Image: Portrait of John Baskerville (1706-1775), Type Founder and Printer, painted by James Millar in 1774. Oil on canvas. Gift of the Rev A H Caldicott, 1940.
[Image from: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery]
John Baskerville (1706-1775) was born at Sion Hill Farm, Wolverley, near Kidderminster. From an early age, he showed a deep interest in fine lettering. In the 1720s, he came to Birmingham and became a calligraphy teacher and stone-cutter.
In about 1740 he entered the japanning trade. His artistic vision, excellent taste, and care for detail made his ware fine works of art. These same qualities would later be seen in his printing.
By the 1750s the profits from his successful japanning business gave him an opportunity to begin experiments in the process of book printing. ‘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 Set of Types according to what I conceived to be their true proportion.’ Baskerville made innovations in press construction, improved the design of letters, invented his own black ink, and refined the process of papermaking.
In April 1757, Baskerville’s first book – the poems of Virgil - was printed on the small press at his house at Easy Hill. This was followed by Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Addison’s Works, Aesop’s Fables, the poems of Horace, and the works of several other Latin poets. ‘Baskerville’s Poetical Classics’ were highly praised and collected by booklovers.
In 1758 he was appointed Printer at Cambridge University, where he printed a Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Ironically for a freethinker and atheist, it is the Bible that is considered his finest book.
His last great work was Orlando Furioso by Lodovico Ariosto commissioned by the French booksellers, the brothers Molini. The most famous artists of the time were employed to produce engraved illustrations for this edition.
His aim never was to print large numbers of books, but rather to improve their artistic quality, and to set an aesthetic example for British bookprinting. ‘It is not my desire to print many books; but such only, as are books of Consequence, of intrinsic merit, or established Reputation, and which the public may be pleased to see in an elegant dress, and to purchase at such a price, as will repay the extraordinary care and expense that must be necessarily be bestowed upon them.’
Baskerville’s books were admired all over Europe and America. Benjamin Franklin and members of the Lunar Society were among his close friends and subscribers. The Scottish historian W.Robertson and the French dramatist Beaumarchais both called Baskerville a ‘Man of Genius’. He greatly influenced the famous contemporary French and Italian printers F.-A. Didot and D.Bodoni.
Baskerville’s Easy Hill Press worked for less than two decades. But its production made Birmingham an undisputed centre of European bookprinting, and books with ‘BIRMINGHAMIAE: TYPUS JOHANNIS BASKERVILLE’ on their title pages have become treasures of the world of art.
Sources and Further Reading
Bennett, William, John Baskerville, the Birmingham printer, his press, relations and friends, 2 vols (Birmingham, Birmingham School of Printing, 1939).
Benton, Josiah Henry, John Baskerville, type-founder and printer 1706-1775 (New York, Printed for the Typophiles, 1944)
Cave Thomas, John Baskerville, the Birmingham printer, 1706-1775, his ancestry a retrospect (Birmingham, City of Birmingham School of Printing, 1936).
Cole, Laura, John Baskerville, an analysis of the aims, motives and achievements of a Midlands man (1984).
Pardoe, Frank Ernest, John Baskerville of Birmingham, letter-founder and printer, (London, Muller, 1975).
Straus, Ralph, and Dent, R K, John Baskerville, a memoir (London, Chatto and Windus, 1907.)
John Baskerville’s printed books are held in the Early and Fine Printing Collection at Birmingham Central Library. For more details contact the Arts, Languages and Literature Section, telephone 0121 303 4227. Examples of Baskerville’s work will be included on the Revolutionary Players website in due course.
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