William Morris - Biography

John Baskerville

Photo of John Baskerville John Baskerville (1706-1775), printer, was born at Sion Hill, Wolverley, Worcestershire, on 28 Jan. 1706. Noble, who knew him personally, says : ‘He was footman, I think, to a gentleman of King's Norton, near Birmingham, who used to make him instruct the poor youths of his parish in writing’ (Biog. Hist, of England, ii. 362). He does not appear to have been brought up to any particular trade, but having acquired great skill in calligraphy and in cutting monumental inscriptions, he went to Birmingham when about twenty years of age, settled in a little court near the High Town, and taught writing and bookkeeping. One of his efforts in stone-cutting was a tomb, formerly in Edgbaston churchyard, erected to the memory of Edward Richards, an idiot, who died on 21 Sept. 1728. Pye (Modern Birmingham (1819), p. 192) speaks of another stone cut by Baskerville in Handsworth church. These were ‘the only two known to be in existence.’ In 1737 he kept a school in the Bull Ring, and there is still preserved a small slate slab, engraved with the words, ‘Grave Stones Cut in any of the Hands by John Baskervill, Writing Master’ the very window-board exhibited by him. His fame as an expert penman spread far and wide.When John Taylor commenced the japanning of snuff-boxes, Baskerville, having a turn for painting, started in the same business, at 22 Moor Street, in 1740, when he effected a complete revolution in the manufacture of japanned goods. He became especially known for salvers, waiters, bread-baskets, and teatrays, of new design and high finish. Rent was paid by Baskerville for the premises in Moor Street from 1740 to 1749. He made money rapidly, and in 1745 took a lease of a little estate of eight acres, a quarter of a mile north-west of the town as it then existed, to which he gave the name of Easy Hill, between Broad Street and Easy Row. He converted the place, says Hutton, ‘into a little Eden, and built a house in the centre, but the town, as if conscious of his merit, followed his retreat and surrounded it with buildings’ (History of Birmingham, 1838, p. 195). Here he continued his trade as japanner, and so successfully that he was soon able to purchase a pair of cream-coloured horses and set up a coach, of which the panels were characteristically painted with representations of branches of his business.

Baskerville began to occupy himself in type-founding about 1750, an art in which Caslon was his only competitor of importance. Several years passed in making experiments, and upwards of 600l. was spent before he could produce a letter to please his fastidious eye, ‘and some thousands,’ adds Hutton, ‘before the shallow stream of profit began to flow’ (p. 196). Having at length produced a type to his taste, Baskerville circulated, in 1756, proposals for printing an edition of ‘Virgil,’ with a specimen. There is reason to believe that he had the advice of his friend and neighbour Shenstone. The famous quarto ‘Virgil,’ the first of those ‘magnificent editions’ which, in the words of Macaulay, ‘went forth to astonish all the librarians of Europe’ (History, ch. iii.), appeared in 1757, and is not too highly praised by Dibdin as ‘one of the most finished specimens of typography’ (Introduction to the Classics, ii. 554).

Baskerville’s success encouraged him to print an edition of Milton’s poetical works in 1758. Another edition was published in 1759; the typography, paper, and ink of both equal, if not excel, those of the ‘Virgil.’

The ‘St. James’s Chronicle’ for 5 Sept.The ‘St. James’s Chronicle’ for 5 Sept. 1758 announces that ‘the university of Oxford have lately contracted with Mr. Baskerville of Birmingham for a complete alphabet of Greek types, of the great primer size; and it is not doubted but that ingenious artist will excel in that character, as he has already done in the Roman and Italic in his elegant edition of ‘“Virgil.”’ The Greek New Testament did not, however, appear until five years later.

In the preface to Milton, Baskerville informs us the extent of his ambition was ‘a power to print an octavo Common Prayer Book and a folio Bible.’ He was elected printer to the university of Cambridge for ten years from 16 Dec. 1758, according to articles of agreement dated 15 Dec., and began at once to prepare for editions of the Bible and Common Prayer. He wrote from Birmingham to Dr. Caryll, vice-chancellor, on 31 May 1759: ‘I have at last sent everything requisite to begin the Prayer Book at Cambridge. ... I propose printing off 2,000 the first impression, but only 1,000 of the State Holidays, &c.,' which the patentee has left out. The paper is very good, and stands me in 27 or 28 shillings the ream. I am taking great pains in order to produce a striking title-page and specimen of the Bible, which I hope will be ready in about six weeks. The importance of the work demands all my attention, not only for my own (eternal) reputation, but to convince the world that the university’ had not misplaced its favours. He asked for the names of some gentlemen who might be engaged as correctors of the press, and procured a ‘sealed copy’ of the Prayer Book (1662) ‘with much trouble and expense from the cathedral of Lichfield, but found it the most inaccurate and ill-printed work’ he had ever seen, and returned it.

