Recovering the Doves Type

In 1916, the Doves Type was seemingly lost forever after it was thrown into the River Thames. Almost 100 years later, and after spending three years making a digital version, designer Robert Green has recovered 150 pieces from their watery grave…

Image taken by Sam Armstrong, courtesy of The Sunday Times

 

The Doves Type was commissioned by Thomas Cobden-Sanderson as a bespoke typeface for the Doves Press, the London printing company he co-founded with Emery Walker in 1900. A modern take on a Venetian serif, it took two years to create and was used in all of the Press’s publications, including books of verse by Shakespeare and Milton and the Doves Bible, which featured drop caps by Edward Johnston.

After falling out with Walker, however – their partnership was legally dissolved in 1909, after the business encountered financial troubles – Cobden-Sanderson spent nine months tipping 2,600lb of it into the Thames in secret, ensuring that if he couldn’t use it, nor could anyone else. Disguised by darkness, he made around 170 trips to the Hammersmith Bridge to tip small parcels into the water at night, the splashes concealed by passing traffic, before announcing that it had been “bequeathed’ to the Thames.

Green’s updated digital Doves font, available at typespec.co.uk

Several designers have attempted to revive Doves Type over the years, including Walker himself, but most interpretations were either incomplete or not made publicly available. In 2010, Robert Green decided to create his own ‘digital facsimile’ after unsuccessfully trying to source a usable version.

Green worked for over three years on his digital Doves font, researching samples from Marianne Tidbcombe’s book on the Doves Press, material from the British Library’s archives and sourcing rare Doves ephemera (you can read our article on his process here). The initial version was released in November 2013, after which he spent several months adjusting the weight and in late 2014, he decided to try and find the original type.

“I decided I couldn’t rest until I’d found some, or at least looked for it,” says Green. “I had spent a lot of time reading Cobden-Sanderson’s journal and Marianne Tidcombe’s research, and there was a lot of information about where he’d thrown it from.

“I started looking into whether lead degrades in water and researching the composition of lead type, as I didn’t really know anything about the chemistry of it and wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to start looking for something that had rotted away. When I realised there was a possibility that it might not have been carried away by the tide and could still be in a decent state, I thought it had to be worth a look,” he explains.

Image taken by Sam Armstrong, courtesy of The Sunday Times

Keen to find out how he might go about recoving the type, Green contacted the Port of London Authority, which suggested he scan the riverbank himself before paying for professional divers to comb the area.

“I was able to pinpoint where he would have stood to within a five metre radius [based on Tidcombe’s work and Cobden-Sanderson’s journal] – he would have been trying to be surreptitious, as he didn’t want anyone to know what he was doing, and would have had his back turned to his house and Emery Walker’s in a spot concealed from passing traffic. I went on to the foreshore when the tide was out, looked around the riverbed and found three pieces within 20 minutes.”

Surprised as he was to find the type so easily, Green says he was probably the first person to really look for it. “I had always read that it had never been found, so assumed loads of people had gone to look for it but actually, I don’t think anyone had ever bothered,” he adds. Upon his discovery, he called the Port Authority again, which carried out a two-day dive and eventually recovered 150 pieces.

It’s an impressive haul and the type is in remarkably good condition, says Green, considering it had been sitting exposed among rocks and masonry. “If it had been buried in silt and mud it would have been even better preserved, but we probably wouldn’t have found it,” he adds. Sadly, it’s not a full alphabet, and Green suspects he’ll never find one as the remaining type is believed to be encased in concrete.

“That section of the Hammersmith Bridge was bombed three times by the IRA, first in 1939 … and most recently in 2000,” says Green. “[As a result] it has been repaired a few times, and some of the concrete from the abutment must have flowed in to the riverbed and entombed the rest of the type. What we found was whatever must have escaped both the explosions and the repairs,” he adds.

Since finding the characters, Green has made some minor adjustments to his Doves Type (mostly refining spacing and curves) but says he finally feels the project is complete. “When I started, I didn’t think I’d take it this far, but now I feel like we’ve come to the end of the story.

