John Baskerville’s Tale of Horror

He was a typographer and an atheist – such is the almost stereotype introduction of Birmingham-based John Baskerville in English Victorian textbooks.

Baskerville was a man with a lifelong passion for beautiful lettering. By 1723, at the age of seventeen, he had established himself as a skilled engraver and was teaching calligraphy. In 1726 he moved to Birmingham to take up a position as a writing-master. In 1738, he started what proved to be a lucrative ‘japanning’ business (an early form of enamelling). The making of ‘japanned’ or varnished goods which imitated Oriental lacquer work, was already fashionable in Birmingham. Within a decade he made a fortune. He secured a lease on eight acres ground to the north-east of the city which he named Easy Hill, and built himself the house, with extensive gardens, in which he lived for the rest of his life. At some point before 1757, he was joined there by Sarah Eaves (née Ruston), a married woman with a son and two daughters whose husband Richard had fled the country because of fraud. John lived with Sarah, who was nominally his housekeeper, until the death of Richard Eaves in 1764 which enabled the couple to get married.

Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived for a while in the same city, may have taken Baskerville’s surname for his most famous Sherlock Homes tale, The Hound of the Baskervilles – which, in turn, was borrowed by Umberto Eco for the character William of Baskerville in his masterpiece, The Name of the Rose. In Conan Doyle’s story, seventeenth-century Sir Hugo Baskerville is a notorious character living a life of drunkenness and debauchery until, one night, he is reputedly killed near Baskerville Hall, in the wilds of Dartmoor, by a demonic hound sent to punish his wickedness. John Baskerville was also considered to be an amoral rebel. Defying social and religious convention, he lived openly with his partner. He rejected religion, pouring scorn upon religious bigots, and indulged in his fondness for show and exhibitionism, wearing masses of gold lace, and riding about in a lavishly decorated carriage. How could one socially accept an atheist living in a sinful relationship and daring to take on the typographic orthodoxy of the day? Was that not stretching toleration a step too far?

About 1750 Baskerville began his career as a printer and type-founder. His only public explanation for him taking on this activity is given in the preface to his edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1758; sig. A3r): ‘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 my self 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’. In the same passage there is a reference to William Caslon, a Birmingham metalworker who had moved to London and successfully turned to punch-cutting and type-founding. There is a strong element of rivalry here. Caslon’s success must have challenged Baskerville to search for the ‘greater accuracy’ expressed in his Milton preface.

Baskerville tirelessly experimented with paper-making, ink manufacturing, type-founding and printing. He made changes to the way in which metal type was made, enabling him to produce a crisp and elegant lettering. His guiding principles were simplicity and clarity. In 1754 Baskerville issued a specimen of his type incorporating a prospectus for his first printed work, a collection of Virgil’s works, with additional specimen settings for the title-page and a page of the text. Publication was to be by subscription. His Publii Virgilii Maronis Bucolica, Georgica, et Aeneis is widely regarded as the most accomplished of his printed books. The second work from his press was an octavo edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Issued for reasons of copyright under the names of J. and R. Tonson and published with the date 1758 (it appeared in January 1759), it was oversubscribed and, in terms of sales, his greatest success. By that time Baskerville had become printer to the Cambridge University Press for which, in 1763, he published his masterpiece. Ironically for a confirmed atheist, his greatest work was a folio edition of the Bible, which represented a monumental advance upon the standards and practices of the time. It was printed using his personal typeface, ink, and paper.

