Baskerville and Printing

Baskerville’s Type Foundry at the end of Caxton Passage, High Street, the back of Marsh’s Jewellers, July 1887 in the course of demolition.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library


Artisans like Baskerville could turn their hands to almost anything. After his success with “japanning” everything from snuff-boxes to coach panels, he had enough liquid capital to realise some of his other artistic pursuits. As a former master and teacher of copperplate handwriting it was only natural for him to want to create the most elegant type-face. Competition was strong, especially in London, where William Caslon had secured a monopoly which was virtually impenetrable. Caslon was well-established by the seventeen thirties and was soon exporting to Europe and America.

Baskerville sent his friend Franklin a copy of one of his printed works, Shaftsbury’s Characteristics, and Franklin hawked it around his printer friends across the Atlantic. As a printer himself, Franklin was doing rather more successfully in America what Baskerville hoped to do in England. Getting his fine-edged and graceful typeface accepted proved beyond his means. Unfortunately, the Birmingham printer did not find a buyer for his punches and matrixes during his lifetime, and it was left to his wife, after his death, to bring off the deal. There was a lot of interest, but along with many other Midlands’ innovators, much of the interest from visitors was in industrial espionage, learning how Baskerville made his paper and ink. Sarah Baskerville, or Sarah Eaves as she was earlier, seemed to have had the duty of showing visitors round his works, especially his japanning works, as William Petty, Earl of Shelburne, and his wife found on a visit in 1766. John Baskerville would show guests the garden. When the German humorist and physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg visited just over a decade later, with Baskerville dead and standing upright in his mausoleum, Sarah, dressed in black silk, showed him everything

except the secret which he particularly wanted to know, how the paper and ink were made. He looked, however, very carefully at the work of a woman and a little girl, who were glazing papers, and by that and a few skilful inquiries, he thought he had gathered some information.

Lichtenberg confessed he would have bought the entire workshop had he possessed the £4,000 Mrs. Baskerville was asking for it. As well as the blackness of Baskerville’s ink it was quick-drying and this was one of the secrets other printers sought. There is little doubt that he added varnish to expedite the drying process, a trick he would have been aware of as a japanner.

Sarah Baskerville sold her late husband’s entire stock of punches and matrixes to French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, who set about printing the works of Voltaire.

Baskerville and Alternative Technology

Image: Portrait of John Baskerville (1706-1775), Type Founder and Printer, painted by James Millar in 1774. Oil on canvas.

Image from: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Baskerville was a great innovator. He introduced “japanning” to Birmingham, a technique for giving a shiny finish to papier-mâché, wood, and metal surfaces using a mixture of varnish, turpentine and oil. He made his own paper, typefaces and ink and was secretive about the manufacturing processes. Because his typefaces had very finely-cut edges the paper of his day, known as “laid” paper, was not thought smooth enough to show off their superior elegance. Laid paper bears almost imperceptible variations in paper thickness. They show up as a series of lines when a sheet of paper is held to the light.

To combat what Baskerville saw as a problem he introduced “wove” paper into the country. It was manufactured in a conical-shaped windmill under which he was eventually buried. Catherine Hutton called his paper “excellent”. When she made this observation she already had strong reservations about papers being made in the 19th century using acid to “cook” the fibres. Laid paper smoothed in the same way as wove is just as receptive to print. Wove paper was made on a finer mould which appeared to produce a smoother sheet of paper with no evident lines. To improve even further on the smoothness, his sheets were then pasted onto a flat heated plate which gave them the required finish. Benjamin Franklin was interested in what Baskerville was doing and the two men exchanged letters on the subject. Franklin wrote to him about a large sheet of paper Baskerville had sent in 1773:

The sheet of Chinese paper, from its size, is a great curiosity. I see the marks of the mould in it. One side is smooth, that, I imagine, is the side that was applied to the smooth side of the kiln on which it was dried. The little ridges on the other side I take to be the marks of a brush passed over it to press it against the face in places where it might be kept off by air between, which would otherwise prevent it receiveing the smoothness. But we will talk further of this when I have the pleasure of seeing you…

Baskerville died in 1775 but he and Franklin most likely met either in London or Birmingham to discuss the method in greater detail. Franklin later presented to the American Philosophical Society a scholarly paper on the methods, materials and equipment Chinese papermakers used to make a sheet of paper approximately 5 metres x 1.7 metres. This was published in England nine years after Franklin’s death.

Papermaking in the West Midlands

Image: Paper Mill, from The Useful Arts and Manufacturers of Great Britain of Great Britain, Vol. 1 (London, SPCK, 1846?). This engraving shows a paper mill, situated in a hilly area where there would be an abundance of clean water.

Image from: Science Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

Papermaking may have been secretly practised by monks who covertly brought the technique over from Europe to copy religious manuscripts. This is possible since after the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII a glut of paper-mills sprang up in areas where monasteries had formerly existed. For example, at Bordesley Abbey, near Redditch, there were two mills in the former abbey grounds and another nearby at Tardebigge while Darley Abbey near Derby had a mill in the Abbey grounds worked in the mid-eighteenth century by English novelist Robert Bage. Being sited where monasteries once existed could just as easily be a coincidence since monasteries were sited near rivers and paper-mills need a good clean water supply. Whatever the truth, before 1495 there is no record of a paper-mill in England

The earliest known papermaking in Birmingham was at Perry Barr where the Wyrley family set up a mill in 1648. By 1680 the papermaker in occupation was a man called Samuel Jerram, or Jerrom, the elder. In the next century, the most famous papermaker from Birmingham made his mark on the industry. The fame of John Baskerville rests largely on the elegant typeface which still bears his name. But there was much more to the man than that.


