Winter 1994

Pouchee’s lost alphabets

Few contempory display alphabets equal those of Louis John Pouchée for vivacity and invention

In the early years of the nineteenth century, skilled engravers at the London typefoundry of Louis John Pouchée produced a series of finely crafted decorative alphabets. The beautiful large letters, up to 26 lines (over 100 mm) in cap height and made from single blocks of end-grain boxwood, were intended as eye-catching elements for printed posters. They are mostly in the early nineteenth-century fat face style, richly adorned with intricately carved images of fruit, agricultural tools, farm animals, musical instruments and Masonic signs. Virtually lost for over 150 years, they have now been resurrected in a limited boxed edition as Ornamented Types: Twenty-three alphabets from the foundry of Louis John Pouchée through a collaboration between the St Bride Printing Library in the City of London, in whose collection they reside, and Ian Mortimer of I.M. Imprimit.

The ornate style and decorative extravagance of the types five them a renewed appeal for the tired typographic palettes of the 1990s. PostScript font catalogues today are beginning to offer decorative display alphabets, including ornamented initials digitised from nineteenth-century designs, as well as more vapid computer-generated display faces. But none of the types so far released matches the Poucheé alphabets for quality, originality or vivacity.

The fat faces and slab serifs designed in the first decades of the nineteenth century were reviled by taste-setting printers and typographers in the 1920s; Stanley Morison in Type Designs of the Past and Present (1926) stated, “The types cut between 1810 and 1850 represent the worst that have ever been.” During the 1930s display types of this period underwent a re-appreciation and were promoted by typographic opinion-formers such as Robert Harling’s journal Typography (1936-39). Nicolete Gray’s Nineteenth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages (1938) contains reproductions of the Pouchée types described erroneously as examples of the “early Victorian ‘exuberant’ style” and credited to the Wood & Sharwoods London foundry. The idea that the alphabets dated from the second half of the nineteenth century survived and the selection from three of the types published in John C. Tarr’s Lettering: A Sourcebook of Roman Alphabets (1951) is similarly described as “Victorian wood-cut letters”.

The 1960s saw a revival of interest in decorative display types stimulated by the introduction of two new technologies for display setting: headline photosetting and dry-transfer lettering. Among the best-sellers for Letraset in the late 1960s were Lettres Ornées and Romantiques No. 5, two highly ornamented types in the French style described inaccurately as part of an “Art Nouveau” range. These were used widely in magazine headlines, posters and packaging, alongside the highly condensed sans serifs which were also fashionable. Five of the Pouchée designs were reproduced in the journal Motif in 1967 and sample letters published by James Mosley in the Journal of the Printing Historical Society (1966) stimulated academic interest.

The idea of publishing Ornamented Types began in 1983, when Mortimer and Mosley proofed the entire collection of blocks using one of the Albion hand-presses at St Bride to provide archive proofs for the library and repro proofs for a possible commercial edition (which has not been undertaken). The results affirmed the outstanding quality of the types and Mortimer made a proposal to the City of London Corporation (which has responsibility for the St Bride material) for their publication. The preparation and printing of the types was nearly three-quarters of the way through when new evidence about their origins came to light as a result of substantial research into the Pouchée foundry, particularly by Julia Horsfall, Mortimer’s partner at I.M. Imprint. A complete history of the blocks began to emerge.

The story of the ownership and whereabouts of Pouchée’s alphabets in the twentieth century begins in 1936 when the typefoundry H.W. Caslon & Co was force to close and its stock was sold to its competitors. The Sheffield typefoundry Stephenson, Blake & Co acquired a number of punches and matrices; the Monotype Corporation purchased much of the rest of the stock including three tons of punches and 23 alphabets engraved on boxwood. Monotype’s new collection attracted an enthusiastic if small group of admirers, but following a fire at the company’s London offices in 1940 it was believed that the ornamented alphabets had been destroyed. This remained the case until the 1960s, when Monotype’s collection of hand-punch-cutting materials was re-examined as rapid changes in typesetting technology led to a more urgent interest in preserving the past. The collection, including the ornamented alphabets, was transferred to the University Press in Oxford and subsequently to the St Bride Printing Library.

