Louis John Pouchée’s lost alphabets are the most beautiful types ever
Few contemporary display alphabets equal those of Louis John Pouchee for vivacity and invention” comments Eye magazine on these astonishingly intricate letter designs that were presumed lost in a fire in 1940 at Monotype’s London office. Regarded as the most ambitious and most beautiful types created in wood in any period and designed for eye-catching headlines these ornamented letterforms with their musical, masonic and agricultural motifs were designed in the early 1820s and their details will have you astonished, just like legendary graphic designer Peter Saville was when he used them for the cover art of Pulp’s “We Love Life” album back in 2001.
It was in the early years of the nineteenth century when the skilled engravers at the London type foundry of Louis John Pouchée produced a series of finely crafted decorative alphabets. Intended as eye-catching elements for printed posters, the beautiful large letters, up to 26 lines (over 100 mm) in cap height and made from single blocks of end-grain boxwood are mostly in the early nineteenth-century fat face style.
Virtually lost for over 150 years, they have been resurrected in a limited boxed edition as Ornamented Types: Twenty-three alphabets from the foundry of Louis John Pouchée through a collaboration between the St Bride Printing Library in the City of London, in whose collection they reside, and Ian Mortimer of I.M. Imprimit. And nothing can match their originality and vivacity, even today.
“The fat faces and slab serifs designed in the first decades of the nineteenth century were reviled by taste-setting printers and typographers in the 1920s” adds Mike Haines. “During the 1930s display types of this period underwent a re-appreciation and were promoted by typographic opinion-formers such as Robert Harling’s journal Typography (1936-39). Nicolete Gray’s Nineteenth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages (1938) contains reproductions of the Pouchée types described erroneously as examples of the “early Victorian ‘exuberant’ style” and credited to the Wood & Sharwoods London foundry. The idea that the alphabets dated from the second half of the nineteenth century survived and the selection from three of the types published in John C. Tarr’s Lettering: A Sourcebook of Roman Alphabets (1951) is similarly described as “Victorian wood-cut letters”.
Regarded as the most ambitious types created in wood in any period these ornamented letterforms were designed in the early 1820s
The 1960s saw a revival of interest in decorative display types stimulated by the introduction of two new technologies for display setting: headline photosetting and dry-transfer lettering. Among the best-sellers for Letraset in the late 1960s were Lettres Ornées and Romantiques No. 5, two highly ornamented types in the French style described inaccurately as part of an “Art Nouveau” range. These were used widely in magazine headlines, posters and packaging, alongside the highly condensed sans serifs which were also fashionable. Five of the Pouchée designs were reproduced in the journal Motif in 1967 and sample letters published by James Mosley in the Journal of the Printing Historical Society (1966) stimulated academic interest.
The idea of publishing Ornamented Types began in 1983, when Mortimer and Mosley proofed the entire collection of blocks using one of the Albion hand-presses at St Bride to provide archive proofs for the library and repro proofs for a possible commercial edition (which has not been undertaken). The results affirmed the outstanding quality of the types and Mortimer made a proposal to the City of London Corporation (which has responsibility for the St Bride material) for their publication. The preparation and printing of the types was nearly three-quarters of the way through when new evidence about their origins came to light as a result of substantial research into the Pouchée foundry, particularly by Julia Horsfall, Mortimer’s partner at I.M. Imprint. A complete history of the blocks began to emerge.
Today the Pouchée collection is the largest known to have been made in England at this time and the only one known to have survived
The story of the ownership and whereabouts of Pouchée’s alphabets in the twentieth century begins in 1936 when the type foundry H.W. Caslon & Co was force to close and its stock was sold to its competitors. The Sheffield type foundry Stephenson, Blake & Co acquired a number of punches and matrices; the Monotype Corporation purchased much of the rest of the stock including three tons of punches and 23 alphabets engraved on boxwood. Monotype’s new collection attracted an enthusiastic if small group of admirers, but following a fire at the company’s London offices in 1940 it was believed that the ornamented alphabets had been destroyed. This remained the case until the 1960s, when Monotype’s collection of hand-punch-cutting materials was re-examined as rapid changes in typesetting technology led to a more urgent interest in preserving the past. The collection, including the ornamented alphabets, was transferred to the University Press in Oxford and subsequently to the St Bride Printing Library.”
Today the Pouchée collection is the largest known to have been made in England at this time and the only one known to have survived. Louis John Pouchée (1782-1845) set up his type foundry in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1818. identified by printing historians as the importer of Henri Didot’s mechanical type founding machine, Pouchée recruited skilled masters of typography, paid them loads of money but sold his type more cheaply than other foundries. This strategy of his led to the collapse of the trade association and made him an unpopular figure among his tribe. His type foundry closed in 1830.
Nearly eleven years in the making, “Ornamented Types” is regarded the most exacting printing project to have been undertaken by a contemporary private press
“Ornamented Types is perhaps the most exacting printing project to have been undertaken by a contemporary private press” continues Daines on the project that took nearly eight years to bring to fruition and three years to print. “The blocks were meticulously cleaned before printing began, revealing much additional detail. Because the blocks were not intended to be printed from directly, many are not accurately finished, are not square and their sides are not vertical. To achieve a constant impression, variations in level were corrected by a succession of finely graduated paper underlays prepared individually for each block. Each block also had to be packed to avoid rocking and each base supported uniformly to withstand the pressure of the pull during printing without moving. In order to be able to achieve lock-up on the bed of the press, without the pressure causing individual letters to rise, the gaps had to be packed with slivers of bevelled paper or card. Some letters required a slight rotation to ensure alignments and letter spacing had to be arranged to fit within Mortimer’s page design without creating poorly spaced combinations. Depending on the size of the letters, between one and five printing forms were required to print a complete alphabet. Once printing began, it could take as long as three days to arrive at the first good proof of a single page and at least three more days to print 200 good impressions of that page.”