Baskerville’s type was influenced by the work of Italian Renaissance printers – and perhaps also by his experience as an engraver. He refined the forms of the Italians, thus creating type with an increased contrast of thick and thin strokes. He also shifted the axis of rounded letters to a more vertical position. This gave his text not only enhanced lightness and colour, but it also created a greater consistency in size and form. His background as a writing master is evident in the distinctive swash tail on the uppercase ‘Q’ and in the cursive serifs in the Baskerville italic. He may have been influenced by earlier mapmakers: the lettering on maps by Ortelius show the same vertical stress that in the 18th century became the hallmark of modernity. His page layouts were minimalist, they tended to be completely typographic, allowing his letterforms to stand on their own. Textbooks describe his design as transitional typography. His work was merely a prelude to the modern Bodoni and Firmin Didot styles. The concept of a ‘transitional period’ dates back to eighteenth century historiography. Goethe already mocked the idea. Every age is transitional because every age is passing away. The historian may be justified in suggesting that some ages seem more notable as prefaces than as epilogues, the word ‘transition’ however – because it is always used retrospectively – is in many ways a negative value judgment. Qualifying Baskerville’s typography as ‘transitional’ is a way of neutralizing the significance of his work.

Baskerville died at his house at Easy Hill in January 1775. He left directions that his body was to be buried in a mausoleum in his own garden because, as he wrote in his will, ‘I have a Hearty Contempt for all [religious] Superstition’. He also attached the text to be used for his epitaph:

Stranger – Beneath this Cone in Unconsecrated Ground
A Friend to the Liberties of mankind Directed his Body to be Inhum’d
May the Example Contribute to Emancipate thy mind
From the Idle Fears of Superstition
And the wicked arts of priesthood.

Even in death Baskerville did not find peace. After Sarah’s death in March 1788, the estate changed hands and, in July 1791, was set alight and wrecked during the Birmingham (or Priestley) riots which targeted religious dissenters, most notably the politically and theologically controversial Joseph Priestley, for their support of the French Revolution. The riots started with an attack on a hotel that was the site of a banquet organized in sympathy with the Revolution. Did the mob deliberately try to burn the memory of the house on the hill? One can only guess. New owner of the estate, Thomas Gibson, subsequently cut a canal through the grounds and converted the remaining property to industrial use. Thirty years later, when further work was carried out there, workmen digging for gravel discovered Baskerville’s leaden coffin. According to a report in a local newspaper (possibly the Birmingham Post or its ancestor: the remaining cutting is preserved in a scrapbook of local newspapers and dated May 1821) his body was, after forty-six years underground, in a singular state of preservation. It was wrapped in a white linen shroud with a branch of laurel, faded but firm in texture. The skin on the face was dry but perfect. The eyes were gone, but eye brows, the eye lashes, lips and teeth remained. The skin on the abdomen and body generally was in the same state with the face. An unpleasant smell strongly resembling decayed cheese arose from the body, and rendered it necessary to close the coffin quickly.

Nobody claimed the body and because of his outspoken atheism Baskerville was refused burial in the local cemetery. The coffin ended up in Gibson’s warehouse in Cambridge Street where it was stored for the next eight years. It has been alleged that Gibson charged curious visitors to have a look at the body. After this, the coffin was transferred to the shop of plumber and glazier John Marston and reopened again. Local artist Thomas Underwood made a pencil sketch of the body. This reopening proved a disaster for the preservation of the body. A bookseller, one Mr Nott or Knott, agreed to have the printer’s body placed in his family vault in Christ Church catacombs. These were cleared in 1890 to make way for shops. Baskerville was reinterred in a vault under the chapel of Warstone Lane cemetery. Eventually this chapel too was demolished, but the body remained where it was. Baskerville rests under grass without any holy buildings on top of him. That must have been a relief. After all, he had always rejected that kind of religious nonsense.

