A re­search pro­ject on the his­tory of mod­ern fat type­faces that started as a hobby. Poem edi­tions pub­lished a boook on the sub­ject (Most of the in­for­ma­tion in there comes from Sébastien’s PhD).

In the de­sign notes for the Isambard Collection (from Commercial Classics) Paul Barnes gives a de­f­i­n­i­tion of the fat face:

The fat face is the joy­ful ex­pres­sion of an idea - to make some­thing as bold as can be - ex­e­cuted with real vigour and the ut­most con­vic­tion.

Isambard is a very re­cent type­face but fol­low­ing 19th cen­tury mod­els very closely (I’m guess­ing it’s drawn from stuff in St Bride). Margarita by Alejandro Lo Celso comes from the same source ma­te­r­ial but takes it to a dif­fer­ent place. Zloy by Daria Petrova comes at the idea from a to­tally dif­fer­ent an­gle. But all of these type­faces are fat faces.

This lec­ture, though, is about the his­tor­i­cal ori­gin of the style.

The term fat­face doesnt come from the 19th centy: It first ap­pears in 1683, in Mechanick Exercies. Moxon al­ready gives a de­f­i­n­i­tion.

Robert thorne (1753-1820) is still cred­ited with be­ing the in­ven­tor of the fat­face. The ear­li­est men­tion mak­ing that as­ser­tion is from 1817, William Savage. A few years later 1825 an­other printer gives him credit for the in­ven­tion too: Talbot Baines Reed, Old and new Fashions in Typography (1790):

The new ro­man was baerly es­tab­lished as the pre­vail­ing fash­ion when a vul­gar taste for fat­ter faces as­serted it­self. The de­mand was proptly re­sponded to by the founders of the day, Robert Thorne lead­ing the way.

William Capon (1783): Old Opera House, Haymarket

London and England at the end of the 18th cen­tury saw a grad­ual in­crease in posters and pub­lic no­tices. There was also a shift from pic­toral com­mu­ni­ca­tion to text. Printed mat­ter and sign­paint­ing ex­ist to­gether.

Type started to ap­pear on buidlings, but also on things that moved like stage coaches. There’s all kinds of doc­u­men­ta­tion of these shifts.

Thomas Rowlandson (1790): Sign Painter’s Workshop.

Thorne was an ap­pren­tice with Thomas Cottrell. In the 18th cen­tury type was dom­i­nated by the Caslons, where Cottrell him­self had beeen an em­ployee. He was known for do­ing plac­ard let­ters - that’s big let­ters for pub­lic no­tices, but still de­signed like reg­u­lar ro­mans. These were hard to cast with the tra­di­tional method (I’m guess­ing it’s hard to punch a let­ter that big). You could do it with sand, but that was te­dious and im­pre­cise. There were also brass plates, but this couldnt meet the in­creas­ing de­mand.

Caslon II and Caslon III had a huge range of large types, up to 99 pi­cas. The best stuff was com­ing from them at the time, but other foundries like Stephenson’s made large types too - we know this from look­ing at spec­i­men books. So in the 1790s it was al­ready pretty easy to get your hands on a wide range of big let­ters for poster work.

Thorne even­tu­ally buys Cottrell’s foundry in 1794. He is­sued his first spec­i­men the same year - it’s at St Bride and con­tains a 19 line type. But these aren’t bold let­ters yet. Four years later he pub­lishes his sec­ond spec­i­men. We still see the 19 line type, but this time we also see a low­er­case. Of course these could have been pre­sent four years ear­lier and just not printed in the spec­i­men.

18th Century Playbill

Large type was used to set names of peo­ple and plays. There’s a need for more vi­sual hi­er­ar­chy. You can do that in other ways too: you can cut type in re­verse, like they also did in that day.

1803 an­other spec­i­men from Thorne, here still we don’t re­ally see any­thing very bold. He is how­ever one of the ear­lier peo­ple here to in­tro­duce mod­ern faces and types with slightly heav­ier stems.

John Isaac Drury in 1801 cuts the first proper mod­ern face for the Caslon and Catherwood foundry. In 1805-10 Caslon also starts to in­tro­duce medium weight faces in text sizes.

In 1806 you start to see these large medium weight types be­ing used. Most of this is printed in metal, but the heav­ier types are also be­ing cut into wood. James Mosly re­pro­duces an 1805 ar­ti­cle com­plain­ing about sans serif hand­painted let­ter­forms. The only way they can il­lus­trate that type is by putting in lit­tle wood cuts.

Harris is a Liverpool printer (there were things go­ing on out­side London) who pub­lishes a spec­i­men in 1807 with large heavy types. He writes:

I hope also that I have been not un­suc­cess­ful in the se­lec­tion of my other founts; and that the larger sorts will be found to pre­sent a broad and bold dis­play, in­dis­pens­able n the kind of print­ing for which they are in­tended.

The spec­i­men gives some ideas as to how these types would have been used. The eeight of the let­ters is in­creas­ing. Between 1805 and 1810 things re­ally start to hap­pen. You start see­ing very sim­i­lar de­signs of heavy faces in all kinds of spec­i­mens. Heavier weights, big­ger sizes.

[Bodleian Library: Packet Boat Notice.] 24 line pica type, prob­a­bly cut for this spe­cific work.

These types make their way into lots of printed doc­u­ments that still sur­vive.

In 1812 William Caslon IV gets into the game. He claims the in­ven­tion of somet­ing called the Sanspareil Matrix. It’s a pretty com­pli­cated process for mak­ing moulds for cast­ing large metal type. You can see that the types caslon pro­duces with this method that they’re sharper, crisper, more pre­cise than ear­lier ex­am­ples. Other founders like Thorne start to use the same process, call­ing it cast in mould and ma­trixes”

Type de­sign con­tin­ues to get heav­ier. Around 1815 we get into even fat­ter faces. V Figgins is a well known, re­pro­duced spec­i­men.

1815 Theatre Poster in the V&A.

[1815 Lottery Ticket at the Yale Centre for British Art] is a very early ex­am­ple of a fat Tuscan type. Done by en­gravers, who are also de­vel­op­ing styles of these heavy let­ter­forms. It’s not just type founders.

Faces con­tinue to get fat­ter in 1820, and the va­ri­ety of styles con­tin­ues to ex­pand. Thoroughgood pub­lishes his first spec­i­men in 1821 (having bought Thorne’s foundry).

In the 1820s a new de­sign of fat­face ap­pears: The Antique (Or Egyyptian).

George Scharf is one of the best graphic wit­nesses of this time: We see the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween types and sizes, print­ing and paint­ing go­ing on in London. In the 1830s you start to see sans-ser­ifs and the style evolves from there.