In Search of Bert Smith

We are all surrounded by ghosts. We carry memories of friends long gone, old acquaintances, workmates, childhood playmates. Faces of strangers remind us of faces we knew. And sometimes, going about our work, we are simply aware of others who have done the same work, even used the same tools, often better than we do.

In the past few years, slowly researching and writing part of the text for Bordering on the Sublime, our book on ornamental typography at the Curwen Press, I have often been aware of a presence just out of sight. I know this may sound unnecessarily fanciful in our cripplingly pragmatic time, but consider this: Bordering on the Sublime will reprint about a hundred borders constructed from Monotype ornaments, all of them conceived, designed, and composed by one man. Our pressroom is crowded with boxes containing scores of standing borders, all of which we have proofed, checked for damage, and all of which went through that one man’s hands, sort by sort. I replace broken sorts from the cases he used, and refer many times a day to his copy of the Monotype specimen book of ornaments, with what later proved to be his notations and markings all through it in an unmistakable italic hand. His name is not written in it, but I know who he was. His name was Bert Smith. Bert E Smith. Because of the initial, we had come to refer to him, fondly (and, as it turned out, prophetically) as ‘Bertie’.

I don’t recall when I first heard his name, but it must have been around 2009, when we purchased these materials from Ian Mortimer and conceived the idea for the book. I asked a few people in England if they could tell me about him, but no one really knew very much. I heard a little at that time from the late Raymond Roberts, who had been a director at Curwen in the early 1950s and had known Bert Smith. Mr Roberts was management, of course, and Mr Smith was union, a comp, so their acquaintance was quite slight, but Roberts remembered Bert Smith’s coming to the office on one or two occasions to discuss designs for the British Transport Commission work that Curwen Press designed and printed. It was the intricate and striking borders which Smith created for these commissions that drew wide attention to his work. To that extent he was distinguished from the many other compositors and pressmen in the printing office. Roberts also recalled that Smith was already known around the firm as the man who was an expert with ornaments – although there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he was perfectly at ease with type as well.

Around this time I wrote to the Cambridge University Library, where I knew there to be an archive of Curwen material, to ask if there were any information about Bert Smith there. Chip Coakley, himself a private press printer of distinction at Jericho Press, kindly sent me several photographs taken at Curwen Press during Bert Smith’s retirement party, allowing me to put a face to the name. They show him chatting with some of the others who were present and being presented with what appears to be a camera.

I gleaned one or two other bits of information from men who had worked in the trade. It was suggested in passing that some of the other compositors looked slightly askance at Bert Smith because of his specialising in work with ornaments, considering him to be ‘not a real comp’. But Julius Stafford-Baker made a point which has stuck with me: of the many thousands of people who worked in the printing trades as compositors and pressmen since the end of the First World War, Bert Smith may be the only one whose name is known outside the trade itself. His work was properly admired, probably even by the men who spoke slightingly of it. One confirmation of this is the fact that, although union regulations demanded that compositors and printers retire at 65, an exception must apparently have been arranged by his employers in his case, perhaps because of the specialised nature of his work: when he retired he was 71. It is also worth noting that he seemed happy to work on.

There is no wonder at that. Although printers’ flowers have been used for borders almost since they were first created, sometimes with two or more colours, no one has ever used them with such mastery and originality as Bert Smith. He combined ornaments which anyone else would have considered incompatible, and by sometimes printing one flower over another in a second colour he created what I would define as ‘visual counterpoint’ – creating from the overlapping combination of two a third quite new element of design – and he did this over and over again.

Unavoidably, long exposure to Bert Smith’s work made us increasingly curious about who the man was. He worked at a trade, and when he left to go home, and in time retired, that trade was behind him. His work was acknowledged and his name recorded a few times in print: in the Monotype Recorder, Pat Gilmour’s Artists at Curwen, and Herbert Simon’s Introduction to Printing, for example. But when it came to knowing more about the man himself, he remained a compositor at his frame, no more.

As I began to research and write the second half of the text for our book – concerned with the history of printer’s flowers, the Monotype Corporation’s revival of historical examples of them, their eventual commissioning of new designs, and of course Bert Smith’s use of them in his borders – my curiosity about him became more urgent. I wrote letters to two suggested contacts (one of whom, I was excited to hear, had worked next to Bert Smith for some years) but unhappily both of them died before they were able to respond. It seemed I was only just too late.

Bert Smith retirement party, 1964. Left to right: Bill Gosden, comp; unknown; Bert Smith; and Bill Truscott, comp. A rare photograph of an unguarded moment.

Bert Tubb, foc, presenting Bert with a camera as a retirement gift. Photographer of both images unknown. The Curwen Press composing room circa 1950s, the period when Bert Smith’s border work came to the fore. An example of his work is in the foreground. Bert Smith might be the figure upper-right of centre. Photograph courtesy of Stanley Jones.