Baskerville’s talent as a printer was not recognized in Britain. His books were too expensive because of high production cost. Being based outside London did not help his case and a sense of wounded provincial pride is evident from his letters. From 1764 to 1768 Baskerville seems almost to have withdrawn from book printing, before returning to business in a spectacular way. He printed a series of quarto classical texts under his own imprint: Lucretius’s De rerum natura, the works of Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius, the comedies of Terence, Shaftesbury’s Characteristics, and a four-volume edition of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso for the Italian Molini printing firm which was based in Paris. The foreign market responded positively to the quality of his work. His reputation spread quickly on the Continent and in France in particular. Pierre Simon Fournier (the younger) praised his types in the second volume of his influential Manuel typographique (1766). Gifted young Giambattista Bodoni was born into a family of printers. In 1768 he made plans to travel to England to study with Baskerville, but a bout of malaria forced him to stay in Italy. Voltaire, to whom he had sent copies of his Virgil and Milton, permitted the printer to set specimen pages of his works in 1771. Baskerville also established a lasting friendship with Benjamin Franklin, who himself had built up a successful printing business in Philadelphia, and who visited Baskerville in Birmingham. The American link was revived by Bruce Rogers, one of the towering figures in twentieth-century book design. In 1917, he came across a Baskerville type specimen in a Cambridge bookshop. Having become printing adviser to Harvard University Press, he recommended that the type be casted from the original Baskerville matrixes, causing a revival to the typeface. In 1996, from San Francisco, Czech immigrant and typeface designer Zuzana Licko paid tribute by creating a Baskerville revival entitled Mrs Eaves.

Sarah Eaves was a resourceful character in her own right. For a number of years she managed the type-foundry after John’s death in January 1775 at the age of sixty-nine. In December 1779 she concluded a sale of the printing firm with the remarkable figure of Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, described as playwright, inventor, musician, diplomat, spy, publisher, arms dealer, financier and revolutionary – some CV. At the time, Beaumarchais was a principal participant in the ‘Société Typographique et Littéraire’ which was established in order to produce the complete works of Voltaire at a printing office set up for this purpose at Kehl, a German town located on the right bank of the Rhine directly opposite French city of Strasbourg. To the edition of Voltaire in eighty-five volumes (issued in 1784/89) was added one of the works of Rousseau, and of the comedy Le mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais himself. The news that Baskerville’s types were being used at Kehl attracted the attention of Piedmont dramatist Vittorio Alfieri, the ‘founder of Italian tragedy’. Alfieri, like Lord Byron, was both an aristocrat and a revolutionary. A friend of Beaumarchais, he was in many ways typical of the eighteenth century enlightened cosmopolitan European. He travelled as far as Sweden and Russia to study and sample foreign ways of life and government. His plays communicate an intense hatred of tyranny and despotism. Inevitably, he became a proponent of the French Revolution – only to become disillusioned by its excesses. He enthusiastically embraced the American cause for independence. In 1781 he wrote a series of four odes (a fifth followed two years later) entitled L’America libera in which he – at times in a rather bombastic manner – sings the praises of America’s plight and fight. Baskerville would have been delighted to learn that Alfieri ordered from Beaumarchais the printing of several of his works, including the ‘American’ odes. Fearing repercussions for his radicalism, the author used false dates for some of these publications.

Charles-Joseph Panckoucke was one of the most successful newspaper editors and publishers of his age; among his authors were such distinguished figures as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Buffon. At the outbreak of the Revolution, Panckoucke’s newspapers were virtually the only ones with the privilege of publishing political news. On 24 November 1789, he founded the Gazette Nationale ou Le Moniteur Universal, a daily newspaper which became the official journal of the French Revolution. Baskerville’s association with Enlightenment radicalism is emphasized by the fact that his types were used to print the Moniteur. For some years the journal’s imprint read, ‘imprimé … avec les caractères de Baskerville’. He had done to the French Revolution what his successor William Caslon would do for the American uprising – provide a letter of liberation. It was for that very reason that Baskerville’s work was ignored or dismissed in his own country. Britain was terrified of the spread of revolution. Opposition printing presses were smashed. In 1798 an attempted rising in Ireland intensified the atmosphere of paranoia. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 banned all trade unions. The houses of known or suspected radicals were burned and oppositionists were beaten up in the streets. Tom Paine was tried in proxy and condemned to prison. At this time William Blake said that if Jesus Christ were alive he would be in one of Pitt’s jails. In such a hothouse of hate and suspicion, Baskerville was being judged not for his achievements, but for his political radicalism and his disrespect towards Church and convention. It was a classic case of intolerance.