7 February 2015. A note to the following, which was written last year: it is reported that Robert Green, who recreated Doves Type in a digital version, has now managed to locate some of the original sorts and recover them from their watery grave. Read the report here
So, spring really has finally sprung, and this month’s poem is an homage to the recurrent glories of the season, and the power they have to eclipse all other, supposedly higher, human concerns. Edward Thomas was nothing if not a man of the country (despite — or maybe because of — his having been born in Lambeth). The years he spent wandering the lanes and fields of England and Wales, obsessively observing the natural world and writing the prose books that kept him and his family fed and housed (and which he morosely dismissed as hack work), bore wonderful fruit when he finally turned his hand to poetry in the last three years of his life. Nowhere in his slender body of poetic work is that more evident than here.
There’s an interesting story behind the fount I’ve used (well, it’s interesting to us type nerds, at any rate). It’s the Doves Type, designed for the Doves Press around 1900. It’s firmly rooted in the Arts & Crafts movement of the time and, in line with that aesthetic, looks back to the pre-industrial era of type design. In this case, it was derived from the renaissance founts of the great 15th-century French type designer Nicolas Jenson.
The Doves Press flourished in the early years of the 20th century, most notably producing the five-volume Doves Bible, which is generally seen as the company’s masterwork. By 1909, however, the press’s two founders, TJ Cobden-Sanderson and Sir Emery Walker, had begun what was to become a spectacular falling-out. According to their initial agreement, if the press closed or if Cobden-Sanderson died, all rights to the fount would pass to Walker, who had initially overseen its design. Cobden-Sanderson (that’s him in the picture) had other ideas, firmly refusing all demands to hand over the type after the press shut down in 1916. From August of that year he embarked on nightly trips to the bank of the Thames in Hammersmith to dispose of the press’s type.
Given that a working press in those days would have held a huge stock of type — and remember that this stuff is extremely heavy — it took him fully six months to get rid of it all, along with the punches and matrices that would have allowed someone else to recast it. By one calculation, he consigned a tonne of metal type to the river. Doves became known as the fount that drowned.
And that would have been that, had it not been for the obsessive dedication of a digital type designer called Robert Green. He has spent three years in close study of the Doves Press output, drawing and redrawing the type and, eventually, making it available for digital download. And since it’s available digitally, it can also be made into a plate for letterpress printing, which is what I’ve used here.
Cobden-Sanderson wrote in his diary that he undertook his pettily monumental act of destruction so that Doves would never be used in “a press pulled otherwise than by the hand and arm of man”. Green’s work has confounded him there — I’d imagine his shade shuddering at the thought of his fount being fed through a laser printer. But as spring is a time of renewal and rebirth, I’d like to think that in bringing the Doves Type back into use on a mechanical press I might have done something to mollify that rancorous spirit.