In May 1760 he circulated proposals for his subsequently published Bible (1763). In the summer of the same year Baskerville was visited by Samuel Derrick [q. v.], who writes about him to the Earl of Cork. Baskerville is described as living in a handsome house ; he manufactures his own paper, types, and ink, and ‘carries on a great trade in the japan way’ (Letters, 1767, i. 2-3). Four different editions of the Prayer Book were issued by Baskerville in 1760, ‘all lovely specimens of press-work,’ says Dibdin. In 1761 he brought out a quarto ‘Juvenal,’ editions of Congreve and Addison (the three ranking with his best productions), and two octavo prayer-books. On 3 July articles of agreement were entered into between him and the university of Cambridge, alluded to in his subsequent letter to Horace Walpole.

On 27 Dec. of the same year Bishop Warburton wrote to Hurd: ‘I think the booksellers have an intention of employing Baskerville to print Pope in quarto’ (Letters, 1809, 335). This was Warburton's own scheme apparently (see Walpole's Letters, 1857, i. Ixxii). The project came to nothing. In 1762 appeared two more prayer-books, and the lovely 12mo ‘Horace,’ which Harwood calls ‘the most beautiful book, both in regard to type and paper, I ever beheld. It is also the most correct of all Baskerville’s editions of the classics ; for every sheet was carefully revised by Mr. Livie, who was an elegant scholar’ (Editions of the Classics, p. 226). Shenstone had some share in bringing it out ; the engravings especially were under his supervision (Letter to Graves in Works, 1791, iii. 334).

Baskerville made small profit ; the booksellers did not encourage the printer-publisher. He was also in trouble over a lawsuit, and at last wrote on 2 Nov. 1762 to Horace Walpole, as a patron of the arts, sending him a folio sheet with border, being ‘specimens’ of his various types, and asking for his support. The terms granted by Cambridge were extremely onerous ; the success of his Bible, which had cost him 2,000l., was doubtful, and he was anxious to sell his ‘whole scheme’ to the Russian or Danish courts, to whom he had sent specimens, unless he could obtain a subsidy from the English government.

In 1763 was published the book on which he had bestowed so much pains and money, one of the finest English bibles ever produced. Its beauty ‘has caused the volume to find its way into almost every public and private library where fine and curious books are appreciated’ ( Cotton, Editions of the Bible, 1852, p. 96). In some respects Dibdin considered it inferior to the impressions of Field and Baskett, although he also styles it ‘one of the most beautifully printed books in the world’ (Ædes Althorpianœ, 1822, p. 81).Subscribers were requested to send for the volumes ‘to Mr. Baskerville's Printing Office, at Mr. Paterson’s at Essex House, in Essex Street in the Strand.’ In the same year he produced at the Clarendon Press, Oxford, a quarto and an octavo Greek New Testament, following the text of Mill, with some variations. The type, without contractions, is a large and beautiful letter. The verses are numbered in the margin. Reuss points out that the two are really separate editions. We are told that the young king, George III, and his mother, the Princess Dowager of Wales, ‘most graciously received’ copies of his octavo Prayer Book in 1764. For the next three or four years he printed scarcely anything except an English edition of Barclay’s ‘Apology’ for the booksellers, Andrews’s ‘Virgil’ and a small octavo ‘Virgil’ on his own account. The Bible had not been commercially successful, and his warehouses were full of unsold copies of his other speculations. He became greatly discouraged, and again thought of disposing of his entire printing and type-founding plant, On this occasion he sought the aid of his old friend and correspondent, Benjamin Franklin, to whom he wrote in Paris on 7 Sept, 1767. He had already offered the entire apparatus of his craft to the French ambassador, the Duc de Nivernois, for 8,000l., but the price was too high. Hearing that the court was willing to resume negotiations, he desired Franklin to use his influence. ‘I only want, to set on foot a treaty ; if they will not come to my terms, I may possibly come to theirs. Suppose we reduce the price to 6,000l. . . . Let the reason of my parting with it be the death of my son and intended successor, and, having acquired a moderate fortune, I wish to consult my ease in the afternoon of life.’ Franklin replied ‘that the French, reduced by the war of 1756, were so far from being able to pursue schemes of taste, that they were unable to repair their public buildings.’

