Bridge of Sighs

The Hammersmith Bridge closure continues with only waterborne emergency services allowed anywhere near the structure. This bridge has a long history of curious human activity, or like today, non-activity.

When I was a student at what’s now rather grandly named The London College of Communication we would have to compose type by hand in a typeface called Baskerville. Upon completion and subsequent inspection of the text by the tutor, it was expected that you would diss (distribute the type back into the typecase) it back for the next student.

Some less than diligent students would, instead smuggle their work out of college and ’distribute’ their work into the Thames from whichever bridge they happened to cross on their way home.

I was reminded of this when reading The Gorgeous Typeface That Drove Men Mad and Sparked a 100-Year Mystery about the destruction of an iconic typeface from the parapet of Hammersmith Bridge which took over 100 clandestine nightly trips dropping the metal into the river’s murky depths.

One of the leading figures of the Arts & Crafts Movement was Cobden Sanderson, founder of the legendary Doves Press. Both brilliant and creative when it came to commercialisation he was blinkered. Having designed one of the world’s most beautiful typefaces he was afraid that his partner Emery Walker, upon his death, would mechanise the type which he believed should always be set by hand – in the same way, I learnt as a student half-a-century later.

Lovers of typefaces (or fonts in modern-day parlance) tend to be an obsessive lot. You can, after all, get the name of a typeface by downloading the app WhatTheFont which allows you to take a photograph of a letter or word, the app then tries vainly to identify it. You can go to the type forum where dedicated individuals attempt to identify that elusive font, and have an opinion, often laced with copious bile upon the font’s merits.

Nearly a century later Robert Green a designer who has spent years researching this lost typeface, now available on Typespec managed to get permission from The Port of London Authority to allow divers to look for the missing punches under Hammersmith Bridge. If ever looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack applied, this was it. The bridge had been the target of two IRA bombings one if which had blown water 60ft into the air.

Green had narrowed the search to a small dip in the meandering river, and within 20 minutes despite 100 years of tidal flow, the first punches were found.

Doves Press was founded to preserve a craft that had been in the forefront of literature for hundreds of years, but at that time found itself on the cusp of an industrial revolution much like today with digital typesetting. As with this, the latest way to communicate was bound to accede to technology.

Today this typeface can be bought and used by graphic designers and typesetters using equipment beyond the imagination of its designer. So maybe this crazed perfectionist was correct and the use of his typeface would end up being commercialised.

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