One very bright moment came when the post brought a photocopy of Smith’s border ‘notebook’, sent us by Patrick Randle, which showed 38 pages of proofs of various experimental combinations of Monotype border elements. A page from it had been reproduced in the Monotype Recorder, so I knew it existed, but of course had no idea where it might be seen. Pat had recalled that he had this photocopy of it when we were chatting at the Oxford Fair, and he generously sent it along. Unfortunately he could not remember where it had originally come from. Some of the arrangements in it are familiar from examples of Smith’s work we already have, but others are new. In the nature of experiments, some are more successful than others. It is clear that the pages had been made by folding foolscap sheets in half across and pasting proofs onto the rectos, leaving the versos blank. The original must have been sewn as a booklet. The only verso with anything on it faces the first page of proofs, and has Bert Smith’s design for his own bookplate: the Curwen Press unicorn reversed out in an oval cartouche, with ‘Ex Libris’ above and ‘B E Smith’ below, both in caps, surrounded by a border of Granjon ornaments. A faint pencilled note, barely readable, says it had been printed in olive green and black. Below it, in the italic hand already familiar to me from his specimen book, is written: ‘To Mr. Herbert Simon / & Directors of the Curwen Press: / Thanks for the Memory / Bert E. Smith / Oct. 1964’ – further evidence of the pleasure he took in working there.

This notebook gave us something more of the man, while keeping him firmly within the Curwen Press. Further enquiries, including a general email assault to anyone we could think of who might know something, yielded nothing. And so, for some few years, things stood. But in the late summer of 2020 things at last began to break.

In 2018 I had written to St Bride about another ghost, Sarah Clutton, who had been Beatrice Warde’s assistant at Monotype in the 1950s. The volunteer there who helped me was Robert Richardson, and on 22 August 2020 Bob sent an email to say that they were planning a small exhibition of Bert Smith’s work – even though, as he said, they still knew ‘virtually nothing about Bert.’ He then went on:

A file of correspondence between Bert and Herbert Simon has … come to light in the past week. Bert appears to have been a consultant on [Herbert Simon’s Introduction to Printing (Faber, 1968)]. He had been retired for four years by then, but Herbert Simon was keen to include some two-colour samples of Bert’s borders in the book. I’ve attached a letter from the file, which shows Bert’s neat handwriting.

The handwriting in the letter Bob Richardson attached was by now an old friend. This letter was a very pleasing discovery, a personal touch. It suggested a friendship and a mutual regard between these two men from two different ends of the Curwen spectrum. More to the point of the search, however, was the letter’s return address. Bob had already seized on it, though without immediate result: ‘The house in Ferndale Road where Bert lived in 1966 has been bought and sold several times since he lived there and the current occupants have no connection with him.’ This nevertheless turned out to be the first step in the search for the man beyond Curwen Press.

Letter from Bert Smith to Herbert Simon, 1966, two years after Smith’s retirement. Simon was Director of the Curwen Press at this time. Bert addresses Simon as Mr. Herbert’, an old-fashioned courtesy to signify Herbert’s being the younger brother of Oliver.

It occurred to me at this point, as it had once or twice earlier, that perhaps Bert Smith should remain a ghost – that the man Ray Roberts had described to me as quiet, unassuming, and rather shy might in fact have preferred to remain in the shadows. Privacy is rapidly disappearing, and since I value it deeply myself, I wondered if I was being selfish or intrusive in pursuing the search for Bert’s personal life. On the other hand, his work is outstanding, and has been deeply admired for many years now by other compositors and designers who understand through their own experience what he achieved. He never set himself out as an ‘artist’, but at the same time the craftsmanship of his work is something worth celebrating, for those who excel at a craft do so because they honour and love the thing itself, whether it be a finely printed page, a beautifully turned pot, or the touching interpretation of a phrase of music. More proof of this emerges from the correspondence between Bert and Herbert Simon, in which Bert discusses owning an Adana press, suggesting that his work, his craft, was something which imbued all his life, not just the working hours of it. The designs in the notebook which Patrick Randle had sent me, I realised, might not have been produced in working hours at all, but in his own time at home, for pleasure. Bert Smith might be slightly embarrassed at the praise his work has earned; he might be surprised to see our book containing so many examples of his work when at last it is done; but I think that, on the whole, he would be pleased, and not deeply surprised, to find his enthusiasms shared.

So we went ahead. In my reply to Bob’s letter I had suggested a few ideas – might there be a will at Somerset House, or perhaps some information at Leytonstone Town Hall – but we were both aware that ‘Smith’ was far from an uncommon name, and that ‘Bert’ wouldn’t help us much either. (Bertram? Albert? Herbert?) From this point on the search became one which only Bob could pursue usefully, and now he had the bit between his teeth. (As he said later in our correspondence, it was ironically thanks to Covid that he was able to spend as much time as he did on the quest for Bert Smith. In normal times his volunteer work at both St Bride and the Type Archive would have made it quite impossible.)

