Good old Caslon


Pic: Spitalfields Life/Bishopsgate Institute

One of the loveliest things on the modern interwebnet is the anonymous Gentle Author’s Spitalfields Life, who writes every day about things he comes across in his small corner on the fringe of the City of London. (It’s interesting that he lives just a mile or two from the home of another anonymous blogger also dedicated to the daily long-form art, Diamond Geezer. How do these two wonders keep things going for so long?)

Last Saturday, the Gentle Author wrote a piece about another distinguished Londoner, William Caslon, which contained a lot of local information which I wish I’d known when I lived nearby. He is surely right when he describes Caslon, nearly three centuries after his death, as still:

“the pre-eminent letter founder this country has produced. Before Caslon, there was little letter founding in Britain and most type was imported – even Shakespeare’s First Folio was printed with French type. But Caslon’s achievement was to realise designs and produce type which have been widely used ever since.”

And it all happened around the eastern fringes of the City of London. “The Caslon family tomb stands alone today in front of St Luke’s Old St, just yards from where William Caslon started his first letter foundry in Helmet Row in 1727 and, with pleasing consistency, it is lettered in Caslon type.”

“It was in the creation of his distinctly English version of Roman letters and italics, derived from the Dutch typefaces that were most commonly used in London at that time, which was the decisive factor in the establishment of Caslon’s reputation.

Caslon’s first type Specimen of 1734 exemplifies a confidence and clarity of design which has become so familiar that it is difficult to appreciate in retrospect. The Specimen offered a range of styles and sizes of type with an unprecedented authority and a distinctive personality which is immediately recognisable. As a consequence of the legibility and grace of Caslon’s work, his became the default choice of typeface for books and all kinds of publications in the English-speaking world for the next two centuries.”

The Caslon type crossed the Atlantic and became very influential in the just-about-to-be born United States of America when John Dunlap of Philadelphia set the type for the first printing of 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence, working into the night of 4 July 1776. It’s a source of pleasure to those of us of a typographic bent that one of the Committee of Five final drafting committee was Benjamin Franklin, statesman, polymath and printer, later to have a typeface named after him. Whether Franklin instructed Dunlap to use Caslon’s typeface is not known.

Caslon’s type has remained extraordinarily popular in the USA, probably more so than in the country of its birth. It is still used by the New Yorker, both for the paper copies and in the online version. There are those, however, who dislike it: one such being the American type historian Bruce Rogers, who thought it overused in England, which he described in the early 20th century as a “Caslon-ridden country”. This may well have been a reaction to the insistence of George Bernard Shaw that all his books be printed in it.

Caslon himself died in 1767 and is buried in St Luke’s church in Old Street, London. This is now deconsecrated and used for rehearsals and performances by the London Symphony Orchestra. One hopes that, as they pluck and blow through their latest repertoire, the musicians think occasionally of the important history of the man in the tomb outside.


Pic: Wikimedia Commons