Letter from Birmingham

[Modified 4/14/2015 to acknowlege three missed presentations in the Saturday afternoon parallel session.]

No, not from a Birmingham jail. From honest-to-goodness Birmingham, England, home of John Baskerville, noted city son [he even has a big building named after him–how many type designers can claim that?] I went there for “The Beauty of Letters,” subtitled “Text, Type, and Communication in the Eighteenth Century.” The conference was held at the University of Birmingham, but was sponsored by the Baskerville Society, the (British) Biliographical Society, and two west Midlands historical groups.

B459MalcolmDickv2B571CarolineArcherThe organizers of the conference were Professor Caroline Archer of Birmingham City University and and Dr. Malcolm Dick of the University of Birmingham. They often co-sponsor events under the name “The Typographic Hub,” which have been intriguing me for the several years I have been receiving their press releases because I edit this blog. This event was two days, so it seemed like it would be worth the trip.

I signed up because of the title, but I probably should have paid a bit more attention to the sponsoring organizations. It was exactly about the conference subtitle, all of it. There was one bibliographic superstar there, Nicolas Barker. But there were also people talking about shorthand, private madhouses of the 1750s, and a Swedish courtroom. It was all interesting, though, and I don’t regret going.

Saturday began with historian Susan Whyman (whom I seem to have failed to get a picture of) talking about the very interesting figure of William Hutton, a Birmingham man who managed to be a businessman, politician, and writer over a 92-year lifespan. The book that caught my attention was a polemic about the Court of Requests, “Their Nature, Utility, and Powers Described, with a Variety of Cases Determined in that of Birmingham.” It sounded interesting enough that I downloaded a copy from Google Books. Basically, it was a small claims court (dealing with claims up to 40 shillings only) with no lawyers involved and the decisions made by people who were more-or-less the peers of the disputants. His argument that we’d all be better off if there were no such thing as big courts with lawyers–if every case was decided by peers. It did not catch on, perhaps because the lawyers were too big a lobby. He ended his life by writing a series of travel books.

Next came the aforementioned Barker. B471NicolasBarker His topic was a recently-unearthed (in Australia!) book of penned samples by calligrapher Joseph Champion. Most of our knowledge of Champion is through writing manuals which were engraved; what this discovery adds is more samples that came directly from his pen without an intervening engraver. 1965, was John Hayward, the friend and muse of T. S. Eliot. Since 1965, Barker (sometime publisher and first head of conservation at the British Library) has been editor of The Book Collector.

Diana Patterson, a Canadian independent scholar, B479DianaPatterson talked about the handwriting copy books of George Bickham. He was a penman, but even more an engraver. His books were instructional, providing samples of handwriting on one page with a facing lined blank page where the student was expected to copy the master’s writing. (Oddly, few copies turn up with the student copy-pages filled in.) Patterson has been researching copies of his writing books marked with counties in the UK and even cities in the United States, each with special covers indicating they were for local use. She has not, however, developed any evidence that the regional editions had any special local matter, nor did they seem to generate additional sales.

B492GilesBergerv3Giles Bergel came from Oxford to talk about Bickham as well. The title of his talk was “Writing-master and engraver: a troubled collaboration,” but I appear not to have taken adequate notes to explain what he covered.

B501PersidaV2Persida Lazarevic came from the University of Pescara, in Italy, to talk about Cyrillic calligraphy by Zaharije Stefanovic Orefelin (1726-1785). I confess to having a hard time understanding her talk, but her slides were among the most beautiful shown.

Next up was Timothy Underhill, of Cambridge. I had no trouble understanding him. B506TimothyUnderhill His topic was shorthand–specifically the very careful style practiced by John Byrom. There were a variety of reasons for shorthand in this period (his manual was published in 1767). For some it was simply a means of taking down information in a hurry, but for others, it was a way of restricting who would be able to read what had been written. Because Byrom moved in important circles (he was a member of the Royal Society while Sir Isaac Newton was president), he developed a remarkable collection of followers, including the famous Wesley brothers, Charles and John, who founded the Methodist church.

B516FrancescoAscoliFrancesco Ascoli, who hails from Catholic University of Milan and Brescia, talked about a Swiss tradition of writing in Fraktur for special occasions (often personal greetings on anniversaries, or ownership pages in bibles and hymnals) which persisted in Pennsylvania until the use of English drove it out. He showed many examples, apparently written by ordinary people, not professionals.

Next came lunch. Though I did not drink anything alcoholic with lunch, I did not manage to take photos of the first three speakers after lunch, nor did I take notes on what they were saying. Leonie Hannan, of University College London, talked on “Women, letter-writing, and the life of the mind.” Ruth Larson of the University of Derby talked on “A white sheet is not a proper dress for a drawing room: an archaeology of the letters of elite women.” And Chiara Sironi of Palermo University talked on “The formation of taste through fictional epistles.” Mea culpa. I remember perking up when someone announced the three things that sociologists study, but didn’t manage to write down what they were.

