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An excerpt from Nineteenth-Century American Designers & Engravers of Type

January 28, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Nineteenth-Century American Designers and Engravers of Type, edited by Alastair M. Johnson and Stephen O. Saxe, was originally written by William E. Loy, a man who knew many of the designers and engravers of type himself. He presents biographies and the behind-the-scenes stories of many of these designers. Check out this excerpt from the book, describing the careers of two designers Alexander Phemister and Alexander Kay, significant influences on the history of typeface design.

Alexander Phemister, the subject of this sketch, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1829. As a mere lad he showed unusual aptitude for designing letters. He naturally became interested in printing types, and at an early age bound himself as an apprentice to William Grandison, Edinburgh, a famous punch cutter. Graduating at the age of twenty-three, Mr. Phemister’s work immediately attracted the attention of Messrs. Miller & Richard, the Scotch type founders, and while in their employ he cut several series of romans, so advancing the style of body-type faces as to make this house famous with English publishers. In 1861 he came to the United States, and after two years with George Bruce’s Son & Co., where he designed and cut several notable romans, he entered the employment of the Dickinson Type Foundry, Boston, later becoming a partner. Mr. Phemister retired from business in 1891, when the Dickinson was merged into the American Type Founders’ Company, and died at his residence, Chelsea, Massachusetts, October, 1894, after a long and painful illness resulting from close application to the details of his work.

It is difficult, at this time, to properly review Mr. Phemister’s labors in type founding. He was one of the few punch cutters of the day who designed and cut his alphabets. His taste was exquisite, and his workmanship the finest; when a letter left his hand it was beautifully perfected, and rarely criticised. No cutter since Caslon has had such influence upon roman letters, or whose work is so admirable in shapes and finish. He cut few job faces, but those he did originate (black letters, scripts, italics, etc.), are of the best, and remain standards of their class. In romans his work includes the Modern Old Styles, brought out by Miller & Richard, and later cut, with modifications, for the Dickinson, under the name of Franklin Old Style. Then followed the Wilson, the Standard, the Riverside, the Full-Grown, and innumerable other series, Mr. Phemister being a rapid and voluminous producer. One bold task he assumed in his prime was a small pica font for the Cambridge University Press. He designed and cut the entire alphabet, driving a punch as soon as it was cut, with the matrix fitter following closely, and the typecaster immediately behind the fitter, delivering Mr. Wilson a two-thousand-pound font within thirty days from cutting of the first punch. In the printed book bound and handed him by Mr. Wilson, Mr. Phemister first saw the proofs of his punches. It was a feat that could only be attempted by a man sure of his powers.

Mr. Phemister was of a delightful personality, with the strong, sturdy Scotch sense of integrity, helpful and considerate of others. He left a memory fragrant with good deeds and honorable living. [June 1898]

Though he is not well known today, Phemister had a significant influence on the history of typeface design. His cutting of Modern Old Style for Miller & Richard, Edinburgh, in 1860 was very successful and within ten years was copied by all the other founders. DeVinne writes: “One of the first, if not the first, of the modernized old-styles produced in this country was designed and cut in 1863 by A. C. Phemister, to the order of Phelps & Dalton [the Dickinson Type Foundery], who called the new letter the ‘Franklin face.’” One of the most popular typefaces of the twentieth century, Bookman Old Style, was derived from Phemister’s Modern Old Style. In America most of his work was for the Dickinson foundry in Boston, and in 1879 he became a partner in the foundry with G.J. Pierce, A. C. Converse, and J.W. Phinney.        – S.O.S

The ordinary reader may be impressed with the pleasing effect of the printed page when set in a certain face of type, but he cannot critically distinguish the qualities which produce this effect.

Some men are naturally gifted in this fine perception, but it may be cultivated and made keener. Of noted American cutters none have excelled and few have equaled Alexander Kay, of Philadelphia. This gentle-man was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, June 6, 1827, and after receiving a thorough education was apprenticed to a manufacturer of bookbinders’ tools. In the spring of 1850 he went to London, where he placed himself under the instruction of John Skirving, who was a well-known expert in letter-cutting on steel. Among his patrons were such prominent type founders as Henry Caslon and Vincent Figgins, of London, and Stephenson, Blake & Co., of Sheffield.

Having obtained a thorough knowledge of the art, Mr. Kay began business for himself, and was meeting with success when a tempting offer of a position was received from L. Johnson & Co., of Philadelphia. With the adventurous spirit of young manhood prompting him he accepted, and he reached his new home in November, 1854, after a very stormy ocean voyage. Mr. Kay’s connection with this well-known foundry continued for nearly forty years, until cataract practically deprived him of his sight. His time was given almost exclusively to the cutting of roman faces on steel, and a reference to the specimen book of the MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan branch of the American Type Founders Company will show the reader the skill and industry he possessed. Of faces shown in the specimen book mentioned he cut Agate Nos. 6, 7 and 16; Nonpareil Nos. 6, 8, 9, 10, 15 and 16; Minion Nos. 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15 and 16; Brevier Nos. 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15 and 16; Bourgeois Nos. 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15; Long Primer Nos. 9, 12, 13 and 15; Small Pica Nos. 9, 10 and 12; Pica, Nos. 9 and 13. The foregoing romans with their italics constitute the work of an ordinary lifetime, but he cut, besides, the Binny Old Style in nonpareil, minion, brevier, bourgeois and long primer, and the ever-popular Ronaldson Old Style in nonpareil, minion, brevier, bourgeois, long primer, small pica and pica. Mr. Kay considers the Ronaldson his masterpiece, and if one can judge from its un-precedented sale and the promptness with which it was copied by other type foundries, he is undoubtedly right.

As before stated, Mr. Kay’s work has been chiefly romans, old styles and their italics, but the few series of display faces are all characterized by the same careful treatment. In the same specimen book one may see his Title No. 2 in six sizes, Ronaldson Clarendon, Ronaldson Title Slope, Old Style Title, Caslon’s Anglo-Saxon, the latter in five sizes. He also cut Script No. 2 in English, great primer and two-line pica. The only series cut by him which may be classed as ornamental is Lithographic Slope, cut on steel, in six sizes from brevier to two-line small pica. The only work in soft metal, such as is now generally used by type engravers, is the old but beautiful “check lines.”

Like most cutters on steel, Mr. Kay lays no claims to designing; yet the proper proportioning and forming of the roman alphabet calls for a skill which would be of the highest quality were it developed in combination with a study of ornament. He has combined with his punch cutting the engraving of dies for minting coins, and for several years he did most of this work for the Philadelphia mint.

Mr. Kay still lives in Philadelphia, an old man, it is true, but enjoying the fruits of a well-spent life. Although denied the privilege of close study of type faces by reason of his defective sight, he has not lost interest in his art, and is as enthusiastic as when, a young artisan, he came to the country of his adoption.[September 1898]

Click here to find out how you can read more stories about these designers and engravers of type.

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