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John Baskerville of Birmingham

John Baskerville-portrait 1774

John Baskerville was born almost three hundred years ago in the village of Wolverley, near Kidderminster, Worcestershire, the youngest son of parents of some standing in the community. There is little known of his life before he came to Birmingham to make his living as a writing master in this increasingly thriving town of many trades. He subsequently entered into the trade of commissioning and selling of japanned goods, one of the major industries in Birmingham at the time, which he continued for most of the rest of his life. Japanning is essentially the decoration of metal objects with coats of varnish and, in the more expensive articles, with paintings

On the 6th floor of the Central Library is mounted a unique slate which Baskerville engraved as an advertisement for his lettering designs for gravestones. He was fascinated by the shape of letter forms and this led him eventually to his design and manufacture of types for the printing press. There are examples of his very rare printed specimens of type in the Baskerville Collection.

In 1754 he produced prospectuses for his first book, a proposed edition of Virgil, asking for subscribers, of which three different versions are held in the Central Library. He designed and cut the types, improved the wooden press on which he printed the book and made improvements to the paper he used. He published it in 1757 supported by a long list of subscribers of standing, including Matthew Boulton of the Soho Works and member of the Lunar Society. The quality of the printing, the design of the letters and of the page stood out from the work of contemporary professional printers.

Bible 1763

Between 1757 and 1775 he printed books in a wide range of subjects. He was particularly proud of his series of Latin and of English classics, notably Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. His more ephemeral books included the satirical Political Songster of John Freeth, 1771, and the Vocabulary or pocket dictionary, 1765. His Bible, 1763, is considered his masterpiece. and his editions of the Book of Common Prayer are fine examples of text clearly printed for the convenience of readers. He had to negotiate permission to print the Bible and Prayer Books from Cambridge University as its press owned the patents. It even stipulated that Baskerville, who was undeterred, should take his presses to Cambridge to print them.

Letters survive of his correspondence, notably with Matthew Boulton, who was a friend as well as a business associate for most of his life , Benjamin Franklin who met him on a visit from the USA and shared his love of printing and Robert Dodsley, a bookseller from London.

Baskerville specimen 1762

Modified versions of Baskerville type have been popular and admired to the present day, and are a recognised font on 21st century word processors. The original punches and types were eventually sold by Sarah Baskerville to Beaumarchais, the French dramatist. He took them to printers at Kehl, a few miles east of Strasbourg, for the printing of a text of Voltaire's works. The Central Library has a copy of a Virgil printed there in Baskerville type in 1784, but in a much inferior piece of printing compared with Baskerville's text. Other texts in English have been identified as printed in Baskerville type, although in his lifetime he found it impossible to sell his type and punches. These are now held by Cambridge University Library.

Baskerville was an independent thinker. Although at one time he signed minutes at St Philip's Church, he stipulated in his will that he should be buried in unconsecrated ground on his own estate at Easy Hill. He was known as a kind and generous man, although passages in his will showed he could remember grudges. He took in Sarah Eaves as his housekeeper when her husband abandoned her, and he treated her children generously as his own. They were married as soon as her husband was reported dead. There is a handwritten copy of his will in the Archives and Heritage section of the Library.

Baskerville was always an innovator. Recent research has found that he entered examples of his designs for marbled paper into a competition at the Royal College of Arts. This has been identified in some copies of his books together with a gilt tooled binding designed by himself or his binder. An example is preserved in a copy of the 1758 edition of Milton in the Collection.

He died in 1775, an established, if eccentric, citizen of Birmingham, celebrated internationally for his type design and his printing of beautiful books.

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Photographic and other Special Collections in Central Library
Early and Fine Printing Collection
Industry and Genius