There was also a parallel stream of talks in another room on letter writing, which I was not present for. There, Leonie Hannon of University College, London, talked on “Women, letter-writing, and the life of the mind in England during the first half of the long eighteenth century”; Ruth Larsen of the University of Derby talked on “A white sheet is not a proper dress for a drawing room: an archaeology of the letters of elite women, 1760-1830”; and Chiara Sironi (in a PhD program at the University of Palermo [Italy]) talked on “The formation of taste through fictional epistles.”

B531GaborGelleriAfter a coffee break, we came back and Gabor Gelleri talked about travel writing. My note-taking was only beginning to come to life, but I believe he was talking about the reasons people of the 18th century gave for travel. Whether you wanted to write as you went, or whether you wanted to see the whole thing and then report on it afterward derived from your world view. He showed a 1789 chart, published to allow travelers to note their observations for such variables as productivity and land value.

I was thoroughly awake B540LeonardSmith by the time Leonard Smith came on to talk about madhouses in Georgian England. Some places, like London, had municipally-operated homes for the insane, and these were likely to be fairly well run. But in other cities, private asylums were the rule, and the risks of their being employed for ulterior motives were high among the part of the populace who could afford them. Unhappy with your wife because she complains you drink too much or womanize? Put her away! Smith had studied writing on the madhouses during the period.

B547AnnieMattssonNext came Annie Mattsson, of the University of Uppsala, giving a fascinating talk on what she had been able to decipher from the records left of a particular police case in a Swedish court. From eleven pages of notes, she was able to learn that it was about an organist who had a complaint against a former maid. His daughter had died, and the organist had given the maid a fancy dress belonging to the dead daughter, with the intention that the maid sell it and return the proceeds. The maid sold it, but didn’t return the money. The court eventually said, essentially, What’s done is done.

B552KatrinKatrin Seyler, of the Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries (more later) talked about a handwritten note from 1716, that was secreted in a baroque writing cabinet just as it was finished. The note was discovered in the 1960s, and the writer talks about how when the cabinet is finished, he will go seek his fortune as a journeyman. Both the very elaborate cabinet and the note are on display at the Victoria and Albert in London. There is an online version of her talk on the V&A’s web site.

B560GiacomoI was unable to understand Giacomo Zanibelli’s talk. Though he gave it in English, I was not able to follow it. He is from the University of Siena, and the title was “The royal publishing industry of the ancient Italian states: an example of cultural and school industry in the eighteenth century.

B565JennyUglowThe day closed with the first of two keynote speakers for the conference. Jenny Uglow, who is at work on a biography of Thomas Bewick, talked about the artist’s efforts to get his wood engravings printed by the slipshod printers he first encountered. He soon discovered Bulmer, who was trying harder to get quality printing. But it didn’t stop him from dropping by the print shop every day when they were working on his Land Birds, the first volume of his great opus on British birds. Uglow also noted Bewick’s pride at developing apprentices to his craft: he claimed that 14 of his apprentices had specialized in wood engraving; of these, 11 turned out to be very successful.

Day two began with the second keynote speaker, Lynda Mugglestone, of Oxford. B572LyndaMugglestone She talked about John Baskerville’s Vocabulary, or Pocket Dictionary, which was a very different beast than Johnson’s dictionary, say. He hoped that it would “not be unacceptable to Young Ladies, and to Gentlemen too, who have not had the Advantage of a liberal or learned Education…” It was not intended to weigh at the most exalted levels, but to be useful to ordinary folk. Mugglestone also speculated upon who actually wrote the dictionary: some have argued for Priestly (who may have contributed first efforts), but largely based on the theology expressed in the definition, she suspects Baskerville himself. Nicolas Barker interjected a remarkable observation: the best way to ascertain Baskerville’s inner life is to look at his definitions for prepositions, Barker said.

B587AlexWright Following the keynote, we had a group of talks on regional printer-publishers. The next speaker up, Alex Wright, is an independent scholar, and his talk, “Baskerville, rabies, and Joseph Dalby” was a breath of fresh air since it dealt with science. Dalby was the author of The Virtues of Cinnabar and Musk, against the Bite of a Mad Dog one of only two medical texts printed by Baskerville. It was among the first to claim that rabies could be treated. Eventually it could (with an injection of rabies vaccine, if done soon enough) but not with Dalby’s prescription. Cinnabar, the source of the pigment vermillion, is largely mercury, and hence extremely poisonous.

B624TonySeatonThe next speaker, Tony Seaton, of the University of Bedfordshire, wins the title for longest topic: “Printing and the mind of woman in Birmingham 1813-15: Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, the Arch Brothers, and John Baskerville.” He compared the work of two publishers who printed some of Schimmelpenninck’s writing: Baskerville, whose deluxe editions appealed to more prosperous and conservative customers, and the Arch Brothers, who were more fashionable and forward-thinking. She got what she wanted, since her thinking gradually became more progressive as the years wore on.

