Essay on Printing

Printing, in the only sense with which we are at present concerned, differs from most if not from all the arts and crafts represented in the Exhibition in being comparatively modern. For although the Chinese took impressions from wood blocks engraved in relief for centuries before the wood-cutters of the Netherlands, by a similar process, produced the block books, which were the immediate predecessors of the true printed book, the invention of movable metal letters in the middle of the fifteenth century may justly be considered as the invention of the art of printing. And it is worth mention in passing that, as an example of fine typography, the earliest book printed with movable types, the Gutenberg, or “forty-two line Bible” of about 1455, has never been surpassed.

Printing, then, for our purpose, may be considered as the art of making books by means of movable types. Now, as all books not primarily intended as picture-books consist principally of types composed to form letterpress, it is of the first importance that the letter used should be fine in form ; especially as no more time is occupied, or cost incurred, in casting, setting, or printing beautiful letters than in the same operations with ugly ones. And it was a matter of course that in the Middle Ages, when the craftsmen took care that beautiful form should always be a part of their productions whatever they were, the forms of printed letters should be beautiful, and that their arrangement on the page should be reasonable and a help to the shapeliness of the letters themselves. The Middle Ages brought caligraphy to perfection, and it was natural therefore that the forms of printed letters should follow more or less closely those of the written character, and they followed them very closely. The first books were printed in black letter, i.e. the letter which was a Gothic development of the ancient Roman character, and which developed more completely and satisfactorily on the side of the “lower-case” than the capital letters; the “lower-case” being in fact invented in the early Middle Ages.

The earliest book printed with movable type, the aforesaid Gutenberg Bible, is printed in letters which are an exact imitation of the more formal ecclesiastical writing which obtained at that time; this has since been called “missal type,” and was in fact the kind of letter used in the many splendid missals, psalters, etc., produced by printing in the fifteenth century. But the first Bible actually dated (which also was printed at Maintz by Peter Schoeffer in the year 1462) imitates a much freer hand, simpler, rounder, and less spiky and therefore far pleasanter and easier to read. On the whole the type of this book may be considered the ne-plus-ultra of Gothic type, especially as regards the lower-case letters; and type very similar was used during the next fifteen or twenty years not only by Schoeffer, but by printers in Strasburg, Basle, Paris, Lubeck, and other cities.

But though on the whole, except in Italy, Gothic letter was most often used, a very few years saw the birth of Roman character not only in Italy, but in Germany and France. In 1465 Sweynheim and Pannartz began printing in the monastery of Subiaco near Rome, and used an exceedingly beautiful type, which is indeed to look at a transition between Gothic and Roman, but which must certainly have come from the study of the twelfth or even the eleventh century MSS. They printed very few books in this type, three only ; but in their very first books in Rome, beginning with the year 1468, they discarded this for a more completely Roman and far less beautiful letter. But about the same year Mentelin at Strasburg began to print in a type which is distinctly Roman ; and the next year Gunther Zeiner at Augsburg followed suit ; while in 1470 at Paris Udalric Gering and his associates turned out the first books printed in France, also in Roman character. The Roman type of all these printers is similar in character, and is very simple and legible, and unaffectedly designed for use; but it is by no means without beauty. It must be said that it is in no way like the transition type of Subiaco, and though more Roman than that, yet scarcely more like the complete Roman type of the earliest printers of Rome.

A further development of the Roman letter took place at Venice. John of Spires and his brother Vindelin, followed by Nicholas Jenson, began to print in that city, 1469, 1470 ; their type is on the lines of the German and French rather than of the Roman printers. Of Jenson it must be said that he carried the development of Roman type as far as it can go : his letter is admirably clear and regular, but at least as beautiful as any other Roman type. After his death in the “ fourteen eighties,” or at least by 1490, printing in Venice had declined very much ; and though the famous family of Aldus restored its technical excellence, rejecting battered letters, and paying great attention to the “press work” or actual process of printing, yet their type is artistically on a much lower level than Jenson's, and in fact they must be considered to have ended the age of fine printing in Italy.

Jenson, however, had many contemporaries who used beautiful type, some of which—as, e.g., that of Jacobus Rubeus or Jacques le Rouge—is scarcely distinguishable from his. It was these great Venetian printers, together with their brethren of Rome, Milan, Parma, and one or two other cities, who produced the splendid editions of the Classics, which are one of the great glories of the printer's art, and are worthy representatives of the eager enthusiasm for the revived learning of that epoch. By far the greater part of these Italian printers, it should be mentioned, were Germans or Frenchmen, working under the influence of Italian opinion and aims.

