Fonts: Caslon: a literary typeface

  Two magazines

Williams Caslon, sample
Williams Caslon, sample

Two magazines which have looked very similar for a long time decided last year to change their main typeface to Caslon. The «Australian Book Review», a monthly published from Melbourne, Australia, for decades, changed to Caslon in mid-2011. London’s «Literary Review» changed to Caslon with the October 2011 issue. It’s an elegant enough typeface, though it can look slightly anaemic printed litho, and most magazines are printed litho or high-speed ink-jet these days.

Wikipedia’s article on Caslon is historically detailed and very thorough.

The «Typefoundry» blog has a detailed historical article on ‘Recasting Caslon’. Here’s a sample:

‘Caslon’ is an example of what became known in the commercial world of the 20th century as a ‘brand’: a family name that was not only widely recognised by customers but which stood as a guarantee of long-standing integrity. George Bernard Shaw had the editions of his plays set in the Caslon Old Face types on the recommendation of Emery Walker, the friend and adviser of William Morris. Printing-offices rooted in the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, like the Dun Emer Press, later the Cuala Press, of Elizabeth Corbet Yeats, the Cranach Press of Harry Graf Kessler and the St Dominic’s Press in Ditchling, used Caslon Old Face. The printed versions of the Declaration of Independence of the United States having mostly been set in Caslon types (probably by necessity rather than choice, since there were more modern alternatives in use in the colonies), there was a comparable revival of interest in the face there towards the end of the 19th century. John E. Powers (1837–1919), who acquired a reputation as ‘the father of honest advertising’, had ‘a partiality, which became a fetish, for dressing up his advertisements in Caslon Old Style type. Rivals who imitated his make-up are said to have found great initial difficulty in telling a lie in Caslon Old Style’ (E. S. Turner, «The Shocking History of Advertising». London: Michael Joseph, 1952. p. 134).

Unfortunately both «ABR» and «Literary Review» have chosen Adobe Caslon, a font designed by the elusive Carol Twombly in 1990. (Joel Friedlander has a good introductory article to the talented Ms Twombly here.)

Adobe Caslon is much cleaner and more ‘literary’ than the commonly used Times New Roman, developed under Stanley Morison’s guidance in the 1930s for legibility, economy and hard wearing properties for the fast steam-driven newspaper presses of the 1930s. In 1935 Morison said — partly joking, imagining what William Morris might have said — of ‘Times’, his most famous typeface — only a few years after it had been first used by «The Times» newspaper — “As a new face it should, by the grace of God and the art of man, have been broad and open, generous and ample; instead, by the vice of Mammon and the misery of the machine, it is bigoted and narrow, mean and puritan.”

Sample page from the Australian Book Review
Sample page from the Australian Book Review, set entirely in Adobe Caslon.
Sample page from the Literary Review
Sample page from the Literary Review. The headline font is Janet, by Reynolds Stone.

There is a new and better form of Caslon than Ms Twombly’s excellent revival, and I wish magazine editors and designers would consider using it. It’s called ‘Williams Caslon’, designed by William Berkson (no relation to the poet Bill Berkson). He has a thoughtful and compelling account of his quest for the ‘real’ Caslon on the I Love Typography blog here. William Berkson says, inter alia:

William Berkson, photo from the Font Bureau
William Berkson, photo from the Font Bureau

In the process of working on my own revival of Caslon — Williams Caslon — I came to two conclusions about revivals generally. First, the pursuit of authenticity is a snare and a trap. Don’t go there. Second, particularly if it’s an old typeface, it’s going to be harder than you imagined, and you can lose your way in the process. So you’d better start with a very clear goal for your revival, and stick to it.

Here’s the experience that led me to those conclusions.

It all started with an argument with the usual suspects at over the merits of Caslon — or lack of them. At one point type designer John Hudson wrote, ‘Sadly, Adobe Caslon is the only version that is suited to a wide range of typographic application, but it doesn’t look like Caslon, so what’s the point?’ […] The first thing I learned, which was a little startling, was that there is no such thing as a typeface called ‘Caslon.’ Caslon was, in fact, the [first] person to produce a full range of roman and italic faces at all sizes. But he was working in the 18th century, and had no concept that different sizes had to match in design. —That idea only became established in the late 19th century. Furthermore, he was a kind of revivalist himself, taking as his models faces from different Dutch and English punch cutters.

The two part article is thoughtful and absorbing, and well worth a read.

Leave a Reply