Spring 2003

This is a specimen

Printers once promoted themselves through their knowledge of type

There was a time when printers produced type specimen books as well as type founders. Such publications show what types were being manufactured and document when specific founts were released on to the market, and their design reveals as much about the printers as the typefaces they display. These specimen books designed by Herbert Spencer for the printers Lund Humphries, provide evidence of a significant period in the development of British Modernism.

Printers’ type specimen books first appeared in the 1920s, with the widespread uptake of mechanical composition. Printers set typographic trends, and any reputable press regarded type specimen books as essential. That time was a decade of typographic expansion with many new and revived types coming on to the market. Monotype composition had also become popular, and technically up-to-date printers publicised this new system through their specimen books. By the 1980s desktop publishing had hit the industry. Responsibility for composition now lay not with the printer but with the designer, and clients ceased to choose a printer by his fonts.

Specimen books were effective vehicles for a printer to demonstrate his skills in composition, presswork and binding. Early type specimens looked like books, complete with prelims and end matter, and had page proportions and bindings that followed those of book production. The early specimens merely displayed typefaces, and provided no technical information such as character-set or casting-off tables. It was not until later that specimens developed their own style, taking the form of manuals both in content and presentation.

Type specimens were expensive to produce and were only issued by those printers who saw themselves in the typographic ‘front line’.

The Curwen Press in London favoured artists’ and ornamental Continental founts, which it advertised in its 1928 Specimen book of types and ornaments. A large, self-conscious specimen, it was exquisitely designed and printed on hand-made paper with deckle edges and excessive margins. It was a conspectus of modern printing with vignettes and ornaments, forming an unrivalled collection of work by contemporary artists, but it was expensive and too precious to be useful.

Curwen’s 1931 Working handbook was more basic. Printed on a rough stock with narrow margins, it displayed a limited range of faces and was a curious attempt to produce a useful and affordable specimen. Despite its title it failed to work, as it provided no full alphabets and its small format prohibited the adequate presentation of any text setting.

Specimen books issued by the Birmingham-based Kynoch Press were about type, not art. The Press favoured English revival types and produced two prewar specimens to publicise them. Its 1934 specimen appealed to typographic connoisseurs with its attractive presentation of rare founts. The types were divided into hand- and machine-set and were shown both as complete alphabets and as text with various leadings. The specimen was clothbound with Stevens Shanks’ Elephant

face sunk deep into the cover. This innovative cover gave dimension to the type allowing it to be seen and felt. The specimen was totally dependent upon the letterforms for impact and was a typographic solution from a printer that regarded itself as a typographer’s press.

In the 1950s the Kynoch Press produced a Specimen of typefaces, a loose-leaved two-volume manual with a Mult-O binding. The measured alphabets displayed complete upper- and lowercase alphabet lengths of all founts in all sizes, set against a pale blue background with fine white vertical lines at one pica intervals. This provided a visual character-count for each face and eliminated the necessity for casting-off tables. It was a graphic solution that was adopted by a number of other printers.

Lund Humphries of Bradford was interested in Continental sans serif types. In its 1930 Lund Humphries Type, the press showed its Modernist convictions by a bold use of geometric shapes, solid tints and reversed-out type. Bound in 2mm thick red board with a squared back, and held together by two thread screws, it had the appearance of a car maintenance manual. It was a functional specimen intended for use in inky printing works, and its large format allowed for adequate typeface presentation. The printer continued its commitment to usefulness when it produced the Type index, a utilitarian specimen book austerely bound in black, with a white sans serif titling reflecting its functionality.

In 1956, Herbert Spencer (see Ken Garland’s memoir, Eye no. 44 vol. 11) designed a specimen book for Lund Humphries. It was a visual synopsis of the full range of type laid out in a grid-format with an upper- and lowercase H and M to indicate hand- and machine-set types. Spencer’s Modernist layout sought to show the available typefaces as concisely as possible, and was an inventive solution to the challenge of type specimen presentation.

In hands of Spencer, an associate of Lund Humphries from 1950 to 1975, this specimen does not strive to impress, or to dictate how any face should be used. But it functions as it is intended, as a quick reference tool that provides the required information.