A Border Specimen

The Alembic Press, 2000, 108pp. £144 + £5 p&p/ £225 + £5 (deluxe edition).


The British Monotype Corporation began its programme of cutting type in 1900, very soon after the establishment of its factory at Salfords, near Redhill in Surrey. Shortly after that it began a parallel programme of type ornaments, which grew into an enormously rich resource for printers and typographers. However, in spite of the excellence, as well as the ubiquity, of many of the ornament designs, their story has not been told with anything like the same thoroughness as that of the types. It is to try to put this situation right that Claire Bolton has produced this book.

The design team at Salfords was the same for both branches of production, the Type Drawing Office under Fritz Steltzer, and they were under the overall command of the works manager, Frank Hinman Pierpont. It is not known how decisions to cut particular ornaments were taken. While it is likely that promotional considerations played an important role, since the possibility of manual manipulation of Monotype units after casting (as well as mixing with foundry material) was a positive benefit which distinguished them from the products of line-casters, in practice, as Claire Bolton shows, much of the early publicity in The Monotype Recorder stressed the ease of keyboarding ornaments in with type. One of the first examples, in the Recorder of October 1902, was a prodigiously elaborate ‘picture’ of a Monotype caster enclosed in a border, set ‘in two takes’ entirely with printers’ flowers, several of which are still in use today. But although there were examples of matrices of simple ornaments being supplied in four orientations so that composite designs could be keyboarded, in practice printers still preferred to use tweezers on the cast material, and Monotype soon dropped the idea.

The numbering system was independent of the series numbers for typefaces, but was similarly Chronological. Mirror-image ornaments had pairs of numbers; corner-pieces were sometimes added later and so have a higher number. In fact, because ornaments tended to go through the works more smoothly than type, with fewer trial cuttings, the numbering is a more reliable indicator of date than series numbers. As a result, Claire Bolton has provided interesting chronological lists showing how the production of ornaments went through periodic surges. Up to 1922, for example, the numbering had reached nearly 200, and the designs were mostly simple geometric shapes based on the circle and the square. In the few years which followed, mainly as a response to the vogue for fleurons typified by the work of Francis Meynell at the Pelican Press and later at the Nonesuch Press, the number doubled. Meynell and Stanley Morison, the latter newly arrived at Monotype, wrote on ‘Printers’ Flowers and Arabesques’ in the first number of The Fleuron in 1923, and noted the extension of the Monotype programme with approval. One of the most recent designs, based on one used by Christophe Plantin, was illustrated in their article and also appeared on the title-page of the first Nonesuch book, The Love Poems of John Donne, in the same year. Later, too, the border-unit programme was often more intimately linked with the recutting of historic types, and Monotype Fournier was released at the same time as a clutch of ornaments from the same source.

The most spectacular display of Monotype ornaments appeared a few years later, in 1928. The American designer Frederic Warde was in England with Bruce Rogers to oversee the cutting by Salfords of Rogers’s Centaur and Warde’s Arrighi italic, and he designed a sumptuous book of elaborate borders and cartouches, which not only delighted the eye, but was careful to specify the numbers of the border units as well. Included at the end was a beautiful section of patterns made of type ornaments, printed on coloured papers. One of the borders was so splendid that it was reused, slightly elongated, on the title page of The Nonesuch Century, eight years later.

The Alembic Press book cannot quite rival this — indeed, Warde’s skill with printers’ flowers approached that of his master Bruce Rogers, and would be hard to equal. But A Border Specimen compensates by having a useful text in which Claire Bolton outlines the Monotype border programme, and lists a great deal of the primary material in The Monotype Recorder and in the Drawing Office records. The origins of the book lay in the Boltons’ need to classify their holding of Monotype and other ornaments (and it does include a small amount of non-Monotype material), and so it cannot include all the Monotype material ever produced — that book remains to be written. The ornaments are shown in one-inch-square block settings, which have a cumulative abstract beauty, together with some more elaborate combinations on the part-titles. A variety of second colours are used through the book, and some of them will not be to every reader’s taste. There are a few typos and displaced captions (several of them detailed in an errata slip included with the book) which make one a little wary of accepting the data in the denser lists, but one can only be grateful for a work which covers so much previously unexplored ground.

Sebastian Carter is a typographic historian and proprietor of the Rampant Lions Press.