Historical Types from Gutenberg to Ashendene

by Stan Knight. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2012. 104 pp. $39.95 (hardcover). ISBN 9781584562986.

That the book is a physical object whose design and construction require study and analysis is the underlying assumption of this study. Despite the competing claims for social and cultural analysis by book historians, bibliographers and graphic designers continue to insist that only through understanding and appreciating how the craft of printing interacts with aesthetics and content can one fully appreciate book culture. Specific elements deserving detailed study include among other things paper, design, and type face. 

Stan Knight, a renowned lettering artist and teacher, is a past Chairman of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, London, and is internationally known through lectures, workshops, and publications. His Historical Scripts (various editions) serves as a prelude and companion volume to the present study and underlines the close relationship between calligraphy and typography.

The primary purpose of Historical Types is

“…to show, as clearly as possible, what the classic ‘landmark’ typefaces looked like, and to facilitate an awareness of how the design of printing types changed over time.” (p.8)

Knight accomplishes his goal through illustrating, describing, and analyzing forty examples of typeface by typographers and designers from Gutenberg to St. John Hornby. Except for 15th century typefaces of the incunabula era, only Roman faces are considered. Each example is provided with two facing pages - heavily illustrated with black and white photographic reproductions - containing parallel information:

  1. a bibliographical description of a selected text
  2. reproduction of a page from the text
  3. an enlarged reproduction of five lines of text, showing as many letters of the alphabet as possible
  4. reproduction of a short line of text in actual size, to permit comparison with other typefaces
  5. a brief commentary

All illustrations are from text “printed from individual pieces of metal type,” (p.8) which excludes 20th century linotype and monotype reinterpretations of historical typefaces. The reproductions are “high-resolution digital images captured with raking light…scaled…to a specific enlargement appropriate for the particular type size and interlinear space.” The result permits detailed analysis of type, and of the “surface quality of the paper or vellum.” (p.9) Most of the illustrations are from the Wing Collection of the Newberry Library, Chicago, with a smattering of others from places such as the John Rylands Library, Manchester, and the Library of Congress.

Instead of using the traditional typeface classification – Venetian, Old, Transitional, Modern, and Sans Serif – Knight has organized his forty entries into eight sections of his own devising (the number of entries in parenthesis): Medieval (5), Italian Renaissance (6), French Renaissance (6), Baroque (8), Neoclassical (6), Rational (3), Nineteenth Century (3), and Private Press (3). As there is neither an overview essay on typeface nor introductions to the sections, it is unclear what general qualities unite the entries other than chronological.

The brief commentaries accompanying each entry are helpful and will frequently refer to recent scholarship. An excellent example is found in the entries under “Garamont,” which discusses the variant spelling “Garamond,” and also highlight his much overlooked achievements. Obscure figures such as the 17th century Hungarian Miklós Tótfalusi Kis and the 19th century Englishman Richard Austin are closely examined. Analysis of the unique qualities of specific letters is provided for the various typefaces. Although there are no footnotes, secondary authors are mentioned whose titles are listed in the back-of-the-book bibliography.

The intended audience of this work includes students and professionals of typography, graphic design, bibliography, and book history. The needs of this audience have traditionally been met by older titles such as John Carter, A B C for Book Collectors (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Pr., 2004), Alexander Nesbitt, History and Technique of Lettering (N.Y.: Dover, 1957), Stanley Morison, The Typographic Book, 1450-1935 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), and Daniel Updike, Printing Types, Their History, Forms and Use (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962). Knight does not claim to compete with these works and their extended narratives. Instead, by focusing upon specific examples and questioning the assumptions of earlier studies, he implies that a major intellectual revision of the field may be in order.

Competition for Knight may come, however, from another recent publication, Mathieu Lommen, ed. The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation (New York and London: Thames & Hudson, 2012) which focuses upon book design as well as typography. Like Knight, Lommen employs a combination of text and photographic reproduction to develop his theme; he also includes 127 entries and uses colour photography.

Historical Types will inform and delight a wide range of people – including bibliographers, book historians, and graphic artists – concerned with typographical developments between 1450 and World War I. The volume includes a glossary of terms, bibliography, index of names, and index of call numbers for books used in the illustrations.


Peter F. McNally

McGill University

Montreal, Quebec, Canada