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The Gorgeous Typeface That Drove Men Mad and Sparked a 100-Year Mystery

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Font people definitely have some latent angst to spare, and in a way this story is so poetically perfect in illustrating  the lengths they will go to for their art.

Yes! Plus I love a good mystery story.

Now would probably be a good time to explain exactly what "it" is. Today, typefaces—or fonts, as we usually call them these digital days—are essentially just little bits of binary on our computers. But the age of digital type is young, at only a few decades.

Cobden Sanderson and his partner, Emery Walker, founded the Doves Press in 1900. Walker was a businessman, with plenty of other concerns in the world, but Cobden Sanderson was a creative perfectionist—a man obsessed with authenticity and craft. Together, they commissioned a typeface for their press, to be based on a 15th century Venetian type. That meant paying a "punchcutter" to create steel "punches" for each letter in the type—from which a matrix would be made by pressing a piece of copper into the metal punch. Then, the type itself could be cast from the matrix.

Gorgeous Typeface That Drove Men Mad and Sparked a 100-Year Mystery

Photograph by Sam Armstrong, courtesy of The Sunday Times.

Their type was created in 1899, and the duo would use it to print indescribably beautiful books, bound by hand and designed with the perfect balance of craftsmanship and modern utility. Cobden Sanderson was a bit of a snob in the sense that he only wanted to commit his designs to the finest literature, the "most beautiful words." They printed Paradise Lost. They printed the English Bible. Today, copies of these books are extremely rare, and they command thousands of dollars at auction.

But soon, the Doves Press was in trouble. According to TypeSpec's own account of the partnership, Walker wanted to shut it down and divide the metal evidence—thousands of pounds of it—of the type between himself and Cobden Sanderson, and for them to go their separate ways. As Quirk explains in The Sunday Times, they landed on an agreement that Cobden Sanderson would keep the type until his death, at which point Walker would own it. But Cobden Sanderson was horrified by the idea of letting what he thought of as his own work go to Walker—and so slowly, over the course of the next few years, he decided upon a plan of action that would deprive Walker of his end of the bargain.