“I’m not sure how Cobden-Sanderson would feel about the digital revival but then, the digital font isn’t the same thing as metal type. It’s only my image of his work and doesn’t have all the same quirks and inconsistencies,” he adds.

Half of the recovered Doves Type will be donated to the Emery Walker Trust on a permanent loan and Green says he is keeping the rest, with no plans to sell. “It’s too precious. I feel very attached to it now I’ve retraced Cobden-Sanderson’s steps and stood on that very same spot of the bridge,” he says.

Doves Type is available at typespec.co.uk

  • Mark

    Great job Robert, well done!

  • Sallyanne Theodosiou

    What a fascinating article documenting your great detective work. Well done.

  • Bob loves type

    I second @Mark, well done Robert! It’s a great that someone had the inspiration to start this kind of thing but more importantly the passion and commitment to see it through. You need to write a book Mr Green – I’d buy it.

  • Gilo

    Robert you are truly an inspiration to me, to discover something and persevere with it, collating and reviving to for today’s use. Well done! Write a book – I’ll buy it too…

  • robert

    What a fabulous find. Cobden Sanderson was such a fascinating and complex character. To have such a tangible souvenir after your work on the type is marvellous and well deserved.

  • Nothing short of a hero in the Typophile world

  • I love this story, it’s too easy to move away from our roots in this rapidly changing digital world, the importance of preserving letterpress is a vital part of creative history. What a satisfying achievement! I’d buy your book too!

  • I love this story, it’s too easy to move away from our roots in this rapidly changing digital world, the importance of preserving letterpress is a vital part of creative history. What a satisfying achievement! I’d buy your book too!

  • Chris Hughes

    It is Edward Johnston, not Edward Johnstone.

  • sezme
  • Great story. Last week I gave it a bit of a local angle with some nice shots of the Doves Press and Cobden-Sanderson’s house next door to the famous Dove pub on the banks of the Thames at Hammersmith. Here’s a link to my article.

    http://goo.gl/qQus4d

  • The written word and its characters flows from our hearts – and this is proof! Such passion around a type font! Great story!!

  • Coincidentally I had just been reading about this typeface last week, which had been tossed into the Thames, and now it comes out that it’s been recovered. Almost seems like a hoax, but if so it’s a great one !

  • Julie

    What a marvelous story. Thank you for bringing this type back from its watery grave. Not only is the story amazing, the typeface is truly lovely.

  • It’s “Edward Johnston” not Johnstone and he provided calligraphed initials which are not “drop caps.” Still better reporting than the BBC who referred to the sorts as “Type blocks”

  • Helen Wilcock

    Very interesting read very detirmined and patient. Well done….you must be very proud.

  • Jennifer Walker

    Fascinating: I wondered if the famous Doves Type ever would be found and it seems wonderful that it is now retrieved from the water. Having also studied Tidcombe and the Cobden-Sanderson journals, edited by his wife Anne and Elizabeth von Arnim, I was pleased to read that Robert Green is treating his find with the respect it deserves. It is sad, however, to realise that Cobden-Sanderson’s poetic dedication, in his farewell to the punches, matrices and type: “may the River, in its tides and flow, pass over them to and from the great sea for ever and ever, or until its tides and flow for ever cease…”, will not now be fulfilled.

  • Simon Eccles

    Apparently the steel punches and bass matrices went into the Thames too. Simply dumping the lead characters wouldn’t have achieved anything as new ones could be made from the moulds.

    Lead alloy type was intended to be easily recyclable, so why didn’t Cobden-Sanderson simply melt it down and re-use or sell the resultant ingots? Sounds like more of a grand gesture than anything.

    As it is, something around a ton of lead alloy, a heavy metal pollutant, is still sitting in the Thames in bite-sized pieces. Even though it’s barely broken down after a century, it will do slowly over time.

    Great work by Robert Green, both on the digitising and the dredging side! Perhaps one day some of the punches and matrices will show up too.

  • Jeje

    Fantastic!

  • Keith ADAMS

    Before his premature death, Justin Howes had made a digitised version sufficient at least to print a menu for the annual Cobden Sanderson dinner (on his December 2nd birthday) some 15 years ago. Sadly this and other projects never saw fruition.