Image: Letter Press Printer, from The Book of Trades or Library of Useful Arts, part III, third edition (London, Tabart and Co, 1806). The trade of letter press printing included two types of workers, the compositors and the pressmen. Both were highly skilled trades involving complex operations. The former arranged metal letters into words, lines and pages and the latter created an impression of the arranged letters onto paper using the printing press. Normally each press required two pressmen. In the copper-plate engraving, a compositor is shown in the background, “composing” the letters in an iron frame called a composing stick. In the foreground, a pressman, after preparing the paper and inking the letters, turns the handle of the press to print the paper.

Image from: Science Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

Multiple copying of documents is easy in this computerised age, but before the advent of printing scribes had to laboriously copy sacred texts one by one. The first printing blocks were made of wood and originated on the borders of Mongolia, probably carved by nomads at the start of the 13th century. In Europe Johannes Gutenberg is credited with the invention of the printing press but a Dutchman, Laurens Janszoon Coster, who died about 1440, may have prior claim. Both claims to originality are sketchy and lack concrete historical substantiation.

Printing presses were used largely to make religious texts more freely available, particularly the Bible, but other scholars and writers were quick to see the potential for scientific works and works of fiction. In England the printshop was pioneered by William Caxton who died 1491. This mechanical art spread much more rapidly than papermaking after Caxton introduced the process. It was his apprentice, Wynken de Worde, who first printed on Tate’s paper in 1497 with an edition of Bartholomæus: De proprietatibus rerum, 1496. Twenty five years later, Henry Pepwell, a Birmingham-born printer and colleague of Wynken de Worde, printed John Stanbridge’s The Longe Accydence.


Image: Paper Maker, from The Book of Trades or Library of Useful Arts, part III, third edition (London Tabart and Co, 1806). Paper was made from linen rags which were cleaned with water and pulverised so that the cloth was turned into a thin pulp. In the copper-plate engraving, the pulp is kept warm in a wooden tub. The workman or vat-man uses a mould which is composed of wires set into a wooden frame. The workman holds the frame in both hands and plunges it horizontally into the tub. The mould is removed and the water runs away leaving a thin coat of pulp. This forms the sheet of paper. A second worker, the coucher, takes the mould and places the sheet of paper on a felt or woollen cloth. Alternative sheets of cloth and paper are laid on top of each other to form quires. These are pressed. They are removed from the cloth and pressed again. After several pressings the sheets are hung on lines to dry. The paper is then sized to allow it to take ink. The size contains shreds and parings from tanners, curriers and parchment makers together with alum, a chemical. The paper is dipped into the vessel, pressed again and dried. . When it is pressed, selected, examined, folded and made into reams, it is ready for printing.

Image from: Science Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

From the days when man first developed language and pictorial communication a means of display for this artistic expression had to be found. Cave-drawings, hieroglyphics and other picture-based scripts were transferred from immovable walls to objects which could easily be transported from place to place. These included animal hides, barks of certain trees, interlaced papyrus which was hammered into sheets and silk weavings which could be rolled or folded. Social records were taken down some of which have outlived the dynasties they recorded.

An old rhyme goes:

Rags make paper
Paper makes money
Money makes banks
Banks make beggars
Beggars make rags.

When paper was invented it revolutionised the whole communications industry being flexible and less expensive than other writing materials. Made mostly from rags and ropes it was an early example of recycling and provided for its users a smoother surface on which to write or paint. Ts’ai Lun was the first-known papermaker and he is credited with its invention. He was a eunuch at the imperial court of Ho-ti and in 105 A.D. made paper for his emperor. Honoured for his ingenuity the papermaking process was kept secret from the rest of the world for four centuries. The technique spread east to Japan and then west via the Silk Road to Samarkand when in 751 A.D, Chinese papermakers were captured at the battle of Talas. Fifty years later paper was being manufactured in the enlightened city of Baghdad making the reproduction of Islamic texts onto paper possible. From there concentration of the craft moved slowly northwards to Spain in the 12th century and then to Italy, France and Germany, finding its way eventually to England.

Papermaking in England was introduced independently by John Tate in 1495 in Hertfordshire. This is later than Shakespeare would have us believe, unless he knew something we do not. In Henry VI he writes: “…thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown, and dignity, thou has built a paper mill.” 1

Kent, the garden of England, was the centre of papermaking in Britain for many centuries, following its introduction from the continent. Papermakers from Europe were encouraged to come over the channel and further spread the art.

1 Henry VI, Part II, Act IV, Scene VII

Papermaking, Printing and Associated Trades in the West Midlands during the 18th and Early 19th Centuries

Image: Advertisement for Swinney’s Type Foundry in Birmingham, from J Bisset, Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham(Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808). The advertisement shows the different buildings forming part of M Swinney’s Printing Works in High Street, Birmingham. Swinney published the Birmingham Chronicle, a rival to Aris’s Birmingham Gazette. The buildings are numbered: (1) Type Foundry, (2) General Printing House, (3) Copper Plate Room, (4) Birmingham Chronicle Office (5) Ruling Machine and Casting Shop. A printing press is shown in the foreground.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Text: John Goss

Image Captions: Malcolm Dick


Paper making and printing developed in Asia before production commenced in Europe. This article by John Goss explores the evolution of papermaking, printing and allied activities in the West Midlands. It looks at economic and technological issues and focuses on the activities of local figures, John Baskerville, William Hutton, Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, who made important contributions to these trades.