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English Old Style: Caslon

MyFonts puts it this way: “William Caslon released his first typefaces in 1722. Caslon’s types were based on seventeenth-century Dutch old style designs, which were then used extensively in England. Because of their remarkable practicality, Caslon’s designs met with instant success. Caslon’s types became popular throughout Europe and the American colonies; printer Benjamin Franklin hardly used any other typeface.

“The first printings of the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were set in Caslon.

“For her Caslon revival, designer Carol Twombly studied specimen pages printed by William Caslon between 1734 and 1770.”

English Oldstyle characteristics

  • The end of calligraphic influence in oldstyle fonts
  • Letters built from interchangeable parts
  • No hint of cursive
  • Absolute verticals

Transitional: Baskerville

By the end of this period, fonts had appeared with a rigidly vertical axis (usually called a rational axis). You can see it in Baskerville. This was the time of the Revolution and design was into Retro classical, which was called Neoclassical by the historians. This is the time of Monticello. Franklin was extremely impressed with John Baskerville’s designs in England at the time.

  • Rational axis: vertical
  • More modulation
  • Generous counters
  • Small bracketed serifs
  • Entirely horizontal stress
  • Rational system of parts

Baskerville’s influence on typography

Outside of John’s very beautiful typeface, his major influence was on the general look of page layout and formatted typography. He liked Caslon’s work but wanted to improve on it.

He was an amateur printer and he made his press a hallmark of excellence. He used a brass plate and a hard impression when the fashion was a soft squeeze. He smoothed his papers by running them through heated copper cylinders, instituting what we now call calendaring. He used wide margins and well-leaded copy, beginning the style for quality that we still use today.

Because he was an amateur, the pros copied his work relentlessly. He was largely unsuccessful in England but enthusiastically received by European craftsmen. As seen in fonts like New Baskerville, John’s fonts are still a standard for typographic beauty. Though rational and mechanical, they are clear, easy to read, and elegant.

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