  • PatrickBurgoyne

    @ Alastair Johnston and Chris Hughes

    Thanks for pointing out the error. That’s been corrected.

  • This is a fascinating story which, as many others have said, I hope can find its way into a longer account in book form before long. I agree with Simon Eccles that Cobden Sanderson’s action in dumping the type was really a grand gesture. CS has always seemed to me in his writings, and in his ‘justification’ for disposing of the Doves type, to wallow in metaphysical babble. The fact is, surely, that he was an egoist of the first water who could not bear the thought that anyone unworthy – by which he meant anyone other than himself – would use his type.

    In fact, the type was not ‘his’ to dispose of — or not entirely. Sir Emery Walker was its part owner, and in destroying the type — or certainly in destroying the punches and matrices — CS was legally, and more important morally, at fault. That he should have felt justified in doing this in spite of the great support and friendship Walker had earlier shown him seems to me not egotistical (as shown in his pompous declaration of what he had done) but singularly egoistic, that is, showing his sense of morality to have been based entirely on self interest.

    All of which said, Robert Green has done a fine thing in investigating and finally determining the fate of the type. (There are some ‘conspiracy theorists’ who have suggested that CS never threw the type into the Thames, but buried it in his garden.) More important, his work in creating a digital version of the type — including so many accented characters — is an admirable piece of typographical research, reconstruction, and revival. As far as one can tell from a reproduction on a computer screen, he has done an exemplary job.

    It is good to know that those who admire the type and understand its qualities will be able to use it if they wish to. Of course, there is an irony here: CS will presumably be turning in his grave at the thought of the type’s being available in this or indeed any way. But worse still, there may well be some who will use it in ways which would have CS not just turning, but spinning in his grave at a sizable rate of RPMs. Who knows? Perhaps we will see a Franklin Mint edition of ’50 Shades of Grey’ in Doves type, one fair day! In that case, at least, I might find it in my heart to pity the man.

    Thanks, Mr Green, for your good work.

    Crispin Elsted

  • don vanvalkenburgh

    i’m 76 years old … my mother began reading stories to me soon after my birth. in the 1950’s i worked as an assistant typesetter and printer, when i was a student in a franciscan seminary, in a tiny few rooms in an old wooden monastery building … and, in the late 1960’s, working as an editor at a university i became friends with an old man who was the only letterpress operator in the campus’ large printshop … today , as the decades continue to flow, i am a poet, prose writer in several methods, a devoted reader thanks to my mom and many writers … i write all of this because this story absolutely enchants me, after decades of creation and love and practicality all leading to this marvelous story … the world of printed, and printing, words remains beautiful …

  • Great story

  • Simon Eccles

    Actually, having speculated that the punches might show up, I looked again.

    In the pic of the dredged up type in a sieve, there’s something that might be a punch. It’s the fatter square-section object, third down on the right below the coppery cylinder-cone (which I don’t think is a punch – it looks more like a bullet left over from WWII).

  • Bob Loves Type

    @Crispin Elsted
    “Of course, there is an irony here: CS will presumably be turning in his grave at the thought of the type’s being available in this or indeed any way.”

    Indeed, well said.

    Sadly an all too common irony with grand gestures though is real life often intervenes to render them void. Although It might have taken nearly a 100 years to do so in this case … real life strikes again!
    Not of course that it would have been possible to have predicted the rise of DTP and Digital Typography in 1916, but for me, this is what make the irony even sweeter still.
    Surely the very notion of him sneaking out at night to “bequeath” the Dove type to the Thames was bound to eventually tempt someone to go searching for it? So, By seeking to remove Doves from the hands of the “unworthy” (to use your term) with a grand gesture of defiance, he (CS) has ultimately only succeeded in making Doves Type more widely available. The more likely, therefore, to eventually be used in a way he wouldn’t have approved of. Sweet, sweet, irony indeed.

  • andrew danish

    talk about devotion!

  • Alan Hurley

    Fascinating! I’ve often wondered what Jane Morris (widow of William) made of the breach between Cobden-Sanderson and Walker, but there seems to be no reference to it in her recently published collected letters. They were both close friends of hers — Cobden-Sanderson had earlier taken up bookbinding at her suggestion, and Walker took a series of very beautiful photographs of her in old age. I’m curious as to whose side in the quarrel she took, or whether she tried to remain neutral between them.