It must be understood that through the whole of the fifteenth and the first quarter of the sixteenth centuries the Roman letter was used side by side with the Gothic. Even in Italy most of the theological and law books were printed in Gothic letter, which was generally more formally Gothic than the printing of the German workmen, many of whose types, indeed, like that of the Subiaco works, are of a transitional character. This was notably the case with the early works printed at Ulm, and in a somewhat lesser degree at Augsburg. In fact Gunther Zeiner's first type (afterwards used by Schussler) is remarkably like the type of the before-mentioned Subiaco books.

In the Low Countries and Cologne, which were very fertile of printed books, Gothic was the favourite. The characteristic Dutch type, as represented by the excellent printer Gerard Leew, is very pronounced and uncompromising Gothic. This type was introduced into England by Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton's successor, and was used there with very little variation all through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and indeed into the eighteenth. Most of Caxton's own types are of an earlier character, though they also much resemble Flemish or Cologne letter. After the end of the fifteenth century the degradation of printing, especially in Germany and Italy, went on apace ; and by the end of the sixteenth century there was no really beautiful printing done : the best, mostly French or Low-Country, was neat and clear, but without any distinction ; the worst, which perhaps was the English, was a terrible falling-off from the work of the earlier presses ; and things got worse and worse through the whole of the seventeenth century, so that in the eighteenth printing was very miserably performed. In England about this time, an attempt was made (notably by Caslon, who started business in London as a type-founder in 1720) to improve the letter in form. Caslon's type is clear and neat, and fairly well designed ; he seems to have taken the letter of the Elzevirs of the seventeenth century for his model : type cast from his matrices is still in everyday use.

In spite, however, of his praiseworthy efforts, printing had still one last degradation to undergo. The seventeenth century founts were bad rather negatively than positively. But for the beauty of the earlier work they might have seemed tolerable. It was reserved for the founders of the later eighteenth century to produce letters which are positively ugly, and which, it may be added, are dazzling and unpleasant to the eye owing to the clumsy thickening and vulgar thinning of the lines: for the seventeenth-century letters are at least pure and simple in line. The Italian, Bodoni, and the Frenchman, Didot, were the leaders in this luckless change, though our own Baskerville, who was at work some years before them, went much on the same lines; but his letters, though uninteresting and poor, are not nearly so gross and vulgar as those of either the Italian or the Frenchman.

With this change the art of printing, touched bottom, so far as fine printing is concerned, though paper did not get to its worst till about 1840. The Chiswick press in 1844 revived Caslon's founts, printing for Messrs. Longman the Diary of Lady Willoughby. This experiment was so far successful that about 1850 Messrs. Miller and Richard of Edinburgh were induced to cut punches for a series of “old style” letters. These and similar founts, cast by the above firm and others, have now come into general use and are obviously a great improvement on the ordinary “modern style” in use in England, which is in fact the Bodoni type a little reduced in ugliness. The design of the letters of this modern “old style” leaves a good deal to be desired, and the whole effect is a little too gray, owing to the thinness of the letters.

It must be remembered, however, that most modern printing is done by machinery on soft paper, and not by the hand press, and these somewhat wiry letters are suitable for the machine process, which would not do justice to letters of more generous design.

It is discouraging to note that the improvement of the last fifty years is almost wholly confined to Great Britain. Here and there a book is printed in France or Germany with some pretension to good taste, but the general revival of the old forms has made no way in those countries. Italy is contentedly stagnant. America has produced a good many showy books, the typography, paper, and illustrations of which are, however, all wrong, oddity rather than rational beauty and meaning being apparently the thing sought for both in the letters and the illustrations.

To say a few words on the principles of design in typography : it is obvious that legibility is the first thing to be aimed at in the forms of the letters ; this is best furthered by the avoidance of irrational swellings and spiky projections, and by the using of careful purity of line. Even the Caslon type when enlarged shows great shortcomings in this respect : the ends of many of the letters such as the “t” and “e” are hooked up in a vulgar and meaningless way, instead of ending in the sharp and clear stroke of Jenson's letters ; there is a grossness in the upper finishings of letters like the “c”, the “a”, and so on, an ugly pear-shaped swelling defacing the form of the letter : in short, it happens to this craft, as to others, that the utilitarian practice, though it professes to avoid ornament, still clings to a foolish, because misunderstood conventionality, deduced from what was once ornament, and is by no means useful; which title can only be claimed by artistic practice, whether the art in it be conscious or unconscious.

In no characters is the contrast between the ugly and vulgar illegibility of the modern type and the elegance and legibility of the ancient more striking than in the Arabic numerals. In the old print each figure has its definite individuality, and one cannot be mistaken for the other ; in reading the modern figures the eyes must be strained before the reader can have any reasonable assurance that he has a 5, an 8, or a 3 before him, unless the press work is of the best: this is awkward if you have to read Bradshaw's Guide in a hurry.

