“In a sense, engravers have always had a greater freedom of expression than traditional typographers. Unlike traditional typesetters, who might be confined to type styles already on hand and generally structured pages within the confinements of a grid, engravers could be more lyrical and spontaneous.”
Everybody loves letters. To be fair, most people love letters the way they love air—as something completely taken for granted yet absolutely necessary for getting through the day (or even through the next five minutes, as our obsessive device use would imply). But self-proclaimed typography nerds are burgeoning, and while digital fonts are well and good, the printed word is still—is increasingly—the ultimate form of lexical expression for connoisseurs. Spend just a bit of time poking through shops in Brooklyn, for example, and you are practically guaranteed sightings of some witty and truly wonderful letterpress. There is another level of beautiful, handcrafted lettering, though, that gets far less attention. In Nancy Sharon Collins’ paper “Engraver, communicator of content” she looks at the under-appreciated significance of engraved lettering within the history of typography.
While letterpress printing uses letters carved into blocks and then arranged in a grid, engraved lettering sits closer to the lovely idiosyncrasies of handwriting. The script is carved by hand into a plate, generally with associated images, resulting in an work in which text and image are more or less coextensive. (A hopefully not-too-insulting contemporary comparison, just as far as image-text integration, could be the amusing text that is laid directly over a meme image, as opposed to a caption that is typed under it.) A big reason this historical form is so appealing is, essentially, its irregularity. As Collins describes, “In a sense, engravers have always had a greater freedom of expression than traditional typographers. Unlike traditional typesetters, who might be confined to type styles already onhand and generally structured pages within the confinements of a grid, engravers could be more lyrical and spontaneous.”
Despite this appeal, engraving has, according to Collins, been unfortunately quite overlooked—a circumstance she hopes to begin amending with her article. She claims:
In the hierarchy of the international typographic canon, engraved lettering, on its own, sits fairly low. There are practical reasons for this position, and this article does not contest the general wisdom. Rather, it strives to amend the international typographic canon to include the engraved letter. This will be done through demonstrating how engraved lettering has significantly influenced the evolution of typographic form.
She clarifies in an annotation: “…by ‘canon’ I mean that which has been published in academic presses and is accepted as a general rule or guideline regarding typography and typographic style.”
The “practical reasons” that she mentions are, as is so often the case, economic, and are centered around a particular printing expression: “type-high”. This term is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as, “As high as the standard height of type, measured from the face to the foot, 23.3 millimeters.” The trouble was that copperplate engravings were not this height, and so incorporating them in the printing of a given manuscript would add and expensive step to the printing process, as the page would have to be passed through the press twice to accommodate the differing heights of letter block and plate. Therefore, Collins notes, “Usually, these highly detailed, engraved illustrations were reserved for products that could demand more than a standard price. For this reason, and because copperplate engraving was, and continues to be, outside of the common workflow of letterpress production, it has remained on the outskirts of letterpress and typographic history.”
In order to stress the influence that engraved lettering had on the development if typography, its economic inconvenience notwithstanding, Collins looks at four very impressive bibliographic examples: The Great Mirror of Folly (Het Groote Tafereel Der Dwaasheid) (C. 1720); Samuel Sympson’s A New Book of Cyphers (1726); George Bickham’s The Museum of Arts: or, The Curious Repository (1745?) and The Lincoln Crest & Monogram Album (c.late 1800s).
A wildly satirical work, The Great Mirror of Folly was written in response to the Dutch-English-Frence economic collapse of 1720. It’s most notable historical impact is having coined (or at least established) the use of ‘bubble’ as a financial term. From the text: “Like a virus, the bubble grows exponentially, infecting even those considered the most immune to irrational thought. It’s when the “smart people” get caught up in a bubble that it really gets going.”
All of Het Groote is a curious object of cultural history, and the marvellously diverse engraved plates are so ribald they would make even Hogarth blush. The many engraved allegories (in some copies there are 75) are bawdy, with lots of exposed backsides from which emanate paper (symbolizing shares of stock), bubbles (referring to speculation), and the more usual products from that part of the human anatomy. One could imagine the engraver’s conclusions on the entire folly as, ‘I liken this embarrassing episode to a pile of …’
Het Groote is fascinating because it gives the viewer a chance to look at different styles of engraving: figurative or typographic, beautifully rendered or crude (see Figures 1 and 2). Examined as a specimen of typography, it is unique in that so much of the text is engraved. This offers a novel opportunity to view a large number of engraved characters in running text, unlike most engraved specimens in which text is usually reserved for brief inscriptions, titling and attribution. When examining the engraving, it is obvious that the figurative work in Het Groote was engraved by more than one engraver and the lettering also appears to be engraved by a variety of hands as well.
