Introduced by Emma Balch
I found this little book tucked away on a shelf at the back of Richard Booth’s Bookshop in Hay. It gives a short overview of the history of the world’s oldest publishing house, with useful notes at the back on some of the most important books published by the Cambridge University Press.
The book was once owned by a John Milne of Cambridge. His name and location are stamped in the flyleaf with ‘J.C. Milne, 10.2.39, Cambridge’ written in ink.
I bought this book because I found, tucked between the pages, a newspaper cutting from 1953 with the headline:
FRENCHMAN’S GIFT TO CAMBRIDGE PRESS
BASKERVILLE TYPE PUNCHES
Written by ‘Our Museums Correspondent’ it shares that ‘An event of considerable moment to all those interested in typography is to take place at Cambridge on March 12 when the original punches designed by John Baskerville, which have been in France since the eighteenth century, are to be given to the Cambridge University Press by their present owner, M. Charles Peignot.’
In 1798 John Baskerville had been appointed Printer to Cambridge University. In this position he produced his famous editions of the Prayer Book and the Bible. In 1779, his widow sold all his letter-founding and printing equipment to Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais who wanted to use it to print a complete edition of Voltaire. This was printed, all 70 volumes, in a disused fortress at Kehl on the Rhine, in Baden-Dourlach. In 1790 the steel punches were taken to Paris, and soon a great deal of French printing was being done with Baskerville types. Following Beaumacharis’ death the punches were sold and they changed hands several times before being identified and returned to Cambridge University. The punches returned to Cambridge University Press included those used for printing the Prayer Books and Bible.
I was interested in this cutting in this little booked because I first heard the story of the Baskerville punches during an extraordinary meeting in Leipzig.
In April 2015 I was in Germany on a research trip for a new museum of books. I had the idea for this project soon after moving to Hay-on-Wye. There seemed so much potential for exploring the stories of miles of books on shelves in this ‘town of books’ in the Welsh hills. Each book, a story in itself of the writer and how they came to devote months or years of their life to putting words onto a page. The story of how it came to be published, at that time, in that format, by that publisher; how it came to have ended up in in a bookshop in a second-hand bookshelf in Hay. The books spanned different eras, reflected moments of social change, and covered almost every subject or interest on the planet. There were so many connections to be made, stories waiting to be told. More on how the idea developed in future posts, but back to Berlin.
I was leaving for Leipzig by train at 10.30am so I woke early and hired a bike. From 6am to 9am I cycled around Berlin. By lunchtime I was in Leipzig and headed to the Spinnerei, an fabulous old cotton mill complex now used by artists and creatives, and with loft apartments that I had booked into for a night. I headed into Leipzig, visiting the Drückkunst Museum (printing museum), the GfZK art gallery and the National Library of Germany.
There I was keen to see the exhibitions at the German Museum of Books and Writing. It was by then 8pm and other than a couple of security guards, the imposing building was empty. I asked the guards for directions to the museum, but they didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak German. An elderly, smartly dressed gentleman, the only other visitor in the building, walked over to me and – in perfect English – offered to help. He said he was going to the museum and could take me there. It was in the adjacent building, and we chatted a little as we walked. He was from Dresden and was going to a poetry reading.
I thanked him for his assistance, he headed upstairs to the reading and I paid my entrance and began looking around the museum. The lights were low, I was the only person in the museum. It was a fascinating exhibition. I was looking at a William Morris book when I heard footsteps behind me.
Thinking it was probably a security guard about to ask me to stop taking photos, I turned around and saw the man who had assisted me. It turned out he had the wrong day for the reading! He asked me what I was doing in a book museum in Germany. I explained about my research, plans to open a museum, about my partners in the project who have a vast collection of early printing presses…
At that point he stopped me and said ‘I started a printing museum!’ It turned out he was the founder of the museum I had visited earlier that day, and is one of the most accomplished letterpress printers in Europe. Not only that, he bought many of the hand presses that are in the museum in Leipzig from my partner in the museum project. Incredible! We were enjoying chatting so much that he said he’d drive me to where I was going next so we could talk some more. In the car I told him more about the plans to move the collection to Baskerville Hall near Hay-on-Wye, to be in daily working use, and he told me the story of the Baskerville punches.
So I had to buy this little book with the newspaper cutting when I found it in Booth’s. If nothing else it will remind me of this unexpected, serendipitous meeting in Leipzig. I do hope we can continue our conversations here in Hay-on-Wye later this year.
John Baskerville’s punches (steel rods with a letter carved backwards on the end, which were driven into a plate of softer metal leaving behind an impression of the letter)