On 8 June 1768 appeared the following advertisement: ‘Robert Martin has agreed with Mr. Baskerville for the use of his ,whole printing apparatus, with whom he has wrought as a journeyman for ten years past, He therefore offers his service to print at Birmingham for gentlemen or booksellers, on the most moderate terms, who may depend on all possible care and elegance in the execution. Samples, if necessary, may be seen, on sending a line to John Baskerville or Robert Martin.’ Martin printed ‘The Christian’s Useful Companion,’ 1766, 8vo, and Somervile’s ‘Chace,’ 1767, 8vo ; an edition of Shakespeare, 1768, 9 vols. 12mo ; a quarto Bible, with cuts, 1789 ; and editions of the Abbe d’Ancourt’s ‘Lady’s Preceptor.’ Martin’s name as a printer then disappeared. Baskerville resumed work in 1769 with Jackson’s ‘Beauties of Nature.’ A folio Old Testament, with plates and annotations, was brought out in unworthy rivalry with a Birmingham edition of the same year by Boden and Adams. A beautiful quarto ‘Horace’ appeared in 1770, and Baskerville again remained inactive for a couple of years, when he issued another somewhat inferior Bible with the Birmingham imprint. The ‘Horace’ seems to have sold fairly well. He was thus tempted in 1772 to bring out a series of quarto editions of Latin authors Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, Lucretius, .Terence and next year Sallust and Florus. These noble quartos are said to be incorrect texts; for their magnificence of type, paper, ink, and presswork there can only be unqualified praise. Nothing finer had yet been attempted in England. At the same time Baskerville published a duodecimo series, including Tibullus, &c., Lucretius, Horace, and Sallust. The two Molinis employed him in 1773 to print their octavo and quarto ‘Ariosto,’ of which Dibdin says, ‘paper, printing, drawing, plates, all delight the eye and gratify the heart. . . . This edition has hardly its equal, and certainly not its superior’ (Library Companion, 1824, p. 758). An adventure of his own in the same year was an edition of Shaftesbury’s ‘Characteristicks.’ Franklin, writing to Baskerville 21 Sept. 1763, refers to this work, and says, ‘you speak of enlarging your foundery’ (Works, viii. 88).

In spite of repeated efforts to get rid of his printing business, love of the art in the end proved stronger than dislike of pecuniary loss. Baskerville went on printing nearly to the last months of his life, and one of the latest works produced under his care was the letterpress of Dr. William Hunter’s great work on the human gravid uterus, 1774. He was much disappointed by the death of a son, who was to have been his successor.

Baskerville died on 8 Jan. 1775, in the sixty-ninth year of his age, and by his own direction was buried in a tomb of masonry, on the site of an old mill in his garden. He had designed a monumental urn, with this inscription :

Stranger,

Beneath this cone, in unconsecrated ground

A Friend to the Liberties of mankind directed

His body to be inurn'd.

May the Example Contribute to Emancipate thy mind

From the idle fears of Superstition

And the wicked arts of Priesthood.


By a will dated 6 Jan. 1773 he left the chief part of his fortune, valued at 12,000l.,. to his wife, and, besides different legacies to relations and friends, one of 500l. to the Protestant Dissenting Charity School, for building purposes. The last bequest was disputed by the executors. The will professed open contempt for Christianity, and the biographers who reproduce the document always veil certain passages with lines of stars, as being ‘far too indecent [i.e. irreverent] for repetition.’ He had paid a handsome sum for the lease of his small estate, and had from first to last laid out nearly 6,000l. upon it. Instructions were left that the place should be sold. Mr. John Ryland, the purchaser, called it Baskerville House, and improved and enlarged it. The house suffered during the great riots of 1791, and was attacked by the mob on Friday, 15 July, Although the rioters were repulsed several times, the house was ultimately set on fire and gutted. In a series of views of those occurrences, published in 1793, the house is represented as a large mansion of three stories, with an avenue of trees and a pond ; some of the old facade, now in ruins, may still be seen at the lower end of Broad Street it forms part of a manufactory. Samuel Ryland, the next owner, leased the estate to a Mr. Gibson, who cut a canal through, and formed wharves. In 1820 some workmen came upon Baskerville's coffin, but it was covered up again. In May 1826, the land being wanted for building purposes, his remains, enclosed in a lead and a wooden coffin, were removed to the shop of Mr. Marston, a lead merchant, in Monmouth Street. The body was well preserved ; on the breast lay a wreath of laurel, faded yet entire. There is a tradition that the body was placed in the vaults of Christ Church ; but the ‘Worcester Herald’ for 12 Sept. 1829, quoting from a Birmingham journal, assures us that remains were re-interred in a piece of , ground adjoining Cradley Chapel, the property of a branch of Baskerville’s family, We are also told that ‘a surgical gentleman took a cast of the head.’

