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A Century After Being Cast into the River Thames, a Celebrated Typeface Reemerges

The Doves Type recovered from the River Thames (photograph by Sam Armstrong, via Typespec)
The Doves Press type recovered from the River Thames (photograph by Sam Armstrong, via Typespec)

Nearly a century after all 2,600 pounds of it were cast into the murky water of London’s River Thames, what remains of the lost Doves Press type was recovered by divers late last year. Worn from decades beneath the Hammersmith Bridge, the lead type was still immediately recognizable by its distinctive cut, a sharp update of a Venetian serif. In a consistent 16 point, the type had defined the meticulously printed books of the press since its founding in 1900, when partners Thomas Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker adhered to a simple, elegant style that celebrated quality over ornamentation.

Emery Walker & T. J. Cobden-Sanderson (via Bruta-Bruta)
Emery Walker & T. J. Cobden-Sanderson (via Bruta-Bruta) (click to enlarge)

Their partnership collapsed bitterly in 1909. Between late 1916 and January 1917, an elderly Cobden-Sanderson made about 170 secret trips during which, as he put it in his journals, he “bequeathed” their collaborative brand’s type to the riverbed. Before its consignment to the waters, he’d written: “It is my wish that the Doves Press type shall never be subjected to the use of a machine other than the human hand, in composition, or to a press pulled otherwise than by the hand and arm of man or woman.” His actions seemingly ensured that the type had lived and died with the press that commissioned it back in 1899 from celebrated punchcutter Edward Prince.

That was the end of Doves Press type, until designer Robert Green decided in 2010 to attempt a digital revival through researching original examples, archives, and historic material related to the press. He released the result of those endeavors in 2013. But when it came to updating the type last year, one piece of its story remained missing — the letters and matrices buried in the silt.

“The whole project didn’t start with any particular intent aside from an exercise for me to perhaps revive the type and use it on a personal project,” Green told Hyperallergic over the phone. “I thought the whole project was going to take me three, four, or five months, and it’s taken me four years in the end. It was like the last piece of the jigsaw, and that’s the important thing I suppose.”

Detail of the Doves Press Bible title page (1903-05) (via Wikimedia)
Detail of the Doves Press Bible title page (1903-05) (via Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

Through Cobden-Sanderson’s journals, Marianne Tidcombe’s authoritative publication on the Doves Press, and his own observations of where a man might stand unnoticed by bridge traffic above, Green narrowed down the resting place of the type. After getting in touch with Port of London Authority, which has a salvage team, they directed him to the low tide tables to investigate the site himself first. Once down at the shore, which is, he said, “covered in masonry and metal and bolts and just general debris of the original bridge, it’s all solidified on the riverbed,” it only took him 20 minutes to find three pieces of type in the mud. “I then realized exactly where the type would have been thrown — there’s like a great big crater in the riverbed — and [the salvage team] found it in exactly the spot where I thought it was,” he said.

The 150 recovered pieces of the type didn’t change much about what he knew after his extensive research, such as the size and that it was cut exceptionally precisely, along with details like the lowercase F being kerned. “What it made me realize was four years of work had paid off, because my type was pretty spot on aside from a few really tiny increments on curves,” he said. After altering these curves and some spacing, the final version of his Doves Press type digital facsimile was released in December.

As for the old metal letters, with their broad Xs capped on four corners with serifs, the lowercase Ys with their long, straight tails, Green is giving half to the Emery Walker Trust, finally returning posthumously part of the press to Walker. Green is holding onto the other half, and though he has no plans to ever sell his share of the type, he may reunite it with the the other half of the set for special occasions. He added: “The half that I’m keeping, they’re sacred objects to me now.”

The Doves Type recovered from the River Thames (photograph by Sam Armstrong, via Typespec)
The Doves Type recovered from the River Thames (photograph by Sam Armstrong, via Typespec)
The Doves Press type sifted from the Thames (via Typespec)
The Doves Press type sifted from the Thames (via Typespec)
Detail of the the Doves Press type sifted from the Thames, with a stray bullet (via Typespec)
Detail of the the Doves Press type sifted from the Thames, with a stray bullet (via Typespec)

The updated digital facsimile of the Doves Press type is available at Typespec

h/t Sunday Times; Creative Review

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