Samuel Sympson’s A New Book of Cyphers was created as a compendium of typographic examples of cyphers (monograms) that would be useful to those producing letters. While Collins acknowledges that the work has little educational, literary or cultural value she affirms, “Cyphers is highly decorative and was a skilled craftsperson’s model for very high-end customization. This is a quality that, to this day, is very popular and a major selling point in many commercial endeavours, making Cyphers of all kinds enormously valuable in retail purchasing.”
The Museum of Arts is another case again:
The most striking element of The Museum of Arts is the apparent randomness of subject matter, a good deal of which is figurative. There is also a preponderance of artistically (not calligraphically) rendered animals and human forms, making the book quite unusual. While many copy books included smaller, calligraphically rendered animals and decorative devices, some Museum engravings take over whole pages (Merken 1785)…
Evaluated from an educational point of view, the book is a supremely delightful example of what can be done with copperplate engraving, reminding us that engraving can be a wildly creative and emotive medium. This echoes back to the original generation of painter/engravers, (roughly from the dawn of print engraving in the 1540s to the mid1600s) when engravers created pictorial content from their mind’s eye and not as the craft evolved into mere portraiture or copy work (Hind 1963: 118–39).
The Lincoln Crest & Monogram Album is perhaps most deeply linked to particular wide scale socioeconomic changes:
For the Victorian-era middle classes, it was important to follow the aesthetics and social norms of one’s peers, but also to satisfy some sense of individual style. ‘The success of the middle-classes in the Victorian period can be seen in their ability to universalise a set of principles based on individuality and progress’ (Loftus 2011). Factories spewed out consumer goods at ever increasing rates, and mass media in the form of newspapers, magazines and periodicals were in ever increasing abundance. Advertising was a new medium, and it abounded with reasons why this or that product was a household necessity (Meggs and Purvis 2006). A perfect example of this is Lincolns Fourth Edition that contains 52 pages of advertising alone! Display and advertising types were new, showy and more aggressive than those in previous generations. Thus it would have brought every manner of type and new letterforms into the parlour, the boudoir and anywhere there was light enough to read. While monograms, and monogram collecting, satisfied some newfangled Victorian urges, it also introduced new kinds of typography to an eager and willing audience.
In her article, Collins highlights four examples of manuscripts full of remarkable engraved lettering, that for various reasons at different times, were circulated fairly widely through Western European societies. Their production was inextricably linked to (and ultimately restricted by) the economies of their eras. Through the distribution and popularity they achieved, they indisputably influenced the manner in which typography developed on a broad scale, whether through an explicit distribution of letters in the form of monographs and cyphers, or through a compelling integration of engraved letters with visual imagery. While this influence seems to have been obscured for quite some time, its underlying historical presence has been persistent will no doubt resurface in popular consciousness, perhaps very soon:
Studying historic examples of engraving, in a typographic context, may not change definitions on the nature of type. Hopefully, though, spending time with these case studies has added a haptic layer of experience in the great legacy of the formal aspects of communication. In the words of Terrance Weinzierl, type designer and advanced data finisher at Monotype Imaging, who just finished designing two of the new digital fonts based on old engravers’ lettering styles mentioned at the beginning of this article, ‘[a]s a designer, the revival projects I’ve done – like Romany and now JMC Engraver and Feldman Engraver – have not only helped me understand typographic history better, but helped me learn how to build professional-grade fonts’.
– IQ Editor
Nancy Sharon Collins is a stationer/graphic designer, sole proprietor – Collins LLC, AIGA New Orleans special projects director, typography and graphic design instructor at Delgado Community College and instructor of graphic design history at Loyola University, New Orleans. Her book, The Complete Engraver, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in September 2012. Articles she has penned have appeared in AIGA Voice, Mohawk Fine Paper’s Felt & Wire and Neenah Paper’s Against the Grain.
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