A Genesis Of Sorts

On Friday 20th May I set out for Norwich in the glorious early evening sunshine. Nothing particularly special about that, but for me, after another week of work, sweltering in the computer suite, I was feeling rather excited about this little excursion.


I had found out the previous day that Norwich Cathedral was hosting an exhibition and a  series of public lectures celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

One of those lectures was specifically about the typography – and was also being repeated the following week at the St.Bride Institute in London. As I couldn’t make the London event…

The speaker, Stan Nelson, is Museum Specialist Emeritus in the Graphic Arts Collection, Smithsonian Institution, and very knowledgable and experience typefounder.

After a short introduction by the Canon Librarian, Reverend Dr Peter Doll, Mr. Nelson began by observing a strange parallel occurring this year, in that the US is celebrating 150 years since the start of the Civil War, whilst we are celebrating 400 years of the King James Bible. He began his lecture by explaining some of the processes and idiosyncracies of typecasting, composing and printing, as well as a brief history of the typefaces involved.

He made the point that the rate of technological development was much slower in those days, and that the technology that was used by Gutenberg (above left) in the 1450’s was still essentially the same as Robert Barker used for the King James Bible (above middle) in 1611, as was the Eliot Indian Bible (above right)  in the 1660’s. Indeed, apart from the improvements in quality, speed and manufacture, this technology was dominant right up middle of the nineteenth century.

After careful examination of the original typography, Nelson concluded that the blackletter fount was probably a common English style that hand been in use since Caxton and Wynken de Worde, and many examples still existed that were very close.

It is worth noting here that up until the mid 1600’s blackletter fonts were often used in preference to the roman style. In northern europe, gothic letterforms were taught in schools before introducing roman lettering.

Once suitable reference material had been established, Nelson needed to make a punch for each letter:

This was carved into a hard steel block using a multitude of tiny files. Impressions were made to test the accuracy by smoke testing – holding the end of the punch over a flame until it blackened with soot, then pressing it onto paper. Each letter was made in reverse, so this stage was exceptionally important.

The next stage was striking the punch to create a matrix, which then required further filing and fettling:

He estimated that it took about four to six hours to create each punch, and two to four hours for each matrix, including ligatures, long s’s and punctuation!

Long s’s? The long s is often miftaken for f these days, and often caufes much mirth and merriment from graphics students when they are faced with this relic from hiftory!

My own understanding of how this character was used was based upon a snippet of information from the past – it can be used at the beginning or in the middle but not at the end – but on further inspection it is less defined and more complicated than that.

FACTOID: The long s was last used by The Times newspaper in 1803!

Nelson also had this exquisite initialed leather box on display, with these oversized punches, matrices and type. Typography as jewels. Nice.

Also on display were the hand moulds used for the casting of the type. The moulds are two in two parts – shown at the foot of the image below. A matrix is inserted into the base of the mould where the wire handles are and molten metal –  a mixture of lead, tin and antimony (a recipe hardly changed since Gutenberg) is poured in where it quickly sets. The matrix at the bottom of the mould has a perfect impression of the punch and forms the actual ‘type’ part that will make the eventual print.

The mould is sprung open a moment later and out comes a ‘slug’ – an individual metal rectangle, exactly ‘type high’ (0.918 inches) with the reversed shape of a letter shaped at one end:

Nelson made some very interesting comments describing the process of making and setting this type. Firstly he explained that he made it in an unheated garage (I know that feeling!) during the winter, which would have drawn some parallels with the conditions that the original typefounders would have experienced. Secondly, he spent a great deal of time retouching enlarged photocopies of the illuminated initial and floral decorations by hand (not a PhotoShop kind of guy!)  – these were eventually photoengraved, which is not exactly historically accurate, but actually engraving these blocks would be another project in itself.

He also described his experience of setting the type to achieve a good likeness of the original. Firstly, the type was set solid – without any leading (actually, lead strips were not used at this point in time, but Diderot’s encyclopaedia [1750’s – above] stated that card or wooden reglet was used.) Many adjustments were made to individual slugs using a file in order to get them to fit. Nelson noted that as he was making these alterations, the original typesetters would have needed to make the same adjustments, and felt a great affinity with these unknown artisans as he replicated their work.

On the larger type for the headings, a further adjustment needed to be made to improve the print quality. As the paper would have been individually made, the  presses used to make the prints were pulled by hand, so there would have been plenty of scope for variation in quality of the results. One of the problems was that the shoulders of the type sometimes picked up ink and left lines around the letters. This was addressed by filing off the top and bottom shoulders to remove the offending edges:

Ok, ok! So what did all this work produce? A replica of the first two pages from the King James Bible:

These will be on sale in the Cathedral shop soon… (an undisclosed technical error prevented them from being on sale on the night, but I’ll pop back and get one soon!)

Now there are some people who know that I actually own a page from a first edition King James Bible. It is hung in a frame above my desk, directly above my computer. I took this along to the lecture and showed it to Mr. Nelson, who showed great enthusiasm – he had mentioned how much effort and paperwork it took to see the full bible in the Library of Congress in his lecture. Fancy travelling halfway around the world to East Anglia to have some bloke pull a page out of a bag!

Although not particularly religious, I very much respect the role that organised religion has played in the development of many parts of my chosen profession. After all, in the early days, the church was the biggest patrons of printed matter, and without them, many of the technologies that have directly led to those lovely ‘magic boxes’ on our desks may not have ever happened…

So here are a few close-ups of the typographic details on my original first edition…

There are lots of instances where roman is used within the blackletter type; this is to indicate where a direct translation from the original Hebrew could not be made.

There are lots of examples where the long and short s’s are used together, and a fair few examples of how the letters v and u were interchanged…

As well as the long s, the r rotunda is also used. In the example below, the same word is repeated on the line below and allows for some comparison between individual letters…

In the first edition, the margin notes are set in italic, for which Nelson used Caslon as his model.

These blocks were originally individually carved – Nelson made small improvements to ‘clean up’ the details and went for photoengraving to create them. He estimated that there would be sufficient reduction in quality under the hand printing conditions that  this process would not be too ‘perfect.’

And then to the letter w, which to Nelson’s understanding (and I am not one to question such an authority) is special. Many of the characteristics of this blackletter fount survive today in various digital examples, either whole or in part, but this w appears to be unique in its use of two tall and one short stroke.

Finally, this curious little symbol appears many times and I can only assume from its placing in sentences that it is an ampersand.

There is a fully digitized and zoomable version of a complete 1611 King James Bible here – these pages are Ezekiel Chapter 40 if you want to check!

Apart from its religious importance as the first official translation of the Bible into English, this book also played an important part in the development of typography and printing in England. There is a very accessible overview of the process here.

I have had my page above my desk for the last few years and always enjoyed the juxtaposition between this fragment of paper; the result of years of intense craftsmanship and labour, hanging over my computer, where I can make endless changes with impunity… It will continue to hang there as a reminder of where I came from.

Thus endeth todays blogeth. Go in peace.


2 thoughts on “A Genesis Of Sorts

  1. Wow, what a lecture to attend; I’m envious and can only hope something like that comes around to my region. I’m glad you were able to attend.
    The effort to produce such a volume in that time must have been immense!
    Thank you for such a great review, Chris!

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