Another letter on 30 August reported similarly slow progress. Nothing about the house, including reported sales, yielded any useful facts, and both Bob and I were still speculating about his life. Was he married? If so, did he have children? Was the house at 20 Ferndale Road owned by him, or rented? Was it broken into flats, and did he live alone in a small bedsit? We still knew very little. Then, on 1 September, came an email with a welcome subject line: ‘BERT SMITH – I’VE TRACED HIM!’

It must be said that in the opening sentences of his letter Bob showed a mystery writer’s sense of holding on to the suspense. The emphases are his:

I’m pleased to say that I have been able to locate some very useful information about Bert – after going up a blind alley for some time. There is a Bert E Smith recorded in baptismal registers for Leyton in Essex in 1903. [We had posited sometime between 1900 and 1903 as a likely date of birth.] He is Bertram Ernest Smith – but he is NOT our Bert. How utterly annoying that another Bert Smith should be born around the time (and place) we thought that Curwen Press luminary Bert was born….OUR Bertie (yes, his birth name is Bertie and NOT Bertram – Herbert Simon got that wrong in his letter) was much older than we thought.

Bertie Elias Smith (Elias was his father’s name) was born on 23 February 1893 in the Registration District of West Ham, London. On 27 December 1924 he married Doris May Smith (yes, Smith was her maiden name too) at the Church of St John the Baptist in Leytonstone. Bertie is described as a ‘Compositor’ on his marriage certificate. He was 31 years old when he married 22-year old Doris. They had one child, Audrey Florence Margaret Smith, who was born on 21 November 1935. Sadly, Audrey died aged just 61 in October 1997… [Email, 1 September 2020]

Bob pointed out that the address on Ferndale Road was the key to tracing Bert, as ‘[many] genealogical documents are linked to that address.’

Bertie always gave his name as ‘Bertie’ on official documents, but it seems quite likely that he deliberately used ‘Bert’ for his name at work (every printed reference to him uses it) which would account for Herbert Simon using that form of his name. (It appears from other of Simon’s correspondence that he assumed Bert’s name was Bertram.)

In the following weeks new information emerged, and Bert Smith began to take on more colour, and to find a place in events outside Curwen Press. For example, Bob writes:

It rather looks as if Elias, Bertie’s father, was one of the first family members to live in a bricks-and-mortar house. The Smiths were Romany gipsies, and previous dwellings are recorded in Census records as ‘In a tent’ or ‘In a caravan’. Elias himself is recorded as living ‘In a tent’ in Plaistow (coincidentally the setting for Bert’s long-time employment at Curwen) in the 1871 census, when he was two years old. [Email, 16 September 2020]

From an encomium which Herbert Simon wrote on Bert’s retirement in 1964, provided by Chip Coakley at Cambridge, I learned that he had apprenticed as a compositor with George W Jones at The Sign of the Dolphin in Gough Square, and was hired from there by Curwen in 1924. Full employment at the Curwen Press likely made it possible for him to marry Doris later that year.

I had also assumed that he had entered his apprenticeship (then about six years) during or just after the war, at about age 16, which was how we had postulated a birth-date of 1900 to 1903, and on that basis had assumed that he was too young to see service. But Bert, born in 1893, was 21 when the war broke out, and since he is recorded in the 1911 census, aged 18, as a ‘Compositor (apprentice)’, clearly he interrupted his apprenticeship to enlist. According to family information, he served in a cavalry regiment: family lore includes hearing that he always slept with his horse, wrapping its legs in newspapers and using more papers to cover them both against the cold. There is a suggestion that he was wounded and later transferred to lighter duties in another division.

This information comes from Audrey’s daughter, Bert’s granddaughter, whom Bob Richardson’s persistent research enabled him to contact. She has proven happy to help uncover more about her grandfather, whom she knew only when she was a little girl. She has also revealed that Bert and Doris had not one child, but three: her mother Audrey was the eldest, but they also had two sons, Patrick (deceased), and Bernard. Patrick is known to have died, but it could be that Bernard, the youngest, is still living, although the family has lost touch with him. At the time of writing this, circumstances with the pandemic have prohibited Bob’s meetings with the family, but they have expressed willingness to help.

Now that our portrait of Bert Smith is becoming more rounded, perhaps it is fitting that we return for the time being to where we have always known him, in the composing room at the Curwen Press, and show him engaged in typographical design and setting. In 1955 Bert entered a competition to design the 1956 membership card for the London Typographical Society (formerly the London Society of Compositors), and as Bob Richardson gleefully wrote: ‘of course he won it’. Bert’s winning entry was shown in the December 1955 issue of The British Printer, together with the three runners-up. It is informative to see the fluency and cohesion of his design when compared to the other three, and to note his deft use of printers’ flowers environing the type. Everything is clear, attractive, and in its place. It is of some passing interest that the fourth entry was from another compositor at Curwen. He had clearly spent some time studying Bert’s work, and didn’t make a bad fist of it. It seems that, by then, one other younger compositor in the same pressroom already saw Bert Smith as an example worth following.


Acknowledgement Photographs and scans courtesy of Bob Richardson, St Bride Printing Library, London.