‘His wife,’ says Noble, ‘was all that affectation can describe. She lived in adultery with him many years. She was formerly a servant. Such a pair are rarely met with’ (op. cit. p. 362). Her maiden name was Ruston, and she was the wife of a Mr. Eaves, who had fled the country on account of some fraudulent practice. She had two children by him, a son and a daughter. Baskerville assisted the children and settled 2,000l. upon the mother, who married him upon the death of her first husband. She was handsomely provided for by the will, and carried on the printing business some time ; two books bear the imprint of ‘Sarah Baskerville.’ In April 1775 she discontinued the printing business, but continued that of type-founding until February 1777. In 1776 Chapman used the Baskerville type for an edition of Sherlock’s ‘Practical Discourse on Death,’ 8vo. Mrs. Baskerville died on 21 March 1788, and lies buried near the east end of St. Philip’s Church, Birmingham.

Many efforts were made after Baskerville’s death to dispose of his types. They were declined by the universities and by the London trade, who preferred the letters of Caslon and Jackson. Among the many ambitious schemes of Beaumarchais was one for a complete edition of Voltaire. For this purpose he founded a ‘Société philosophique, littéraire et typographique,’ consisting of himself alone. Great efforts were made to insure success ; one agent was sent to Holland to study paper-making, and another to purchase (1779) for 150,000 livres [3,700l.] all the printing plant of Basiskerville, as being the best in Europe. Two editions appeared at Kehl, one in ninety-two volumes, 12ino, 1785, and another in seventy volumes, 8vo, 1785-89. What became afterwards of the type is not known. Mr. Smart, a Worcester bookseller, and well known as a and collector of Baskervilles (he called his house Baskerville House), told Dibdin that on the death of the printer he went at once to Birmingham and made large purchases from the widow — stated, in a ‘Guide to Worcester’ he published, to have extended to 1,100l. worth. Some of Baskerville's types were in use at Messrs. Harris’s office at Liverpool in 1820.

The fame of Baskerville rapidly spread throughout Europe ; but it cannot be denied that the opinion of contemporary experts was somewhat unfavourable to his type. Dr. John Bedford, writing to Richard Richardson on 29 Oct. 1758, says: ‘By Baskerville’s Specimen of his types you will perceive how much of the elegance of them is owing to his paper, which he makes himself, as well as the types and the ink also ; and I was informed, whenever they come to be used by common pressmen, and with common materials, they will lose of their beauty considerably. Hence, perhaps, this Specimen may become very curious' (Nichols, Illustrations, i. 813). Benjamin Franklin told him in 1760 that a gentleman said you would be a means of blinding all the readers in the nation; for the strokes of your letters being too thin and narrow hurt the eye, and he could never read a line of them without pain. ‘Others complained of the gloss of the paper, but the letters themselves ‘have not that height and thickness of the stroke which make the common printing so much the more comfortable to the eye.’ E. R. Mores said : ‘'Mr. Baskerville of Birmingham, that enterprising place, made some attempts at letter-cutting, but desisted, and with good reason. The Greek cut by him or his for the university of Oxford is execrable. Indeed, he can hardly claim a place amongst letter-cutters ; his typographical excellence lay more in trim glossy paper to dim the sight’ (English Typographical Founders, 1778, 86). In a note upon this passage J. Nichols gave it as his view that ‘the idea entertained by Mr. Mores; of the ingenious Mr. Baskerville is certainly a just one. His glossy paper and too-sharp type offend the patience of a reader more sensibly than the innovations I have already censured.’ William Bowyer, too, thought poorly of the Greek letter. A correspondent of the ‘European Magazine’ for December 1785 praises the ink and paper, but objects that the ‘type was thicker than usual in the thick strokes and finer in the fine, and was sharpened in the angles in a novel manner ; all these combined gave his editions a rich look,’ but continued reading fatigued the eye. Since that date the feeling has changed to one of almost boundless admiration. ‘The typography of Baskerville,’ says Dibdin, ‘is eminently beautiful. . . . He united in a singularly happy manner the elegance of Plantin with the clearness of the Elzevirs. . . . He seems to have been extremely curious in the choice of his paper and ink : the former being in general the fruit of Dutch manufacture, and the latter partaking of a peculiarly soft lustre, bordering on purple. In his italic letter, whether capital or small, I think he stands unrivalled ; such elegance, freedom, and perfect symmetry being in vain to be looked for among the specimens of Aldus and Colinseus’ (Introd. to the Classics, ii. 556). Another expert informs us that his method of presswork was to have ‘a constant succession of hot plates of copper ready, between which, as soon as printed (aye, as they were discharged from the tympan), the sheets were inserted ; the wet was thus expelled, the ink set, and the trim glossy surface put on all simultaneously. . . . This work will, in my opinion, bear a comparison, even to its advantage, with those subsequently executed by the first typographer of our age’ (Hansard, Typographia, p. 311). The secret of making good ink had been lost in England for two centuries until Baskerville's experiments. His recipe is given by Hansard (op. cit. p. 723). An authority of our own day says: ‘Every book was a masterpiece ; a gem of typographic art. Baskerville's type was remarkably clear and elegant. His paper was of a very fine thick quality, but rather yellow in colour. His ink had a rich purple-black tint, and the uniformity of colour throughout his books testifies to the care taken in printing every sheet’ (Printers’ Resgister, 6 Jan. 1876). We learn from Chambers that the name of the workman who executed the types was John Handy ; he died 24 Jan. 1793.

