Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Hound? No sir, you have it wrong!

by Anna Belfrage

At times, one stumbles upon things by accident.

“… and that concludes today’s programmes on typefaces. I hope you enjoyed learning more about Baskerville.”

I have no interest in typefaces. I do, however, react to names I recognise, and Baskerville was such a name, conjuring up the hideous image of a slavering, murderous giant of a hound. It intrigued me, that this fictional horror should have given his name to a typeface. He hadn’t, as it turned out. Instead, it seems the hound takes his name from the designer of the typeface.

John Baskerville was born in Worcestershire in 1706, but would spend most of his life in Birmingham. While his family was financially comfortable, it was not comfortable enough to have young John loitering about as a gentleman, and so at the early age of 17, John was already hard at work, engraving and designing tombstones. (Given John’s future adventures as a corpse, this early trade is quite ironic, but more about that later) Apparently, John took to this trade with aplomb, stone chips flying as he pummelled each perfect, individual letter into being on whatever stone the deceased was to lie under.

Birmingham as it would have been when John moved there in the early 18th century

As a side-line, John taught writing and book-keeping, and when his father died in 1738, this talented young man invested his inheritance in the lacquering (or "japanning") industry. Bright, curious and innovative, John Baskerville went on to revolutionise the industry, becoming something of a household name with his “japanned” goods. Trays, bread baskets, useful little boxes – he inundated the market with these pretty trifles at (relatively) affordable prices, thereby recouping exponentially on his original investment.

Now very, very rich, John Baskerville enjoyed flaunting his wealth. His carriage was a rolling advertisement for his business, every single square inch covered by exquisite – and expensive – lacquer work. His clothes were always ostentatious, going to the extreme of being adorned with gold lace on important occasions, and he made a comfortable home for himself in the mansion Easy Hill, just outside of Birmingham.

Easy Hill - a gutted shell of its former glory after the 1791 riots
 At this point in time John was the man about town, no doubt with quite the line-up of potential wives presented to him. John wasn’t interested. He had met the woman of his life some years earlier and he scandalised all of Birmingham by having his beloved Mrs Eaves move in with him. Mr Eaves was not in a position to protest; a forger, he had fled the country to avoid arrest.

Far worse than his disreputable liason with Sarah Eaves, was the fact that John was an outspoken atheist. This made him something of an outcast in polite society – not that it seems to have bothered him unduly. No, John had other matters on his mind, first and foremost how to improve the art of printing.

With his background as an engraver, John was not all that impressed by the quality of much of the printed work at the time, and at the age of 44 he focused his considerable intellect on re-engineering the entire printing business. Due to a combination of paper, ink and types, most volumes printed in the early 18th century had lettering that was somewhat indistinct around the edges, and this John Baskerville did not like. He wanted his typeface bold and clean cut, he wanted the text to bounce off the page with consistent colour and sharpness.

John started by designing a typeface. He went on to experiment with woven paper, a relatively new product at the time. He used new types of ink and to all this novelty he added the final touch of introducing heat in the printing process, using heated copper cylinders to set the type on. (Why heat, one might ask. Heat dries the ink faster, thereby minimising risk for smudging.)

As a financial professional, I regard all this innovation with a certain level of suspicion, having learnt the hard way that not all innovations pay their way. After all, if people were willing to accept uneven colour in the ink, somewhat smudged letters and a deficient paper quality, who would be willing to pay for Baskerville’s books? John himself couldn't care less. He didn't need the money, he was doing this for Science, for Art (He was a member of the Royal Society of Arts, through which he came into contact with another famous printer, Benjamin Franklin).

John wanted to print beautiful books and beautiful books did he print, his most noteworthy contribution being a splendid folio Bible – even today considered one of the most beautiful Bibles ever made – which can be perceived as somewhat hypocritical given his beliefs, but there you are.

John Baskerville by James Millar
I envision John as being a rather content man in his last two decades. A woman he loved by his side, a successful business to fund his interest in his beloved printing, a life of ease and comfort and the respect of his contemporaries – well, not all of them, but those who didn't approve of him were those John didn't much approve of either.

Despite the lavish effort he had expended on his printed version of the Bible, John remained to his death an atheist, leaving firm instructions that he was to be buried in unconsecrated ground. A bereaved Sarah ensured his last wishes were respected, burying him on the grounds of their home. Some sources say John insisted on being buried standing up, but I find that difficult to believe, so let’s just assume he had a regular burial with someone uttering commemorative words while leaving any mention of God, the hereafter or “dust to dust” out of it.

