Sham Rock

I have for exactly one year been waiting to open up the monumental copy of Ornamented Types of L. J. Pouchée that we have in the office, to find the example of the delicately curlicued shamrock type that historian James Mosley attributed to an unknown punchcutter he designated “Master of the Creeping Tendril,” and to post it here.

This is not that type. It turns out that Pouchée never made a shamrock type: what I was remembering was this, the Eight Lines Pica Egyptian Ornamented No. 2 of Bower & Bacon (1826), illustrated in Nicolete Gray’s Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces. It is surely not the work of any Master, though perhaps it lends credence to the widely-circulated tale which holds that Mrs. Gray illustrated parts of her book by hand, rather than reproducing the work photographically. I’ve never heard an explanation for why this should be so, but there’s no denying that the bluntness of these forms suggests the pen more than the graver.

This is the work of the Master: Pouchée’s Sixteen Lines No. 2, complete with eponymous tendrils. These are large types: “sixteen line” is what we would know as 192 point, making this letter 2.6" (66mm) high. What I find so extraordinary about this work is not merely its technical finish — these are shockingly crisp letters, even by modern standards — but its depth, the range of colors that its maker was able to coax out of black and white. Where Bower & Bacon’s clovers were merely symbolic, and applied to the face of a classical letter in a somewhat obvious way, Pouchée’s grapevines fully inhabit their alphabet, achieving a remarkable depth that somehow manages to remain firmly typographic, without becoming illustrations. Pouchée’s are among the most evocative illustrated types of the nineteenth century; I don’t know that they’ve yet been surpassed. —JH


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