Published by Atelier Perrousseaux, The history of typographic writing (L’Histoire de l’Écriture Typographique, in French) is a collection originally launched by Yves Perrousseaux, since directed by David Rault. It is well known among the French speaking amateurs and professional typographers. Apart from a transversal volume by Rémi Jimenes on Les Caractères de civilité: Typographie et Calligraphie sous l’Ancien Régime, it comprises three tomes which are the personal work of Yves Perrousseaux (De Gutenberg au XVIIe siècle — Le XVIIIe siècle: Tomes 1 & 2) & constitute his Magnum Opus. After the death of Perrousseaux, Dr Jacques André (a mathematician who became through his interest in IT an eminent specialist of digital typography) & Christian Laucou (a typesetter turned publisher and a disciple of Raymond Queneau, the founder of l’Ouvroir de Typographie Potentielle) undertook to pursue his work & write the next volume, dedicated to the French 19th century.
French typography in the 19th Century
This voluminous opus of nearly 400 pages is once again an erudite body of work with a great wealth of information. It covers not only what is most famous & important in French typography in the 19th Century, like the Didot family characters (which take central stage in the book) but also aspects which are sometimes rather under-valued: for example, the influence of English typography on the French type designers of the time, the importance of the rebirth of the Elzévirs (old face) or the invention of fancy characters. For the reader, the principal interest of this volume may reside here: the depiction of a 19th Century which is extremely diverse & completely dedicated to research in typography, a 19th Century through which runs a fundamental tension between the hunt for formal perfection and the diversification leading to excess. This tension indeed surfaces in the didones, characters born out of a quest: the evermore advanced rationalisation of forms, but also excessive characters: always bigger; always more contrasted; always fatter; always more ornate.
More than 450 extremely carefully chosen and relevant illustrations (even though modern printing does not represent the real aspect of original didones accurately), for some of stunning beauty, of intense creativity or of surprising modernity, allow to apprehend the complex wealth of this 19th Century. These illustrations (many barely known) will no doubt become sources of inspiration for contemporary type designers. Personally, I would draw the attention on some aspects of Jules Didot’s works which were largely unknown for me: his striking specimen book which would deserve to be entirely republished (p.124-6); the unexpected shapes of his characters (p.131-2) & above all, the magnificent ornament made out of interrogation and exclamation marks (page 135).
The book proves to be as excellent when it goes beyond the strict frame that it has assigned itself (the design of metal characters). The chapters on the development of the Imprimerie that would become National and on the genealogy of French foundries (that would in fine lead to the creation of Deberny and Peignot in the 20C) allow an in-depth understanding of a major characteristic of typography: it is an industry based on an art. As an art, its time scale runs over centuries: typography is based on a body of knowledge accumulated and transmitted through human experience. As an industry, its time scale is shorter: typography depends on technical progress and the ups-and-downs of the economy. The most fruitful moments of typography’s history are therefore those where human capital combined with technical & economic capital. The numerous “pauses” between chapters affords the opportunity to look at topics that had first been discarded by the authors: notably all the aspects linked to the composition & the use of letters (vignettes etched on wood, decorated letter, but also typographic manuals) which give a different image of this century & may too become inspirational.
The greatest merit of this volume may be that it has relied as much as possible on original sources & has therefore made the work of a real historian. It remains up to the professional historians, the academics (for example cultural historians: Jean-François Sirinelli, Pascal Ory, Laurence Bertrand-Dorléac, or more probably their students) to base themselves on these remarkable works in order to give the history of typography an even larger stature through resituating it as a social phenomenon & linking it even more to modern & contemporary historiography.
By Dàvid Ranc, January 2014. All rights reserved.
History of typographic writing: the 19th century French style, cover.
→ Punchcutting at Imprimerie nationale
→ Ambroise typeface in details
→ The typographic history, the french revolution
→ Roger Excoffon, publié par Atelier Perrousseaux
→ Jacques André: Deux ou trois choses en typographie
→ Christian Laucou: Fornax
→ Les Caractères de civilité: Typographie et Calligraphie sous l’Ancien Régime
→ De Gutenberg au XVIIe siècle
→ XVIIIe siècle: Tomes 1 & 2
→ Le dernier né de l’Atelier Perrousseaux