The typeface Baskerville redefined the art of typography and printing when it was introduced in 1757. It was designed by and named after the Englishman John Baskerville, who desired to perfect the letterforms. He took seven years, painstakingly mulling over the finest of details to develop his typeface. Mr. Baskerville explored the development of the artistic side of typesetting and influenced many typefaces to come after his. It remains one of the most popular faces and can be seen in various magazines, books, and newspapers. The beauty of its form comes from its consistency, yielding a style and grace that contributes to its timelessness and flexibility as a typeface.
In order to fully appreciate the beauty and finesse of Baskerville we must look at its designer’s intentions and role in its creation. Around the time of John Baskerville’s birth in 1706, the middle classes of England were rising in influence and power. An employer discovered his penmanship skills and employed him to teach the boys in his area the art of writing. He later filled the position of writing master, teaching writing and bookkeeping in Birmingham, a growing middle class town that suited the “active, industrious, inventive, persistent” Baskerville well. He became very interested in calligraphy and began using his skills in stone carving, selling headstones. Around 1736 a man named John Taylor came to Birmingham and introduced japanned wear. Japanning was a type of finishing, which involved applying a black varnish to metal household items, yielding a result reminiscent of Asian lacquerwork. Baskerville felt it would be advantageous to enter the business and began spying on Taylor, following him from store to store as he purchased his goods to discover his materials and quantities used. He worked to better the techniques of Taylor even developing his own patent for making and grinding metal plates. He would use much of his japanning knowledge in his developments of ink and paper for printing. He made a considerable fortune from the business and began to cultivate his interest in type and printing.
Printing was a growing field in eighteenth century England. Baskerville, a man greatly interested in technology, sought to improve the art to perfection. He quickly understood that the quality of print was very dependent on the printing process and not merely the design of the letters. He therefore set out to redefine the entire process. In the preface to John Milton’s Paradise Lost he writes:
Amongst the several mechanic Arts that have engaged my attention, there is no one which I have pursued with so much steadiness and pleasure, as that of Letter-Founding. Having been an early admirer of the beauty of Letters, I became insensibly desirous of contributing to the perfection of them. I formed to myself Ideas of greater accuracy than had yet appeared, and have endeavoured to produce a Sett of Types according to what I conceived to be their true proportion.
English printing was dominated by the typeface of William Caslon during this time. Baskerville, who was an admirer of Caslon’s work, felt that the effect of the type was ruined by bad printing. “It seemed essential to him that a type foundry should have its own printing press.” His understanding of black from japanning allowed him to produce an ink that was deeper than any other ink being used at the time. To ensure the ink developed fully, he let it stand for three years. He also developed new method of pressing the paper through hot copper plates to achieve a smoothness never before achieved. This hot pressing occurred as soon as the work was printed, immediately setting the ink and adding a glossy surface to his paper. This process allowed his inks to appear richer and more distinct.
While his inks and papers were extremely forward for their time, it is his type that has left an indelible mark on the history of typography. He took seven years to develop all the punches for the face. Baskerville, the typeface, was first published in his print of Virgil. His type was marveled after for its innovations in typesetting. “Every part of the volume was in harmony with every other part. There was no disproportion. The book has been well said to be a landmark in the history of typography.” He printed more than fifty books after his Virgil, including his celebrated folio Bible in 1763. “The quality and consistency of these books were applauded by contemporaries and their craftsmanship is still admired today.” Baskerville took extreme care in designing the letterforms that would create a harmonious and regular typeface. Each letter needed to be carefully designed, considering its own form and its relationship to the other letters. The designs then needed to be carefully cut on steel to form the punch. For this process, Baskerville employed the punch cutter John Handy. The hardened letters were set on a mold, needing to exactly represent the designed letter and work cohesively with the letters around it. Baskerville even worked to ensure consistent quality of his printing by “dressing [the types] before they could be used: a delicate operation, consisting in the smoothing away of every chance irregularity left by the casting, without interfering with the mathematical height and squareness of the letter.”
