Aug 152018

(c) Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

I love the way that so many inventors in the Georgian era came up with what were basically fakes – and I will be featuring some of them in my next-book-but-two*. Imitation  stone (Eleanor Coade) imitation gold (Christopher Pinchbeck) and imitation silver (Thomas Boulsover) are just a few. But there was also the interesting story of  John Baskerville, a man who made his fortune imitating the lacquer work previously imported from the Far East. Japanned tea sets, trays, boxes, clock cases – you name it, he made and embellished them, especially with flowers and classical motifs.

In the case of John Baskerville he is remembered, if at all, for the exquisite typeface which he designed and which is named after him. But printing was a hobby which he came to later in life – after he had made his fortune manufacturing  ‘japanned wares.’ The problem was that the tree used to extract the lacquer in the Far East (Toxicodendron vernicifluum, better known as the Chinese Lacquer Tree) was not available in Europe. In the second half of the 1600’s a way had been found to take a base material, such as wood or paper and coat it with layer after layer of coloured resin, like shellac. The procedure was described in publications such as Stalker and Parker’s Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, which appeared in 1688, and which does little to hint at the dirty, odorous and often hot working conditions endured by the people doing the japanning. The resin was applied in layers to produce a lustrous finish, usually black, achieved by mixing lamp-black into the resin. Stalker and Parker’s Treatise explained how to get the lamp black:

To make lamp black: Being furnished with a lamp that has 3 or 4 spouts, for as many lights and cotton-week (wick) which you may have at the Tallow Chandlers, twisted up so big that it will but just go into the nose of your spouts; for the greater light they make, the greater quantity of black is afforded. Procure a quart of oyl, by the oyl shops rated at 6d., and so much will make black enough to use about a large cabinet. Get a thing to receive your black in, such in shape and substance as you may often see is planted over a candle to keep the flame and smoak from the roof or ceiling of a room. Having placed your weeks (wicks) in their proper apartment, and put in the oyl, fire or light ‘em and fix your receiver over them so close, that the flame may almost touch them. After it is continued so the space of half an hour, take off your receiver, and with a feather strike and sweep off all the black on it. Snuff your weecks, and put it on again, but forget not to supply your lamp with oyl, as often as occasion shall require, and when you imagine that more black is stuck to the receiver, do as before directed.

Different manufacturers used different varnishes. One, known as “tar varnish” or “Jewish pitch”, involved a mixture of black asphaltum, amber, linseed oil and rosin in turpentine. In order to achieve a higher gloss this would then be coated with a mixture of copal resin in linseed oil – or with a variety of spirit varnishes. But as each layer was built up the japanners had to resort to frequent stovings – which in turn had a tendency to warp and crack the underlying base material. In time many japanners turned to tinplate as an alternative to a wood or paper base, because this was more resistant to the damage caused by the stoving process. The high glossy black finish was often embellished with gold decorations – used in order to make an ideal display for the tea ceremonies which developed throughout the eighteenth century.

Very often japanning was done in small factory units and during the Georgian period these started to be clustered around towns in the West Midlands, such as Wolverhampton and Bilston. And then John Baskerville appeared on the scene to develop a way of japanning onto a papier-mâché base. It produced a strong but lightweight material which did not warp when the resins were being oven-dried, and Baskerville set up in business in 1740 at 22 Moor Street in central Birmingham. Five years later production was moved to workshop premises in the 8-acre grounds of the fine house he built at Easy Hill on the edge of Birmingham and before long he was supplying the market with a range of high quality products. He continued to make papier-mâché products from that address for the remainder of his life, taking on a succession of apprentices (seven in all) during the period between 1754 and 1765. Baskerville loved flaunting his success, and had a reputation for wearing clothes richly adorned with gold lace. And, to make sure that no-one could mistake him, he  bought a pair of cream-coloured horses to draw his carriage, which had its doors and side panels made from papier-mâché richly decorated by the Master’s hand. Here was a man who did not believe in hiding his light under a bushel…

John had been born near Kidderminster in 1707 and initially had made a living teaching calligraphy, and carving gravestones. As a twenty-year old he had moved to Birmingham and set up a school in the Bull Ring where he taught writing and book-keeping, while still maintaining his work as an engraver. A slate inscribed with the words ‘Grave Stones Cut in any of the Hands by John Baskervill, Writing Master’ is all that remains  of his business. He was in his late thirties when he stumbled across the use of papier-mâché as a substrate for lacquer-work – allegedly as a result of following another papier-mâché maker around the city’s apothecaries, noting exactly what products were being bought. He ended up producing products which had the appearance of being made of wood, but which were feather-light, durable and with a very even high-gloss finish.

Having amassed a fortune making lacquered papier-mâché with his innovative production methods he turned back to his first love – the printed word. During the 1750s he developed the use of wove paper (as opposed to laid paper). Wove paper, which was used for a smooth white finish, had been invented by James Whatman and Baskerville was the first person to see its commercial possibilities. He also experimented with using clearer, more lustrous, inks, and developed a system for drying the ink quickly and evenly – preventing it from being soaked into the paper and instead giving a consistent and clear finish. He also brought about changes to the way that the metal type was cast, making the printed word appear really crisp. He really was a pioneer in the field of print-making, design and book production, and his name quickly became a by-word for quality.