  • Thomas

    Incredible!

  • No it’s not a hoax, that would have taken some dedication!

    It must be remembered that only 150 sorts were found and that the vast bulk of the type, including Johnston’s beautiful initials – most likely, although I have no reason to believe otherwise – are still beyond reach. By my estimation some 500,000+ sorts appear to be entombed under poured concrete, a result of subsequent repairs to the bridge.

    For me this was probably the best outcome – perhaps a few more sorts, enough so as the Walker Trust would have a full character set to publicly display. Cobden-Sanderson’s wish that ‘his type’ never be used on a press operated other than by ‘hand or arm of man or woman’ remains largely fulfilled. The type trapped under the bridge, ‘his’ system, a fount of 16 pt of metal type, is mostly out of reach, while Walker posthumously gets some of the type C-S attempted to deny him.

    It must also be remembered that there is a third person responsible for creating the type, the punchcutter Edward Prince. Having studied and attempted to recreate the type from Percy Tiffin’s original drawings for Walker early on, I can assure everyone that the typeface itself is ultimately Prince’s. Tiffin’s drawings would make a pretty clumsy looking typeface. Prince, in interpreting what I would describe as Tiffin’s guidelines, added life and finesse to the typeface through beautifully complex geometry, applied in a manner that ensures its elements relate without any monotony.

    But when I read: “CS will presumably be turning in his grave at the thought of the type’s being available in this or indeed any way. But worse still, there may well be some who will use it in ways which would have CS not just turning, but spinning in his grave at a sizable rate of RPMs. Who knows?” part of me agrees.

    But another part of me thinks it’s Prince’s work that I’ve attempted to recreate, a digital simulcra of the letterforms, rather than C-S’s metal type. The inconsistencies – and therefore life – inherent in metal type cannot be recreated digitally. My vector drawn type is a digitally idealised version of Prince’s punches, with a few ems of weight added to represent a consistently ‘healthy’ impression.

    It should also be noted Walker himself tried to get the type recut by Prince, but by this time Prince was old and his new version of the type not up to scratch in Walker’s opinion. So I am not the first person to attempt it and certainly not a digital Doves Press type – as mentioned above Justin Howes (of whom I wasn’t aware), Tbjorn Olssen in the 1990s, plus I know of at least one other attempt. However, mine is the first to become commercially available as far as I am aware.

    As for the real type, it never was completely lost. There is some in the Cheltenham museum, a portion of the first delivery in 1900 from the Miller & Richard foundry, set in a Christmas message by Walker to his wife. 26 (I think) of the 96-98 (I’m still not quite sure) characters in the fount, wrapped in paper and tied with string, which Walker kept as a souvenir. It was sold to them from Walker’s collection by custodian Elizabeth de Haas before her death & prior to the Emery Walker Trust being set up in 1999. Another reason why I am returning some type to Walker’s house.

    Finally, the punches and matrices were thrown away in 1913, three years before C-S began disposing of the type itself in 1916. It’s not clear where on the bridge they were thrown from, but the impression given in Journals is that this was in anger, rather than the systematic way in which the type was dispatched. As has been mentioned, some private presses melted down their type, including the Vale Press, Charles Ricketts having cast its punches & matrices into the Thames some years earlier than C-S in 1904 I believe.

  • great story, in this digital world, great to see type as a tangible thing again, makes me happy

  • ALARIC PUGH

    Marvellous effort, of course. But few people are enthusing as I would over what a beautiful typeface it is! Too obvious I supose and it helped to make the task easier.

  • Eric Rietzschel

    My wife and I briefly stayed in the Hammersmith area last year – very close to the bridge, actually. Sadly, I only started reading about fonts (and hence came across the Doves Type story) after our stay (in fact, it was during that stay that I bought my first book about fonts, so it’s still a nice coincidence). But knowing about the type and its recovery has retroactively added some extra colour to our stay. :-)

  • Kanna

    This week I found three of these at Southwark Bridge. It’s a great story.