This term, in its general sense, expresses excellence in any department of the art, but was formerly restricted almost exclusively to book-printing, for the reason that the highest efforts of the typographer were then devoted to that order of publications. Recently, the use of the term has been changed, especially in the United States, where books furnish only a small portion of the occupation of the trade; and at the present time, in this country, fine printing is generally understood to denote the superior qualities of job or colour printing.
Many of the early printers were remarkably fitted to achieve success in the details of the art; Fust was a worker in metal; Schoeffer, celebrated for his fine penmanship, was also skilled in the use of the graver; Jenson was accustomed to cutting medals; Mentelin was an illuminator by profession, and many more of the first typographers were thus prepared, by previous practice, for the particular requirements of their new profession; and their singularly rapid success is thus to be explained. The perfection of their typography has, however, been much exaggerated by those enthusiastic authors and amateur critics who have been so widely accepted as the chief authorities upon the subject; and the most earnest admirer must praise them rather for the energy with which they conquered the numerous obstacles in their way, than for the superiority that they achieved.
An art which is so eminently dependant upon mechanical perfection must inevitably progress toward excellence by the successive labours of succeeding generations; and the best letter-press of the nineteenth century is not only vastly superior to the greatest efforts of Aldus and Plantin, but far superior even to the most loudly-vaunted triumphs of Baskerville and Bodoni at a much later period; and a type-founder’s specimen book of the present day can safely challenge comparison with any work performed by any of the great masters of early printing.
Jenson and the Elzevirs have been usually considered as the most successful printers of their time, the former giving, in his celebrated Roman, the model for the modern French letter which has since reached such perfection; and the type of the Elzevirs becoming, in like manner, the model of the English type-founders, until Caslon, in the early part of the eighteenth century, made the first great improvements upon the old-established forms. The work commenced by Caslon was continued by Baskerville, whose type and ink have been applauded to the echo by the Bibliomaniacs; but to the modern printer the much-praised books of Baskerville are valuable only as marking the transition from the old style to the new, the type being notably deficient in that perfect symmetry of line and curve which renders the good founts of the present day completely and artistically harmonious; while the ink, although preserving the blackness for which it was so celebrated, is uneven in tone, the successive pages differing remarkably in depth or colour.
Didot, in France, may be called the next devotee of fine printing, and his great excellence is proved by the beauty of the Delphini edition of the classics, which display a rather lighter type than the bold-faced letter of Baskerville, with the advantage of a charming uniformity in the depth of colour. The ligatures of Didot was also a great improvement upon those of Baskerville; but they were so sharp and delicate that they soon became worn and useless. The link between the antique style of printing and the modern is supplied by Didot, who bridged the chasm by filling the period between Baskerville—who, notwithstanding his advantages, must be ranked with the old printers—and the great modern typographical revival which began with the remarkable improvements produced by Bodoni in Italy, Ibarra in Spain, and Buhner and Bensley in England.
Miller Ritchie, a Scotchman, must be honoured as the pioneer of the typographical improvement in Great Britain, where the art was generally in a very neglected state, when he, about 1780, began to exhibit remarkable elegance, with an unrivalled richness and quality of colouring throughout every page. Devoted to his art, Ritchie pursued his labours despite the failure of the necessary support from an unprepared and unappreciative public, until financial ruin compelled him to desist; and he was immediately succeeded by Buhner, who, with an equal enthusiasm, was at least happier in achieving a greater renown.
The interest in fine printing, which became a mania in England during the Regency of George IV., was inaugurated by the magnificent edition of the Bible, published by Macklin, and printed by Bensley in the year 1800. The dedication to the king bears the date 1791, and the dates accompanying the splendid steel-plate illustrations show that it was a long time in preparation, while the list of subscribers, headed by names of the various members of the royal family, shows that the court was successfully setting the fashion for the fancy for fine printing, which soon afterwards became such a passion with the nobility and gentry of the country, and led to the Bibliomaniac excesses of the following years.
The typography of this Bible was so remarkably excellent as almost to excuse the extraordinary praises lavished upon it by its admirers. It was printed upon heavy plate paper, in double columns, and consisted of six large volumes, the page being eighteen and a-half inches in length by fifteen in width, with a margin three inches wide. The type was a handsome, bold-faced Roman, the capitals being a quarter of an inch in height, and the lower-case extending a little beyond the half of the capitals. A note in front of the book calls the attention of the reader to the fact that, in order to increase the typographical elegance of the work, the words usually printed in other editions of the Bible in italic, are distinguished by a dot under the first vowel.
The full-page illustrations were numerous, and in the very highest art of the day, both in design and execution, and the general books were introduced by beautiful symbolical head pieces, or frontispieces filling the upper half of the page. To divide the honours of typographical excellence with Bensley’s Bible, Bulmer soon afterwards produced his celebrated edition of Shakespeare. The plates of this work, bound separately, were regarded as of unequalled perfection, but if judged solely by the letter-press, Bulmer must certainly yield to Bensley in general beauty and perfection.
In France the house of Didot has maintained for generations the reputation won in the reign of Louis XIV., adding to its fame by the introduction of a great variety of beautiful scripts. The Imperial Printing Office at Paris also has produced some specimens of high art, beginning with the splendid publications edited by Cardinal Richelieu, and illustrated by the artist Poussin.
The work upon Egypt, published by order of Napoleon I., was also remarkably handsome; and especial excellence has been claimed for the publications in Greek and in the Asiatic and other foreign languages.
At the present day the great house of Mame is also renowned for its excellent composition and press-work. In artistic colour-work the French maintain the same superiority in printing that they have achieved in the other decorative arts, in which taste is especially required; and the specimen book of Derriey, of Paris, exhibits some of the choicest combinations of colour ever displayed in this branch of the art.
Enjoying an uncontested triumph in colour-printing, the leading French printers are themselves, however, forced to confess the superiority of the letter-press printing of England; and it may be safely asserted, without danger of dispute, that the American job and fancy type, in turn, far excels the English in beauty and perfection of finish. This marked superiority may probably be ascribed to the immense and constantly increasing demand for all varieties of job work in the United States; and under the same impulse the recent improvement in colour printing has been very great as well as rapid.
The necessities of a new country, where the population is thinly scattered over a vast area, has, until the present time, needed little in the way of fine printing; and the energy and ingenuity of the typographers of the United States have been hitherto mainly directed to those improvements required by the immense demand for large and cheap editions of books, and for a boundless and rapid supply of newspapers. Beautiful book-work has, however, occasionally been produced, and the general superiority in the endless variety of work embraced under the general nomination of job printing is sufficient to prove that the printers of the United States are fully prepared to compete with those of any other country, in all grades of the art, even to the highest.