Porson’s Greek type design
This is the title page of the second edition of the Alkestis of Euripides, edited by Monk and printed at Cambridge in 1818, with a detail of its text.
This is a question of more than passing interest to historians of printing types. For example, we know that some alphabets engraved on copper during the 1690s (although we are far from sure who drew them) were models for the types known as the romain du roi that were made for the Imprimerie royale in Paris. John Baskerville in Birmingham in the 1750s and François-Ambroise Didot in Paris in about 1780 got professional punchcutters to make types for them that follow some radically new ideas, and it seems likely that they must have made sketches to explain what they wanted; but if they did so, the sketches do not survive. How many designs for types do exist, dating before the introduction of mechanical punchcutting at the end of the 19th century made it possible to have a drawing reproduced faithfully in metal? In the case of the Porson (or Porsonic) types, the alphabet above – one that I once published – does appear to be something like a ‘design’ for the type, but since I neither found it nor claimed to have done so I ought – belatedly – to give its finder proper credit.
Less than a year after I was appointed librarian of the St Bride Library, I helped to mount an exhibition of printing in Greek types at the Library of the University of London. It was designed to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of Porson’s birth. I have no Greek at all, but I am interested in the puzzles that are involved in adapting a script from a different tradition in order to make it work with roman types, and I wanted to know more about the process by which Greek types began to be made without the tangled and complex ligatured forms that were features of the glamorous grec du roi of Claude Garamont, which reproduced them in 1540 from the elaborate script of a calligrapher from Crete who was working on manuscripts for the royal library of François I.
In his study of Greek printing types in Britain from the late 18th to the early 20th century, his Ph.D thesis for the University of Reading, published in 1998 by ‘Typophilia’, the imprint of Klimis Mastoridis (another Reading Ph.D) in Thessaloniki, John Bowman showed the document that I had reproduced. It is among the papers of Richard Porson at Trinity College, Cambridge (B. 13. 27, fol. 92). He remarked, quoting my study, that ‘Mosley believed that it could have been a sketch for the type’. But he did not think I was right, and wrote rather magisterially, ‘It is quite possible that Porson was here practising his design, but it seems unlikely that the actual specimen supplied to Austin would have found its way back into Porson’s papers.’ David McKitterick, librarian of Trinity College, citing Bowman in his History of the Cambridge University Press, endorsed this sceptical view.
This detached scholarly consensus disturbed me when I read it, because its writer had not asked me if I had really said that I believed that the alphabet I published was a sketch for the Porson type. The answer to this question would have been, no – I did not write the suggestion ; but someone did, or at least asked it as a question, which was one that I found convincing then, and I still do.
My notes for the exhibition had interested David Thomas, who worked on book production for a publisher. He had compiled a rather elegant and well-selected collection of examples of types that was published by Sidgwick & Jackson under the title A book of printed alphabets in 1937, and he had a considerable knowledge of classical texts and their typography. He had been invited to look after the production and design of the Penrose Annual, a prestigious publication which published articles on current printing technology, and which had acquired the habit of adding studies of the design and history of printing, especially when they could be illustrated with the use of interesting processes. He plunged happily into the job of helping to provide documentation for my piece, doing so rather more energetically than I wanted or needed, as I might perhaps have said – but it did not seem nice to ; I was quite young ; and he clearly knew what he was doing.
At any rate it was Thomas who went to look at the Porson papers at Trinity, who ordered photographs, and who wrote the captions for the separately-printed four-page section of illustrations to my piece, which was printed by collotype, a process that was becoming rare even then. This was the caption that he added beneath the illustration of the alphabet that is shown here: ‘Is this the model which Porson provided for Richard Austin?’ That is a question to which I think the only sensible answer is ‘quite probably – or something very like it’. I had supplied most of the other examples that were illustrated, but I do not think I ever saw proofs of the section. My article appeared as ‘Porson’s Greek types’, Penrose Annual, vol. 54 (1960), pp. 36–40.
In the end, the Porson Greek is not an exciting design, nor is it an independent one. It treats Greek as a secondary type, like italic. Some specialists who saw themselves as expert in the matter of Greek type, like Robert Proctor at the British Museum, were incensed at the sloping ‘italic’ capitals that were provided with some of the ‘Porson’ types, although to be fair one should note that similarly sloping capitals had been made for Baskerville’s calligraphic Greek type. The forms of the Porson type were clearly designed to work well with the admirable British romans and italics of 1810, and so they do: Matthew Carter has adapted a Porson type for setting with his Miller typeface, and the result is a harmonious text. Greek types were used then in Britain chiefly to set the Greek classics, or the text of the New Testament: in both cases, they would often be set alongside conventional roman and italic types. It was the harmony of the Porson Greek with contemporary italics that attracted me to the design.
Victor Scholderer, another specialist at the British Museum who also helped to mount an exhibition of books in Greek, became involved in the making of a very different type, Monotype’s ‘New Hellenic’ of 1927 that was based on the type that had been made for the ‘Complutensian’ polyglot Bible, printed at Alcalá de Henares in the early 16th century. He might have been expected to have reservations about the Porson type. But on the contrary; although he was not pleased by its slope (‘its originator was no doubt influenced by his own rather excessively sloping pen-script’) he liked its harmonious simplicity, writing that he greatly preferred it to the ‘restless eye-wearying Didot letter, the standard face of France, Italy, and Greece itself’. However that is a very different story.