Tuesday, 13 January 2015

A Typographic Crime Inspires a Treasure Hunt

Thomas Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker

In 1916, a 76-year-old man was often to be seen furtively going between The Dove, a pub in west London, and the turrets of Hammersmith Bridge. There was nothing remarkable about Thomas Cobden-Sanderson’s walks however, between August 1916 and January 1917 Cobden-Sanderson, a printer and bookbinder, dropped more than a tonne of metal printing type from the the bridge. He made approximately 170 trips from his place of work, a distance of about half a mile, and always in the dark. The type he consigned to the Thames, belonged to a font exclusively used by the Doves Press, a printer of fine books that Cobden-Sanderson had co-founded 16 years earlier. The type was not his to throw away and so he hid his trips from his friends, family and passers by.

What inspired this unusual crime? Cobden-Sanderson wanted to keep the type from Emery Walker, his former friend and business partner, with whom he had fallen out.  The reason behind his action was partly his passion for his craft. he did not like the thought of the type one day being used in books other than those he had so carefully printed. But it was also a loathing of the technological change that had transformed the world during his lifetime. He hated mechanical industry, and only by throwing the type  in the river, he wrote in his diary, could he  be sure it would not be used in “a press pulled otherwise than by the hand and arm of man”.

Both Cobden-Sanderson and Walker were part of the group of artists and craftsmen with links to William Morris. In 1887 it was Cobden-Sanderson who suggested a new committee be named the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, and as a result gave name to anew movement. The following year a lecture on fine printing by Walker Morris was inspired to found the Kelmscott Press and began a fashion for private presses that lasting through the 20th century. Walker’s knowledge of printing were fundamental to Kelmscott’s success. When Morris died, Cobden-Sanderson suggested he and Walker should set up a press of their own press. Books from the newly founded Doves Press were plain, simple, and modern for their time. Paradise Lost, issued in 1902, made their reputation yet their five-volume English Bible, is their masterpiece. The opening of Genesis (pictured, below) now ranks among the most famous pages in printing. All 500 copies were sold before completion. Today a Doves Bible can fetch more than £20,000.

For three years Robert Green has been crafting a digital reproduction of the famous face—the first fully usable Doves font since the original metal pieces sank to the bottom of the Thames. The new version of Doves can be seen at Typespec.co.uk

Over the years, intrepid fans have occasionally tried to recover pieces of the type from the river, but no one has ever found any, so while redrawing the contemporary version of Doves, Robert Green borrowed Doves books as a reference. His painstaking process was similar to the technique Cobden-Sanderson and Walker used to create the Doves type, itself. Doves owes most to the style of Nicholas Jenson, a Venetian printer from the 15th century. Robert Green has added to the original font which had only approximately 100 characters. Today his digital version has 350.

However the latest news is that in collaboration with the salvage team from the Port of London Authority, Robert Green recovered a small quantity of the lost metal type ‘dedicated & consecrated’ by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, founder of the DOVES PRESS, from the riverbed around Hammersmith Bridge and the digital version is now being updated to conform to the detail of the Actual metal type

Why not explore some of the Doves Press books in the Emery Walker Library in the Virtual Library?

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