A digital Doves Type

In 1916, the infamous Doves Type was consigned to a watery grave: now, it has resurfaced in digital form.

In 1916, the infamous Doves Type was consigned to a watery grave: now, it has resurfaced in digital form.

Designer Robert Green, who set up digital type foundry 7th Seal in 2010, has spent almost three years sourcing and analysing Doves ephemera and has now released a digital version, available through Typespec.

Doves Type was commissioned by Thomas Cobden-Sanderson as the bespoke typeface for his last creative venture, the Doves Press, which he founded with Emery Walker. The typeface was used in all of the Press’s publications, including the Doves Bible – which featured drop caps designed by Edward Johnston – as well as works by Milton, Shakespeare and Tennyson.



A modern take on a Venetian serif, the Doves Type was hugely profitable for the Edinburgh foundry charged with casting it; bringing in more than £250 between 1901 and 1905. It took more than two years to create – Percy Tiffin, an employee of Walker’s, spent several months making preparatory drawings before Edward Prince adapted his work for the punches – yet just seventeen years later, Cobden-Sanderson announced that it had been “bequeathed” to the River Thames.

It was a calculated decision – Cobden-Sanderson spent nine months tipping more than 170 parcels of type over the Hammersmith Bridge at night. He had fallen out with Walker a few years earlier, after the business encountered financial troubles, and dissolved their partnership, which led to Walker demanding the press be shut down. By destroying the typeface he spent two years overseeing, he made sure it could never be used by Walker, or anyone else.

As Green points out, his digital interpretation isn’t the actual Doves Type as that has been lost forever. But it is a carefully constructed “digital facsimile, true to the geometry and letterforms of the original,” he says.

Green began researching the Doves Type when he wanted to use it but couldn’t find a digital version. “All I uncovered from searching online were some 72dpi jpegs, totally unusable as serious reference,” he explains. Keen to track down some more examples, he visited the British Library, which holds a copy of everything the Doves Press ever printed. He wasn’t allowed to photograph it, however, and was directed instead to a rostrum camera, which produced only low-res images.

Green later purchased a copy of Marianne Tidcombe’s book on the Doves Press, which contained some of Tiffin’s drawings but after a week of sketching them, realised they were only rough visual guides.



He then spent a year deciphering Prince’s work, including three months working out the relationship between lower case ds and gs. “It was all about finding out the true intention and deciphering the anomalies on page – where ink had spread or where there were quirks in the punch cutting or the way the metal hit the page,” he says.

Further breakthroughs came when Green found a rare piece of Doves ephemera at Maggs Brothers’ Rare Books and Manuscripts and was contacted by type designer Jeremy Tankard, who owns a page from the Doves Bible with qz and zs in (letters Green had been unable to track down until then). He also received advice from a former tutor at RCA.

When Cobden-Sanderson commissioned Doves type, he wanted a typeface for the modern age: one that was elegant yet clearly legible and free of unnecessary embellishment. Restoring a typeface that exists only as ink blots on well worn paper is a long and frustrating process, but Green’s perseverance has paid off – his digital Doves Type is a faithful interpretation of the original.

It has already been used by Graphic Thought Facility in a catalogue to accompany an exhibition about the late Isabella Blow, on display at Somerset House later this year. Green is also working on a set of additional Doves characters and an interpretation of Johnston’s drop caps for the Doves Bible.

Green readily admits there are times he thought about giving up – and is still unsure what made him persevere, “But someone was bound to attempt a digital interpretation sooner or later,” he says. “It was a beautiful typeface – full of incredibly accurate, fluid strokes. It was created by someone working with their hands, files, gravers and an eyeglass, yet the intricacy and detail is stunning,” he adds.

Doves Type is available at typespec.co.uk.

Images (top): ffl’ ligature scanned at 6,000 dpi, from an original Doves Press page; A composite  of Edward Prince’s final alphabet compared to Green’s final type (bottom); ‘ Achilles Over the Trench’, Iliad xviii, from Seven Poems & Two Translations, Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Doves Press, 1902; Green’s type set as the first page of Genesis in the The Doves Bible; extract from a Doves Catalogue.

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