Notes on Notes

Nicolette Gray, Nineteenth century ornamented typefaces, first edition published in 1938, reprinted in 1951, second edition published 1976. Christened Nicolete, this edition uses Nicolette (for reasons unclear to us), and then the second edition returns to Nicolete. We will be referring to her from here on out as Nicolete Gray.


The history of typefaces can be a rather sketchy affair at times, with many questions that defy definitive answers: When was a certain style first introduced? Which foundry created it first? For the writer and historian, it is near impossible to write with complete certainty, with the fear that something will be discovered that changes our understanding of the past, a concern that has only increased in the age of the internet. Yet, at the same time, we are living during a time that offers many possibilities of new discoveries, which is why we have embraced the challenge.

With Commercial Classics, we indulged ourselves by researching and exploring the histories of these typefaces, the contexts they were created for, their disappearances, and subsequent revival. We are, as our colleague Jonathan Hoefler once wrote, ‘armchair historians’; we are professional designers, amateur writers, and sometime historians, so we do not expect these essays to be definitive, nor without error or misguided opinion. We know that typographical history, like all history, is a shifting landscape of new discoveries which call into question old certainties. The pre-internet age inhabited by scholars such as D B Updike and later, Nicolete Gray, afforded them a confidence and definitiveness of statement. They wrote from what they saw and knew firsthand. Today, digital technology allows the sharing of information and imagery at great speed, which brings not only the danger of overload, but also uncertainty as new knowledge questions existing histories ever faster. Would it be easier not to write at all, rather than risk mistakes? Perhaps, but our doubts are outweighed by our hope of enlightening readers on forms we are passionate about and our wish to share the reasons we chose them for revival. 

In choosing which typefaces would be suitable for revival, we drew extensively on the writings and teachings of others, as well as libraries and museums, with the rich collection of materials at St Bride Library being the primary resource. Updike’s Printing Types (subtitled Their history, forms and use; a study in survival) first appeared in 1922 and remains a major work in its scope and ambition, although its findings are at times dated and his prejudices occasionally jar. To quote him, ‘In London, Robert Thorne … is responsible for the vilest form of type invented—up to that time. Thorne’s specimen-book of “Improved (!) Types” of 1803 should be looked at as a warning of what fashion can make men do’. Through our eyes it is hard to see what so disturbed Updike, the types (to our eyes) do not seem particularly vile or extreme compared to what came before or after. That he didn’t cite an example within the specimen, perhaps suggests a general disdain for the period, rather than a specific example. Updike’s world was of book typography, of ‘good taste’ exemplified by the revivals of the Monotype Corporation and a new traditionalism.

Nicolete Gray’s Nineteenth century ornamented typefaces (first published in 1938 and republished in a second enlarged edition with this slightly revised title in 1976) is a counterpoint to Updike focusing almost exclusively on non-book types, and on many of the forms he detested. She came from another world, that of the art historian, and part of her original thesis was that ‘The Victorian lost the idea of good type to read, but this does not necessarily mean they lost the idea of good lettering’. It shows that the certainties of taste are never permanent, as Gray and generations since have found much in the types of the nineteenth century to champion.

The writing and teaching of James Mosley during his tenure as the librarian at St Bride Library, his teaching at the University of Reading, and his widespread lecturing have resulted in many new discoveries in the fields of lettering and typefounding. Two of his key works, ‘The English Vernacular’ in Motif (No. 11, 1963/4.) and the ‘Nymph and the Grot’ in Typographica (new series No. 12, 1965)A second edition was published in 1999 to accompany an exhibition Primitive Types. This greatly expands on the original.  were published in the design rather than the scholarly printing press, gaining a wider audience amongst designers. Both texts engage through an open style of writing, benefit from being richly-illustrated, and set out clear and well-researched arguments, debunking many of the misconceptions that grow around the field. Mosley also had the foresight (and the good fortune) to save what remained of the Caslon and the Figgins foundries, and it is this material that enabled us to do much of our work. In more recent time his blog has become a source for a further collection of important texts that continue to expand our knowledge of letters and typefounding.

As is often said in type design, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, not only of the original punchcutters and foundries, but also those who have chronicled what has been done, when it was done, and how it was done. We hope we can add something to this, mindful of our limitations and the margins for error,In reviving Caslon’s Italian, we created both an italic and a contra italic version. We could find no example in British typefounding, only in lettering from graveyards, and were convinced that we were creating a typographic first. In May 2018 Jackson Cavanaugh of Okay Type kindly drew our attention to a similar italic and contra italic pairing in the 1885 specimen of US firm Conner & Sons. We realise that ultimately our conclusions are limited to our research; what we know and what we have seen. though in bringing back some of these original forms we hope we will be forgiven.