ON DARK evenings in late 1916, a frail 76-year-old man could often be seen shuffling furtively between The Dove, a pub in west London, and the green and gold turrets of Hammersmith Bridge. Passers-by paid no attention, for there was nothing about Thomas Cobden-Sanderson’s nightly walks to suggest that he was undertaking a peculiar and criminal act of destruction.
Between August 1916 and January 1917 Cobden-Sanderson, a printer and bookbinder, dropped more than a tonne of metal printing type from the west side of the bridge. He made around 170 trips in all from his bindery beside the pub, a distance of about half a mile, and always after dusk. At the start he hurled whole pages of type into the river; later he threw it like bird seed from his pockets. Then he found a small wooden box with a sliding lid, for which he made a handle out of tape—perfect for sprinkling the pieces into the water, and not too suspicious to bystanders.
Those tiny metal slugs belonged to a font of type used exclusively by the Doves Press, a printer of fine books that Cobden-Sanderson had co-founded 16 years earlier. The type was not his to destroy, so he concealed his trips from his friends and family and dropped his packages only when passing traffic would drown out the splash. There were slip-ups, all the same. One evening he nearly struck a boatman, whose vessel shot out unexpectedly from under the bridge. Another night he threw two cases of type short of the water. They landed on the pier below, out of reach but in plain sight. After sleepless nights he determined to retrieve them by boat, but they eventually washed away. After that he was more careful.
In part it was personal animosity that inspired this unusual crime. Cobden-Sanderson wanted to keep the type from Emery Walker, his former friend and business partner, with whom he was feuding. In part it was passion for his craft. It pained him to imagine the type one day used in books other than those he had so carefully printed and imbued with near-religious significance. But it was also a loathing of the technological change that had transformed the world during his lifetime. He abhorred mechanical industry, and only by consigning the type to the Thames, he wrote in his diary, could he guarantee it would never be used in “a press pulled otherwise than by the hand and arm of man”.
Hung out to dry
A hundred years later and a few miles across the city, lines of Doves type flash onto the touchscreen of an iPhone. Robert Green scrolls through the text with his finger. “It’s eccentric,” he says. “The more you look at it the stranger you realise it is.” Mr Green has stared at it longer than most. For three years he has been crafting a digital reproduction of the famous face—the first fully usable Doves font since the original metal pieces were swallowed by the Thames. In search of perfect curves and precise serifs, he reckons he has redrawn it at least 120 times. “I’m not really sure why I started. In the end it took over my life.”
Intrepid fans have occasionally tried to recover pieces of the type from the river, but no one has ever found any, so Mr Green had to beg and borrow Doves books as a reference. That sounds simple—yet the uneven printing that letterpress-lovers cherish made tracing the type impossible. Once ink hits paper, no single letter is reproduced identically. Guessing the shape of the metal that made the marks takes time and patience. Guess wrong, and the error is imperceptible at first; but lined up in text the letter looks awkward, the typeface distracting.
That painstaking process is similar to the technique Cobden-Sanderson and Walker used to create the Doves type, itself a confection of two earlier designs. Doves owes most to the type of Nicholas Jenson, a Venetian printer from the 15th century whose clear and elegant texts shunned the gothic blackletter favoured by print’s early pioneers. A few letters were added, and others redrawn. The arrow-straight descender of its lower case ‘y’ divides critics; purists lament the thick crossbar of the upper case ‘H’. Most people neither notice nor care. “No more graceful Roman letter has ever been cut and cast,” opined A.W. Pollard, a contemporary critic, in the Times. Simon Garfield, a modern writer, celebrates its rickety form, which looks “as if someone had broken into the press after hours and banged into the compositor’s plates.”
Mr Green has added to the original type. It had only 100-or-so characters; his digital revival boasts 350. That includes foreign oddities such as the Icelandic thorn and German esset, and modern essentials such as the euro sign and @ symbol. Whereas Doves existed in only one size, near to what is now called 16 point, its digital descendant scales as required. Is the type’s former owner now turning in his grave? “I think he’d admire my tenacity,” suggests Mr Green, hopefully. “Just so long as he doesn’t haunt me.”
Cobden-Sanderson was 59 and Walker 48 when the pair began their partnership in 1900. Their story is told vividly in Marianne Tidcombe’s book, “The Doves Press”. Cobden-Sanderson had given up law in his 40s to open his bindery. Walker owned a photo-engraving business directly opposite, across a narrow ginnel. Walker’s business was large and expanding; Cobden-Sanderson’s partly funded by his wife, Anne. The couple were well connected. She was an outspoken suffragette and the daughter of Richard Cobden, a liberal reformer who had helped launch The Economist. In 1908 Cobden-Sanderson attended the wedding of Winston Churchill, as a guest of the bride.
Both Cobden-Sanderson and Walker were part of the group of artists and craftsmen that gathered around William Morris, a designer whose London residence stood near their workshops. In 1887 it was Cobden-Sanderson who suggested a new committee be named the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, and in so doing christened the movement. The following year a lecture on fine printing by Walker—attended by Oscar Wilde—inspired Morris to found the Kelmscott Press. It aimed to produce illustrated books as ornate as those sold by the pioneers of print, and began a fashion for private presses lasting throughout the 20th century.
Walker’s contacts and knowledge of printing were fundamental to Kelmscott’s success. When Morris died in 1896, Cobden-Sanderson (pictured, on the right) suggested Walker and he should set up a press of their own. Walker agreed. Anne Cobden-Sanderson would provide the capital (£1,600) and cover any losses. Cobden-Sanderson would draw a small wage, but the two men would share equally in the profits. Should the partnership dissolve, Walker could take away a fount of the type they intended to design, for his own use.
