Centaur at Salisbury House

This post is authored by Norman Hills, one of Salisbury House’s tour guides, and is the first in a series of posts written by guest authors who have special interests within the Salisbury House collections.

Why should we be interested in a typeface?  First, a typeface can be beautiful on its own, although we rarely notice a font unless it seems unusual or inappropriate.  In the case of Centaur, it is the finest of the early Venetian revivals, a typeface style which first emerged in the 19th and early 20th-century, and were derived from an acclaimed  15th-century Venetian printer, Nicholas Jenson. Centaur is a font with a beauty of line, proportion, and elegance that has been acclaimed since its release in 1914.

Centaur Broadside

From The Design of Books, Adrian Wilson. Printed by Taylor & Taylor, 1948

Second, and more important, is the use of a font in creating beautiful books.  Centaur is renowned for its first two major uses in books often cited as among the most beautiful created in the 20th century.  The Salisbury House library is fortunate to have copies of both of these books: the T. E. Lawrence translation of The Odyssey printed by Emery Walker in 1932, and The Oxford Lectern Bible of 1935.

Both the typeface and the design of these two books are the work of the American designer Bruce BR photoRogers.  Albert Bruce Rogers was born on May 14, 1870 in Linwood, Indiana.  In 1886 Rogers enrolled at Purdue University, studying art but taking a degree in Science in 1890.  In the next few years, he worked as an illustrator, designer, and printer.  Rogers worked at Riverside Press for fifteen years, starting in 1900, and he married Anna Baker that same year. His only child, Elizabeth, was born in 1901. While at Riverside, Rogers designed his first typeface, the Montaigne, which was based on the Nicholas Jenson type of 1470 as used in the printing of Eusebius and his printing of Suetonius.  This Venetian Renaissance Old Style font was also used as the basis for Centaur.  During the years 1912-1935, Rogers worked for a number of presses, including Emery Walker’s Mall Press and Harvard University.  He designed over 170 books during the course of his career, and he died on May 18, 1957

Rogers wrote in his Printer’s Notes about the development of Centaur:

“I had had the good fortune to come into possession of a copy of Jenson’s Eusebius of 1470, supposedly the first of the folios printed in his Roman  letter, and the only one I have ever seen in which his type appears in all its delicate crispness of cutting and casting—a marvel of accuracy for those times. When portions of the clearest page in my copy were enlarged to about five times the original size I was at once struck by the pen-like characteristics of the lower-case letters; so with a flat pen cut to the width of the heavier lines, I wrote on the photographic print as rapidly as I could, thus preserving the proportions, at least, of Jenson’s own characters.”

  Joseph Blumenthal in The Printed Book in America (p. 67) writes of Centaur:

 “The undertaking was sponsored, with some proprietary rights, by Henry Watson Kent, then secretary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New  York, where he had established an excellent press in the museum basement for announcements, posters, labels, etc. The types first book appearance was in Maurice de Guérin’s The Centaur which gave the type its name and which has become one of the most sought-after of the B.R. books. Hand-set by Mrs. Rogers, it was printed in an edition of 135 copies [in 1915] at Carl P. Rollins lively and idealistic Montague Press at the Dyke Mill in Massachusetts.

Guerin Centaur Beinecke

At this time, the Monotype System was widely used for typesetting in Europe.  This consists of two machines, one for keyboarding and the other for type casting.  To use a font for most general purposes, a full set of capitals, lower case, and italics is needed.  Rogers agreed to make Centaur available for Monotype and arranged for a compatible italic designed by Frederic Warde.  The italic was based on the work of a sixteenth-century printer named Ludovico degli Arrighi and was called Arrighi.  Thus the full font was available by 1929.

  A comparison of Centaur with another commonly used font, Baskerville, will show some of the distinguishing features of the font.

Font Compare

Centaur is generally lighter, both serifs (small lines attached to the end of a stroke) on the “T” point left, the tail of the “Q” is more restrained, and the junction in the middle of the W is very different.  There is relatively little difference between thick and thin lines, the legs of the “M” are splayed, and the tail of the “R” is more sweeping. The center bar of the “E” is longer and the cross-bar of the “e” is slanting.  There are other similar details that differentiate Centaur from other fonts, although in some cases the differences are very subtle. Daniel Berkeley Updike in his Printing Types (1922) writes: “…it appears to me one of the best roman fonts yet designed in America, and, of its kind , the best anywhere.”  That evaluation still stands.

Turning to the major uses of Centaur, we can see Rogers’ mastery of book design, for which he is more widely known.  In the late 20s, he was considering a finely printed edition of the Odyssey, but he was not satisfied with any existing translation.  He was one of many people who had been reading with great interest The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia.)  Rogers conceived the idea of commissioning Lawrence to do a new translation.  Lawrence had long admired Rogers and was an avid reader of the Odyssey in Greek, but was initially reluctant to try such a difficult task. After almost five years of work, the Odyssey was published by Sir Emery Walker, Wilfred Merton, and Bruce Rogers in 1932 in an edition of 530 copies.  Each book or chapter was headed by a 24K gold and black medallion designed by Rogers.  Seven separate impressions in the press were required for each medallion.

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Salisbury House Library & Rare Books Collection

With special grey paper and a simple black morocco leather binding, the result is said to be “among the most beautiful books ever produced” (Joseph Blumenthal).

 The Salisbury House library also contains the very rare second edition of the Lawrence’s Odyssey.  This is the American limited edition issued to establish copyright in an edition of only 34 copies signed by Bruce Rogers.  The book is much smaller than the first edition, does not have the chapter roundels, and does not use the Centaur font.  The Salisbury copy is number seven and one of 11 beautifully bound in full morocco, brown in this case (others were blue.)

Odyssey signature

The second masterpiece using the Centaur type is the Oxford Lectern Bible from the Oxford University Press, printed in 1935.  This Bible was produced at the request of King George V to commemorate the Canadian soldiers who died in Ypres, Francee, during World War I.  The type is a special version of Centaur, 22 points, set on a 19 point body to save space.  This is a very large book with the large size Batchelor hand-made paper in two volumes and bound in white pigskin.  This version of the Oxford Bible was a limited edition of 200 copies; there is a place for the number within the edition, but the Salisbury copy is unnumbered.

Screenshot 2015-07-09 14.04.42

The Oxford Lectern Bible is often considered to be the masterpiece of Bruce Rogers.  While he was working on the Bible, he also designed another highly regarded book, the Fra Luca de Pacioli, in 1933.  This also used the Centaur type and the cover is a well-known example.

5848785_1_l

Rogers used the Centaur typeface rarely, reserving it for major books, usually with hand-made paper which could take a better impression than normal book pulp paper.  That trend has continued, although it is still used on occasion, as on the cover of this 1977 book of essays about James Joyce from the University of California Press.

Scan Ulysses Essays

These and the many other beautifully designed books of Rogers have established him as one of the finest, if not the finest, designers in America.  The April 3, 1939 issue of Time Magazine asserted that “Bruce Rogers is to U.S. book designing and printing what Frank Lloyd Wright is to architecture…”

About Norman Hills
Tour Guide at Salisbury House

One Response to Centaur at Salisbury House

  1. Martha says:

    I like the comparison of the two fonts.

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