The most graphic description of Baskerville we possess comes from the pen of another remarkable Birmingham citizen. ‘In private life,’ says Hutton, ‘he was a humorist ; idle in the extreme, but his invention was of the true Birmingham model, active. He could well design, but procured others to execute ; whenever he found merit, he caressed it. He was remarkably polite to the stranger, fond of shew ; a figure rather of the smaller size, and delighted to adorn that figure with gold lace. During the twenty-five years I knew him, though in the decline of life, he retained the singular traces of a handsome man. If he exhibited a peevish temper, we may consider good nature and intense thinking are not always found together. Taste accompanied him through the different walks of agriculture, architecture, and the finer arts. Whatever passed through his fingers bore the lively marks of John Baskerville’ (History of Birmingham, p. 197). ‘I was acquainted with Baskerville, the printer, but cannot wholly agree with the extracts concerning him, from Button’s ‘‘History of Birmingham,’’ ’ objects the anonymous correspondent of the ' European Magazine' (December 1785) already quoted. ( It is true he was very ingenious in mechanics, but it is also well known he was extremely illiterate, and his jokes and sarcasms on the Bible, with which his conversation abounded, showed the most contemptible ignorance of Eastern history and manners, and indeed of everything. His quarto edition of Milton's " Paradise Lost," with all its splendour, is a deep disgrace to the English press' on account of its misprints. Archdeacon Nares wrote in a book on epitaphs : 'I heard John Wilkes, after praising Baskerville, add " But he was a terrible infidel ; he used to shock me " ' (Notes and Queries, 1st ser. viii. 203). If his atheism shocked Wilkes, it may have been because it was too mild j this ' terrible infidel,' however, printed three bibles, nine common prayers, two psalm-books, and two Greek testaments. He is said to have been illiterate, yet his letters are certainly not those of an uneducated person. At the commencement of his career he announced : ‘It is not my desire to print many books ; but such only as are books of consequence, of intrinsic merit, or established reputation.' When we recollect that he only worked for sixteen or seventeen years, producing but few works in the time, and these chiefly at his own risk, and that they included the writings of Milton, Addison, Congreve, Shaftesbury, Ariosto, Virgil, Juvenal, Horace, Catullus, Tibullus and Propertius, Lucretius, Terence, Sallust, and Florus, Baskerville can scarcely be looked upon as a man without taste and judgment in literature. His social Arirtues were considerable a good son, an affectionate father and kinsman, polite and hospitable to strangers — he was entirely without the jealousy commonly ascribed to the artist and inventor. Birmingham has contributed many distinguished men to the industrial armies of England; but there are few of whom she has more reason to be proud than the skilful genius who was at once the British Aldus Manutius and the finest printer of modern times.

Messrs. Longman formerly possessed a portrait of Baskerville by Exteth, a pupil of Hogarth, which has been engraved ; another was for many years a heirloom in the offices of Aris’s ‘Birmingham Gazette,’ and a third passed into the possession of Mr. Joseph Parkes, formerly of Birmingham. The woodcut in Hansard's 'Typographia' was from one of these, by Miller, purchased by Mr. Knott at a sale of the effects of Baskerville's daughter-in-law, and said to have been considered a very excellent likeness by the family. A copper-plate by Rothwell (unpublished) is in Mr. Timmins’s collection.


Text from Dictionary of National Biography, 1885.

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