That could have been the end of Mr Baskerville , but his house was wrecked in the Priestley Riots of the 1790's, the land was sold and in the first decades of the 19th century a canal was dug through his former property, bringing his lead coffin to light in 1821. The coffin was opened, and there, lo and behold, was Mr Baskerville, in surprisingly good condition despite almost five decades underground.

People didn't know what to do with him – the man was a confirmed atheist, so placing him in a church or a graveyard was out of the question, and apparently reburying him in a park somewhere was not considered an alternative. His coffin became a commodity, with one intrepid soul earning quite a lot of money by displaying his body to whoever might want to see it. Many did… All this exposure to fresh air was not doing our dead friend any good, and as a consequence a cloying odour clung to the remains. So the coffin was nailed shut, shoved into a warehouse and left there for several years.

At some point the warehouse was sold – including the coffin – and the new tenant, a plumber used the coffin as a workbench for a number of years, now and then enhancing his income by allowing people a peek at the by now rather decomposed remains. Mr Baskerville was becoming something of a deadweight (!) round the poor plumber’s neck. He didn't want an unburied body in his workshop – who would – but the available burial grounds were closed to this particular coffin, and so the plumber was more than relieved when he was approached by a certain Mr Nott, a bookseller who was very disturbed by the whole spectacle of Mr Baskerville’s rotting corpse.

Mr Nott had devised a cunning plan. As not one single church was prepared to allow Mr Baskerville to rest in their precincts, he decided to smuggle the coffin into his own private family vault, located in Christ Church. Picture the scene before you. It is dark – it has to be – the lead coffin weighs a ton – it must – the bribed warden is standing by the door hissing that they must hurry – easy to say when you’re not doing the carrying – and on top of that it was probably raining – it always rains in England when you least need it. Whatever the case, the mission succeeded, the coffin was safely stowed in the vault, and while Mr Baskerville might be rotating in disgust at being on consecrated ground, no one was around to hear his protests. Everyone could relax – until the church was razed to the ground several years later.

As per today, Mr Baskerville’s coffin – or what is left of it – therefore resides in the Warstone Lane Catacombs. Being an atheist, Mr Baskerville did not aspire to life after death, and so we must assume (hope) he is blissfully unaware of the adventures his remains have lived through.

So where does the hound come into all this? Well, apparently Conan Doyle spent quite some time in Birmingham and must have heard about the flamboyant Mr Baskerville. Why he chose to name his fictitious beast after him is unclear, but I guess this rather reflects a liking for the name than any attempt to pin the qualities of a hound on John Baskerville. After all, that would have been very unfair; a man with so much passion for the printed word must have been a decent sort, no matter that he lived in sin, died in sin and gave not one whit what others might think about him.

Next time I catch the tail end of a radio programme, I might decide not to listen. But on the other hand, had I not done so, I would never have come upon the intriguing, energetic Mr John Baskerville. That would have been a loss – at least for me.

Anna Belfrage is the author of two published books, A Rip in the Veil and Like Chaff in the Wind. The third book in The Graham Saga, The Prodigal Son, will be published in the summer of 2013.Set in seventeenth century Scotland and Virginia, the books tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him.


  1. I love the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and have often wondered where the famous hound originated. Many thanks for a fascinating insight.

  2. You had me at the line "... future adventures as a corpse." Really interesting post!

  3. Fascinating! Bakserville is one of my favorite font families.

  4. I'm off to see if I can find an example of the typeface he created!

  5. So far as I am aware, Baskerville is the name of the family supposedly haunted by the dog (as in The Hound of the Baskervilles) and not, as the writer appears to suggest, the name of the dog.

    That aside, an interesting post and I rather like the cut of Mr Baskerville's jib!

  6. Oh my stars, Anna, what an entertaining and informative post. you had me laughing aloud several times, sometimes almost in disbelief! I had once read that Arthur Conan Doyle went to a party in a country house where the butler was named Baskerville,and he was struck by the distinctiveness of the surname. But now learning how flamboyant the creator of the famous typeface was, I think he must have also have been inspired by the luridness of his end to use it for his cursed family. Thanks for bringing this fascinating character to life for us.

  7. Thanks for all the nice comments!
    Of course the hound wasn't called Baskerville (although it would make quite a good dog's name, assuming the beast in question is relatively big)but for me, Baskerville always brings to mind the image of that horrible, slavering dog ;) And it is quite a beautiful typeface, so precise, so stark. For several years it lingered in obscurity, as Mr Baskerville's fellow printers weren't all that thrilled by his efforts to improve the printed product (Cost consciousness can be detrimental to development - just as innovations can be detrimental to cost consciousness. Some sort of odd symbiosis). As I her it Baskerville typeface is much more in use in the US than in the UK. I wonder why...


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