John Baskerville’s ‘Small Performances’ project launch

This week the University Library was thrilled to host the launch of the AHRC-funded project “Small performances”: investigating the typographic punches of John Baskerville (1707-75) through heritage science and practice-based research. The Baskerville typeface is familiar to millions of readers and users of standard computer software across the world. However, the story behind its creation by John Baskerville (1707-75) is much less widely known. This is in spite of the fact that he was England’s foremost printer, and what he called his “small performances” in typeface design “went forth to astonish all librarians of Europe”. From a broader perspective, printing is recognised as the invention of the millennium, and a democratiser of knowledge – and yet it remains ubiquitous but invisible, and how it happens is not generally known.

This interdisciplinary project seeks to make a substantial contribution to the history of printing technology, while ensuring this is a living process that will continue into the future. At its heart is the exceptional collection of typographic punches designed, cut, and used at Baskerville’s workshop in Birmingham, which are owned by Cambridge University Press & Assessment and now held at Cambridge University Library. Baskerville served as University Printer. Individually engraved in steel, punches were the first of three stages in the manufacturing of metal type – one that posed challenges in both materials and design – and therefore they preserve otherwise inaccessible information that can be unlocked through scientific study.

Mark Box sharing technological aspects of the project with attendees

The project will materialise as a new and essential chapter in the history of world technology, and as a novel form of research engagement among academics, practitioners, and laypeople, made visible through 3D models, digital editions, new typeface designs, and practical and creative workshops. Around sixty attendees at the launch enjoyed a series of short talks from the project team, and displays of eighteenth-century materials relating to Baskerville (including some of the punches themselves) and a demonstration of technological processes involved in the project by Mark Box of the Library’s Cultural Heritage Imaging Laboratory. Led by Professor Marcos Martinón Torres, Pitt-Rivers Professor of Archaeological Science in the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge and in collaboration with Professor Caroline Archer, Professor of Typography, and Dr Ann-Marie Carey, Research Fellow in the School of Jewellery, both at Birmingham City University, this work will transform our understanding of the collection of Baskerville punches and benefit current industrial and craft applications, as well as educational projects. Cambridge University Libraries staff involved in the project include, Maciej Pawlikowski (Co-Investigator) and Liam Sims (Research Assistant).

Professor Marcos Martinón Torres introducing the project

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