B618HelenWilliamsHelen Williams of the University of Northumbria (erroneously called Northumberland in the promotional materials for the event) talked about my favorite novel in “Tristram Shandy & the beauty of Caslon: the mid-century novel in a ‘new letter.'” My notes on her talk are not very clear…she definitely talked about what publishers worked on the book: the first one didn’t do particularly well, so he switched to one Dodsley, who was willing to attempt the unusual things Sterne demanded. But though I took some photos of her projected images (which did indeed use Caslon) I failed to note what was her point.

B630PeterPellizzariAfter a break, Peter Pellizzari, who had journeyed over from Harvard, displayed the results of his study of the distribution of the polemical writings of “Publius” (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay writing pseudonymously) during the campaign for the ratification of the U.S. constitution. Pellizzari had studied mentions of the writings in newspapers outside New York City, where they were originally published. He established by mapping that there were corridors of distribution (mainly along waterways) where they were disseminated.

B635KevinWisniewskiKevin Wisniewski, of Maryland University, had a broad topic: “Compositors of types: typography and design in eighteenth-century America.” He talked about at least two things: –Various versions of the Declaration of Independence. It turns out that the authorized version of the Declaration [which came out well after various unauthorized ones] was printed by a black woman: Mary Katharine Goddard had taken over the Baltimore print shop run by her husband after his death. –Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration, was a well-connected public figure who followed all the trends at home and abroad. He had read Sterne and employed local printers to imitate the must cutting-edge typography being done in England.

B644PierreDelsaerdtPierre Delsaerdt works at the University of Antwerp, but he was investigating an earlier Belgian place of learning, Leuven University, which started a university press in 1759. A group of administrators seem to have conspired to create the press to put their university on the map. They managed to produce beautiful books (reminiscent of Baskerville’s) for a few years, before the occupying Germans shut it down. The speaker, Delsaerdt, is a master of his presentation software: his slides were, hands down, the most perfectly designed of the event. [Leuven University Press was reincarnated in 1971, but it is a whole new thing.]

B663JennieMcDonaldAfter lunch, Jennie McDonald, an American independent scholar, lightened things up with her collection of alphabets in human form. Various printers created popular posters, perhaps using so-called “posture masters” as models. She also demonstrated a doll whose flexibility would have made it good model.

B671JoannaJarvisJoanna Jarvis, of Birmingham City University, talked on “The power of the press: an eighteenth century tale of actresses and image control.” She told of the parallel lives of two women: Mrs. Mary Robinson and Mrs. Sarah Siddons, who tried to maintain respectable images in the press while being stage actresses. They were both fighting against the public perception of all actresses as being essentially prostitutes. Robinson had setbacks (being mistress of the Prince of Wales didn’t really work out) but eventually regained an acceptable public image. Siddons, according to Jarvis, was the first genuine success as a modern actress who maintained control of her own image.

B680JonMeltonFinally a type designer! John Melton has some interesting designs on his web site, but they don’t appear to be for sale to the public. Here he was talking about his effort to develop a serif typeface based on the work of John Soane, architect of the Bank of England and many other neo-classical structures. Details from his buildings and his preserved workspace were used as sources to develop a theory of his visual vocabulary, from which letterforms sometimes had to be invented. Melton is also considering a Soane sans-serif, but there he is treading a path blazed by James Mosely.

B698PeterAllenPeter Allen, an independent scholar, took us into the final segment of the program, looking at more regional printer-publishers. He spoke about Samuel Galton, Jr. who found himself owner of a large estate (“Great Barr Hall”) which somehow prompted him to bring out a 3-volume natural history text intended for children. His first volume about birds, which came out in 1791, had the distinction of including the dodo bird, which had probably been extinct since 1662.

B726ElaineMitchellElaine Mitchell, of the University of Birmingham, shared her interest in plants and plant commerce with her talk titled “A growing obsession: plants, print, and progress in the eighteenth century.” Her interest in the field began with her discovery of Baskerville’s plant order from James Gordon. She has since turned up many more lists: both lists of plants offered, and of plants ordered. It turns out that exploration had increased the universe of available plants to a very long list, close to what today’s serious gardener can summon.

B742JenniDixon Jenni Dixon, another independent scholar, had the unenviable task of concluding the day’s presentations with hers about James Bisset. He had a large house in downtown Birmingham, which he used as a museum and picture gallery. He also wrote, including a Poetic survey round Birmingham, with a brief description of the different curiosities and manufactures of the place, accompanied with a magnificent directory, with the names and professions, &c. superbly engraved in emblematic plates

It was an engaging conference, but I also found Birmingham the city of interest. Did you know that it has more miles of canal than Venice? I allowed myself an extra day at the end of the conference to tour. The weather did not cooperate, but I managed to find an excellent umbrella in a Birmingham shop, and walked from the University (about six miles from the center of town) up to downtown along a canal tow-path. It was amazingly pastoral–the only thing which made it less so were the commuters using the same path to get to work. Once downtown I gawked at the amazing just-built library and found the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery very worth while. Their local history sections were beautifully interpreted, and they have a cafe in a glorious room. A few snaps:




–Bob McCamant