskerville developed ultra-smooth and brilliant white papers, as well as intensely black printing ink. In fact, as D.B. Updike suggests in the previous quote, the contrast achieved through the use of these papers and inks probably contributed to the criticism of his work more than the design of his typefaces. Ultimately, it may have been merely the fascination of meeting these technical challenges that made this pursuit so desirable at the time, and its proliferation in our era is merely a perpetuation that remains largely unquestioned.
An aspect of Baskerville's type that I intended to retain is that of overall openness and lightness. To achieve this while reducing contrast, I have given the lower case characters a wider proportion. In order to avoid increasing the set-width, I reduced the x-height, relative to the cap-height. Consequently, Mrs Eaves has the appearance of setting about one point size smaller than the average typeface in lower case text sizes.
I realize that certain aspects of this revival probably contradict Baskerville's intentions, but my point in doing so is to take those elements from Baskerville that have become familiar, and thus highly legible, to today's reader, and to give these my own interpretation of a slightly loose Baskerville that may be reminiscent of a time past.
This typeface is named after Sarah Eaves, the woman who became John Baskerville's wife. As Baskerville was setting up his printing and type business, Mrs. Eaves moved in with him as a live-in housekeeper, eventually becoming his wife after the death of her first husband, Mr. Eaves. Like the widows of Caslon, Bodoni, and the daughters of Fournier, Sarah similarly completed the printing of the unfinished volumes that John Baskerville left upon his death.
Mrs Eaves Ligatures
This text was first published in 1996 in the type specimen booklet for Mrs Eaves titled "More Mrs Eaves."
Ligatures have several functions in the setting of type. Some ligatures are necessary to avoid the collision of particular letter combinations. For example, the spacing problem between the "f" and "i" characters can be resolved by replacing the pair with a separately designed "fi" ligature. While some ligatures have evolved from particular language needs or the limitations of particular type technologies, others are artistic expressions that add a sense of customized uniqueness to the setting. In this way, the use of ligatures can emulate the contextual attention to detail of hand lettering reminiscent of the pre-print era.
The joining of letters, of course, comes from our alphabet's roots in handwritten forms. When the alphabet was subsequently adapted to print in the form of movable type, it continued to include many ligatures. Eventually for the sake of expediency, all but the most necessary ligatures were dropped from the standard character set. Even today, the standard character set supported by digital font formats accommodates only the most common ligatures; fi, fl, AE, OE, ae and oe.
The Mrs Eaves Ligatures sets include 213 ligatures, ranging from the common to the fanciful. The OpenType format fonts contain all 213 ligatures. The Mrs Eaves Just Ligatures fonts are provided for Classic format font users, and contain just the ligatures.
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