One of the differences between the fine type and the utilitarian must probably be put down to a misapprehension of a commercial necessity : this is the narrowing of the modern letters. Most of Jenson's letters are designed within a square, the modern letters are narrowed by a third or thereabout; but while this gain of space very much hampers the possibility of beauty of design, it is not a real gain, for the modern printer throws the gain away by putting inordinately wide spaces between his lines, which, probably, the lateral compression of his letters renders necessary. Commercialism again compels the use of type too small in size to be comfortable reading : the size known as “ Long primer” ought to be the smallest size used in a book meant to be read. Here, again, if the practice of “leading” were retrenched larger type could be used without enhancing the price of a book.

One very important matter in “setting up” for fine printing is the “spacing,” that is, the lateral distance of words from one another. In good Printing, printing the spaces between the words should be as near as possible equal (it is impossible that they should be quite equal except in lines of poetry) ; modern printers understand this, but it is only practised in the very best establishments. But another point which they should attend to they almost always disregard ; this is the tendency to the formation of ugly meandering white lines or “rivers” in the page, a blemish which can be nearly, though not wholly, avoided by care and forethought, the desirable thing being “the breaking of the line” as in bonding masonry or brickwork, thus : The general solidity of a page is much to be sought for: modern printers generally overdo the “whites” in the spacing, a defect probably forced on them by the characterless quality of the letters.

For where these are boldly and carefully designed, and each letter is thoroughly individual in form, the words may be set much closer together, without loss of clearness. No definite rules, however, except the avoidance of “rivers” and excess of white, can be given for the spacing, which requires the constant exercise of judgment and taste on the part of the printer.

The position of the page on the paper should be considered if the book is to have a satisfactory look. Here once more the almost invariable modern practice is in opposition to a natural sense of proportion. From the time when books first took their present shape till the end of the sixteenth century, or indeed later, the page so lay on the paper that there was more space allowed to the bottom and fore margin than to the top and back of the paper, thus: the unit of the book being looked on as the two pages forming an opening. The modern printer, in the teeth of the evidence given by his own eyes, considers the single page as the unit, and prints the page in the middle of his paper—only nominally so, however, in many cases, since when he uses a headline he counts that in, the result as measured by the eye being that the lower margin is less than the top one, and that the whole opening has an upside-down look vertically, and that laterally the page looks as if it were being driven off the paper.

The paper on which the printing is to be done is a necessary part of our subject : of this it may be said that though there is some good paper made now, it is never used except for very expensive books, although it would not materially increase the cost in all but the very cheapest. The paper that is used for ordinary books is exceedingly bad even in this country, but is beaten in the race for vileness by that made in America, which is the worst conceivable. There seems to be no reason why ordinary paper should not be better made, even allowing the necessity for a very low price ; but any improvement must be based on showing openly that the cheap article is cheap, e.g. the cheap paper should not sacrifice toughness and durability to a smooth and white surface, which should be indications of a delicacy of material and manufacture which would of necessity increase its cost. One fruitful source of badness in paper is the habit that publishers have of eking out a thin volume by printing it on thick paper almost of the substance of cardboard, a device which deceives nobody, and makes a book very unpleasant to read. On the whole, a small book should be printed on paper which is as thin as may be without being transparent. The paper used for printing the small highly ornamented French service-books about the beginning of the sixteenth century is a model in this respect, being thin, tough, and opaque. However, the fact must not be blinked that machine-made paper cannot in the nature of things be made of so good a texture as that made by hand.

The ornamentation of printed books is too wide a subject to be dealt with fully here ; but one thing must be said on it. The essential point to be remembered is that the ornament, whatever it is, whether picture or pattern-work, should form part of the page should be a part of the whole scheme of the book. Simple as this proposition is, it is necessary to be stated, because the modern practice is to disregard the relation between the printing and the ornament altogether, so that if the two are helpful to one another it is a mere matter of accident. The due relation of letter to pictures and other ornament was thoroughly understood by the old printers ; so that even when the woodcuts are very rude indeed, the proportions of the page still give pleasure by the sense of richness that the cuts and letter together convey.

When, as is most often the case, there is actual beauty in the cuts, the books so ornamented are amongst the most delightful works of art that have ever been produced. Therefore, granted well designed type, due spacing of the lines and words, and proper position of the page on the paper, all books might be at least comely and well-looking : and if to these good qualities were added really beautiful ornament and pictures, printed books might once again illustrate to the full the position of our Society that a work of utility might be also a work of art, if we cared to make it so.

William Morris.

Emery Walker.

Text from Arts and Crafts Essays, Rivington, Percival, & Co., London, 1893
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