While valued now for its elegance and refinement, during his lifetime Baskerville’s face was criticized for flair over usability. His glossy paper and greater contrast in letter stroke were said to have increased strain on the readers eye. It is believed that much of this criticism was based on envy from other practitioners in his area. Baskerville’s friend Benjamin Franklin, wrote to him about a humorous story of a critique of Baskerville’s type. The gentleman felt that Baskerville’s stroke contrast was very difficult to read and gave him great strain. When the man returned for another visit, Franklin presented him a sampling of Caslon’s type without a description and passed it off as Baskerville’s face. Franklin said he could not see the issues presented and the gentleman proceeded to show him all the apparent flaws with the “Baskerville” face. Franklin then informed than man that it was actually his beloved Caslon he was examining, which was actually used in the gentleman’s own books.
Baskerville was one of the earliest classified transitional types, bridging the design gap between old style faces and the modern ones to come. Based on William Caslon’s typeface, he sought to improve it by increasing the contrast between the thick and thin strokes of the letters and employing a larger x-height to increase the text’s legibility. The curves of the rounded letter forms were made circular and some letters became wider. These techniques were a major departure from the handwriting style previously referenced in print. His letters have a very sharp termination, lending to the delicate refinement of the face. He used classical geometry to form the letters and a more vertical stress — the angle of transition from thick-to-thin strokes — than older typefaces.
Baskerville contains many distinctive features that make the face instantly recognizable. The most identifiable feature of the face is the open loop and tapered tail of the lowercase g. The swashlike tail of the uppercase Q and cursive serifs in the italic face hearken back to the designer’s beginnings in calligraphy, The tail of the Q is also a major cue to identifying the typeface. Additional features are the two serifs on the top and bottom of the letter C, the high crossbar of the uppercase A and the underbite like extension of the lower arm of the uppercase E.
As with all things created with care and beauty, Baskerville has many admirers. Although he did not receive the recognition from his fellow countrymen, Baskerville’s typeface was very appreciated outside of England. “The Parisian type founder Pierre Simon Fournier … noted of Baskerville’s faces that ‘he has spared neither pains nor expense to bring them to the utmost pitch of perfection. The letters are cut with great daring and the italic is the best to be found in any English foundry.’” Baskerville has informed the design of many typefaces. “His types were an important inspiration for Bodoni and Didot, who pushed their designs toward even greater contrast and geometric refinement.”
Baskerville’s typeface was not often used in his time due to its apparent lack of convention, and the late eighteenth to nineteenth century saw the growing popularity of modern typefaces. The sort of renaissance that took place after modern typography took the art form back to the use of old style typefaces. It was not until the twentieth century that we see a rise in the use of Baskerville. The first twentieth century design was released by Stephenson Blake, but was based on Isaac Moore’s Fry Baskerville. Foundries began to design the type closer to the original. A few foundries, including Monotype, Lintoype, Berthold, and ITC that have revived Baskerville in digital format. One of the most popular revivals is Emigre’s Mrs Eaves, designed by Zuzana Licko. It debuted in 1996, having more consistency of stroke width than Baskerville, while maintaining its readability. The font is named after Baskerville’s mistress, Sarah Eaves, whose story intrigued Licko. Mrs. Eaves was married to a Richard Eaves who abandoned her and their children when he was forced to leave the country for forgery. Sarah became Baskerville’s housekeeper and began a relationship with him. They married after the death of her first husband. She ran the foundry for a few years after his death eventually selling it to Pierre Beaumarchais.
In discussing the design of Mrs Eaves, Licko states, “[a]n aspect of Baskerville’s type that I intend to retain is that of overall openness and lightness. To achieve this while reducing contrast, I have given the lowercase characters a wider proportion. In order to avoid increasing the set-width, I reduced the x-height. Consequently, Mrs Eaves has the appearance of setting about one point size smaller than the average typeface in lowercase text size.”
Baskerville has been used for newspapers, magazines, books, and identity campaigns. Companies like Kate Spade and the Metropolitan Opera have used the typeface for their designs. Baskerville can even be seen in the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton where “its elegance and refinement make it an excellent typeface to convey dignity and tradition.”
A created work’s enduring quality is tied to how it is formed and what we have come to value as beautiful and useful. Baskerville, with its rounded forms, beautiful curves and sharp terminals, is such a work. It has existed for over 260 years and is still utilized in a wide variety of forms, showing that good design never dies.