Though long held to be Victorian in origin, recent research has revealed that the letters come from a period of English production of typefaces for display setting that was well under way in the 1820s. In his Practical hints on Decorative Printing (1822), William Savage mentions that a typefoundry set up a few years earlier by Louis John Pouchée had produced “a variety of Ornamental Letters”; today the Pouchée collection is the largest known to have been made in England at this time and the only one known to have survived. The discovery of a type catalogue, Specimens of Stereotype Casting, from the Foundry of L. J. Pouchée, containing 31 alphabets of decorative letters, the surviving 23 of which are in the St Bride collection, confirmed the alphabets’ origins. The catalogue also gave credence to the idea that such skilled and time-consuming work would not have been undertaken for blocks from which prints would be made directly and which would have a limited life. Rather, they were intended as patterns for the production of metal printing plates to be used in the letterpress production of posters.

Louis John Pouchée lived from 1782 to 1845. Having been the proprietor of a “Beef and Veal House” and co-proprietor of a coal merchants, both in Holborn, London, he set up a typefoundry in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1818. Printing historians have identified him as the importer of Henri Didot’s mechanical typefounding machine, probably used to produce his Specimens of Stereotype Casting. Pouchée recruited skilled staff and paid high wages, but sold his type more cheaply than other foundries. His pay scale contributed to unsettling the labour force at a time of general industrial unrest, while his low prices effectively broke the cartel of enjoyed by the other foundries, eventually leading to the collapse of the trade association and making him unpopular with his peers, who resorted to spreading criticism of the quality of his type. His typefoundry closed in 1830, perhaps as a result of financial failure, and his materials were sold by auction, some to Caslon.

Ornamented Types is perhaps the most exacting printing projects to have been undertaken by a contemporary private press. The edition could only be achieved by hand-press printing techniques similar to those used in the nineteenth century, since the wooden letters are fragile enough to be damaged by automatic printing processes. I. M. Imprimit specialises in printing from linocuts, woodcuts and wood engravings and Mortimer’s Hackney premises house the largest private collection of nineteenth-century wooden poster types in Britain. Recent projects include the printing of illustrations from Mattioli’s famous Herbal of 1562, working from one of the worlds oldest surviving collection of woodcuts, and a new edition of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark with the illustrations printed directly from the original nineteenth-century wood engravings.

Ornamented Types has taken nearly eight years to bring to fruition and three years to print. The blocks were meticulously cleaned before printing began, revealing much additional detail. Because the blocks were not intended to be printed from directly, many are not accurately finished, are not square and their sides are not vertical. To achieve a constant impression, variations in level were corrected by a succession of finely graduated paper underlays prepared individually for each block. Each block also had to be packed to avoid rocking and each base supported uniformly to withstand the pressure of the pull during printing without moving. In order to be able to achieve lock-up on the bed of the press, without the pressure causing individual letters to rise, the gaps had to be packed with slivers of bevelled paper or card. Some letters required a slight rotation to ensure alignments and letterspacing had to be arranged to fit within Mortimer’s page design without creating poorly spaced combinations. Depending on the size of the letters, between one and five printing formes were required to print a complete alphabet. Once printing began, it could take as long as three days to arrive at the first good proof of a single page and at least three more days to print 200 good impressions of that page.

The first printing impressions for each page were lightly inked and printed with great care until the formes could be declared sound. An impression was taken on the press’ tympan, which enabled the number of layers of paper make-ready needed to bring all parts of the page to an even pressure to be gauged. The fine patters on the blocks required less pressure than the solid, black areas. Once a uniformity had been achieved, the final stage of make-ready could be completed by pasting layers on to a sheet of acetate placed over the tympan to harden the impression. These layers compensated for those areas of damage of shape irregularities which would cause a lightness in printing.

As progressively better pulls were achieved during proofing, the make-ready processes were refined as necessary. But even with such thorough preparation, much still depended on the subtlety of hand-inking and at times two or more rollers with different densities of ink were used to ensure that both the fine line and dense black shadows were adequately reproduced. Because the letters were made from single pieces of wood rather than by joining smaller pieces from the trunk’s cross-section chose to avoid faults- a practice which became commonplace later in the century- splits have appeared over time and the surface of many of the blocks has warped. There has been no attempt made to disguise these splits, though scratches in the solid black areas have sometimes been retouched. Some of the same imperfections appear in Pouchée’s Specimens of Stereotype Casting, confirming that the blocks are indeed the originals from his foundry.

The final results are remarkable. The clarity of which decorative elements is testament to a quality which could probably not have been matched in Louis John Pouchée’s time.

First published in Eye no. 15 vol. 4, Winter 1994.