All these developments were reflected in the production of his first book in 1757, a superb edition of works by Virgil. The care taken by Baskerville was astonishing – the production of that one volume took three years but the result was so impressive that Baskerville was appointed printer to Cambridge University. Shortly afterwards he started work on the production of a remarkable folio edition of The Bible, which was finally published in 1763. The care taken was all the more surprising when you consider that Baskerville was an atheist – not a closet atheist but a highly prominent and vociferous atheist who was not afraid to demonstrate his rejection of Christian doctrines. This even extended to his refusal to marry the woman generally referred to as his wife, the long-suffering Sarah Eaves. Sarah was originally a servant girl and was still married to a Mr Eaves. She had two children by her husband but John Baskerville treated them as his own, and brazenly set up home with Sarah for some twenty years. It is thought that the couple eventually did marry, after the death of Mr Eaves, but to eighteenth century moralists ‘living in sin’ for two decades with an adulterous woman was not generally acceptable.

John Wilkes said that Baskerville shocked him with his openly atheistic stance and that he was ‘a terrible infidel’ – which makes it all the more amazing that during his life Baskerville printed three bibles, nine common prayers, two psalm-books, and two Greek testaments. When he started as a printer he announced: ‘It is not my desire to print many books; but such only as are books of consequence, of intrinsic merit, or established reputation.’ These books included the works by Milton, Addison, Congreve, Shaftesbury, Virgil, Juvenal, Horace, the Italian renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto and a number of other classical Italian authors.

As a printer he was able to direct John Handy, his punch-maker, to design and produce a new and exceptionally clear and simple typeface. It so impressed Benjamin Franklin (a fellow printer) that when he returned to the newly-created United States of America Franklin directed that federal government documents were to be printed using the Baskerville typeface. Baskerville was elected a member to the Royal Society of Arts, and became an associate of many of the members of the Lunar Society. As a result of this sort of networking he became an important influencer – a major player in Birmingham’s industrial scene. In effect he became mentor to the young Matthew Boulton, encouraging him in his early endeavours and at one stage lending him the not insignificant sum of £1470 in 1767. Boulton, of course, went on to fame and fortune as one of the great architects of the Industrial Revolution, but it is worth remembering that he only achieved that pinnacle because of the support and   encouragement given to him by others in his early years.

Baskerville’s typefaces mark a high point in the transition between Old Style and Modern type design – they are beautifully cut, and although they went out of fashion they were subsequently picked up in the twentieth century by type foundries such as Linotype and Monotype. Baskerville helped establish Birmingham as the leading city for print and publishing outside of London, with a reputation as a leader in design. He may have made his money by making cheap imitations of Far Eastern handicrafts but he spent his money in becoming one of the finest printers of the Age. And if we think of elegance as being the mark of the Georgian era it is worth remembering that elegance does not simply consist of a neo-classical tea-pot, or an Adam fireplace or a fine façade designed by William Chambers – it is also defined by the beauty of the printed page.
Baskerville died in January 1775 at his Easy Hill home, having left very specific instructions that his mortal remains were not to be buried in consecrated land, but in a vault which he had created in an old mill building. As he said: ‘Doubtless to many [this] may appear a Whim – perhaps It is so – but it is a whim for many years Resolve’d upon, as I have a Hearty Contempt for all Superstition [and] the Farce of a Consecrated Ground…’

In practice his coffin was to have a somewhat nomadic existence – Easy Hill was burnt down in the Birmingham Riots of 1791 and the mausoleum was knocked down when a canal was re-routed across the site. The lead-lined coffin was moved to a warehouse in 1821 where is was used as a workbench and later became something of a tourist attraction as people asked to see the corpse. Originally in a good state of preservation, this constant exposure to the air caused rapid deterioration to the body. Finally the oderous corpse was secreted in a family vault belonging to a local publisher. Years later even this building was demolished, and the coffin moved again before finally being re-buried in catacombs at Warstone Lane Cemetery.  So, even after two centuries, John Baskerville has still not got his final wish, although there are occasional attempts to get him buried yet again, this time on un-consecrated ground.

Baskerville left most of his fortune, some £12,000, to his widow Sarah as well as making various bequest to family members and to charity. Sarah carried on with John’s printing business for some months after his death, and also maintained the type foundry for another two years. She died in 1788.


*My next book to be published, by Pen & Sword, is due out in November and will be on the topic of Pirates and Privateers. After that comes one to mark the anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe next April – all about castaways and violent storms and disasters at sea. And after that comes one on lesser-known Georgian inventors, discoverers etc. I have also just been commissioned to write what will probably be my final book, on Sex and Sexuality in the Georgian era. Watch this space! And if you find my blogs getting fewer and fewer, it is probably because I am too busy trying to keep my publisher happy!