By the end of 1902 the Doves Press had seven employees. The partners lived on the same riverside terrace, a brief stroll from their workplaces, and holidayed in adjoining country cottages. “There was a real atmosphere of exaltation,” recalled John Mason, a typesetter, “as though we were concerned with some high service to something outside and about us, and we were truly working for the work’s sake.”
Books from Morris’s Kelmscott Press were heavily illustrated, densely printed, proudly medieval. Those from the Doves Press are plain, simple, modern—decorated only by coloured initials drawn by Edward Johnston (who designed a typeface for London Underground which it still uses). “Paradise Lost”, issued in 1902, made the firm’s reputation. Yet the five-volume “English Bible”, which busied the press from 1902 to 1905, is its masterpiece. The opening of Genesis (pictured, top) now ranks among the most famous pages in printing. All 500 copies were sold to subscribers well before they were finished, and earned the firm’s founders a £500 profit. These days a Doves Bible can fetch more than $30,000.
Despite this success, the partners fell out. The press was only one of Walker’s many interests. Kept occupied by his own business and a full diary of committee work, he made only brief appearances to check on the press. Cobden-Sanderson raged that he was left alone to supervise the work. Yet it is not at all clear that the obsessive, perfectionist bookbinder would have welcomed Walker’s active involvement. When Walker did offer opinions, Cobden-Sanderson railed against his taste. After his death a former apprentice wrote that his egotism was “almost pathological”, and that “he lacked the power of co-operation almost entirely”.
In 1906 Cobden-Sanderson asked to sever their arrangement. Because he hoped to continue the press alone, he offered Walker a cash payment in lieu of the type. Walker refused, beginning a long dispute that saw Cobden-Sanderson ban him from entering the press. “Nothing on earth will now induce me to part with the type,” he wrote to a friend. “I am what, he does not appear to realise, a Visionary and a Fanatic, and against a Visionary and a Fanatic he will beat himself in vain.” Sydney Cockerell, a friend and curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, suggested a compromise. Cobden-Sanderson would continue the press, retaining sole use of the type until his death, when it would pass to Walker. Both men accepted the solution, and in July 1909 their partnership came to an end.
Yet Cobden-Sanderson was already plotting to break the agreement. Unknown to Walker, at the height of their dispute he had asked the Scottish foundry that guarded their font to send him all the remaining pieces of Doves type, as well as the punches and matrices that would be needed to cast more. For several years it sat in his bindery, while he pondered whether or not to go through with his plan. Forced to cut expenses in order to keep the Doves Press alive, he moved in with it, setting up a lonely bedroom in the bindery attic (his wife went to live with her sister). Erratic diary entries suggest a return of the depressions that had haunted his youth. In 1913 he jettisoned the matrices from Hammersmith Bridge, rendering new type impossible. When he eventually retired three years later, the rest of the font went too.
Cobden-Sanderson might well be angry that his act of criminal destruction has been reversed by the technological progress he abhorred. Yet there are aspects of today’s typographic industries that would please the old bookbinder. The Arts and Crafts luminaries dreamed of a social revolution that would rejuvenate cottage industries; thanks to digital technology, that is now happening. The type business is splintering into many thousands of tiny studios. Cheap software is encouraging designers of all stripes to try their hands at typography. Connoisseurs in the 1970s thought there were about 7,000 usable typefaces; some peg today’s tally at nearer 200,000. John Collins of MyFonts, an online retailer, says bestsellers on his site reap around $20,000 per month, enough to tempt talented novices to quit their day jobs.
Cobden-Sanderson might also approve of growing public awareness of typographic design. Word processors have made heroes and villains of a few famous types, and spurred people to search for rare ones to jazz up posters and wedding invitations (which, though hardly the great works for which it was designed, are the most likely market for the new Doves type, on sale for £40). Brand-conscious firms increasingly commission their own fonts. Articles in The Economist are set in Ecotype, an exclusive typeface; the governments of the Netherlands, Germany and Britain have recently designed their own.
Cobden-Sanderson had told no one of his intention to dispose of the type, for fear his plans might be thwarted, but once he had done the deed he wanted the world to know. In 1917 he wrote to subscribers to announce that the Doves Press would close. Accompanying this final catalogue was an enigmatic coda, revealing that the type had been “bequeathed” to the Thames. The Times soon published a glittering review of the press’s work, regretting only that its books were “almost too immaculately perfect”. But the newspaper also became the platform for a flurry of angry letters—not least from Walker’s solicitors, alerting the wider public to the dispute. Cockerell, who had forged the agreement Cobden-Sanderson so single-mindedly ignored, wrote to him in dismay: “I believe that you will come to see that your sacrifice to the River Thames was neither a worthy nor an honourable one.”
Cobden-Sanderson died, unrepentant, in 1922. Walker sued his widow both for the cost of producing the type (£500) and for a portion of the money it might still have earned. He argued that the type’s beauty had helped make the press’s books successful; she countered that the books had granted fame to the type. No judge ever ruled on that conundrum, for the case was settled out of court. Anne probably paid about £700 for her husband’s iniquity, more than half her initial investment in the press. She died shortly afterwards, in 1926, and her ashes were placed alongside his in a wall at the bottom of the bindery garden, which backs onto the Thames. Floods have since washed both of them away.