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.
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.