Connect with us


Remnants of a Legendary Typeface Rescued From the River Thames



The depths of the river Thames in London hold many unexpected stories, gleaned from the recovery of prehistoric tools, Roman pottery, medieval jewelry, and much more besides. Yet the tale of the lost (and since recovered) Doves typeface is surely one of the most peculiar.

A little over a century ago, the printer T.J. Cobden-Sanderson took it upon himself to surreptitiously dump every piece of this carefully honed metal letterpress type into the river. It was an act of retribution against his business partner, Emery Walker, whom he believed was attempting to swindle him.

The pair had conceived this idiosyncratic Arts and Crafts typeface when they founded the Doves Press in the London’s Hammersmith neighborhood, in 1900. They worked with draftsman Percy Tiffin and master punch-cutter Edward Prince to faithfully recall the Renaissance clarity of 15th-century Venetian fonts, designed by the revolutionary master typographer Nicolas Jensen.

Doves Type recovered by Robert Green, 2014. Photo Matthew Williams Ellis

With its extra-wide capital letters, diamond shaped punctuation and unique off-kilter dots on the letter “i,” Doves Type became the press’s hallmark, surpassing fussier typographic attempts by their friend and sometime collaborator, William Morris.

The letterforms only existed as a unique 16pt edition, meaning that when Cobden-Sanderson decided to “bequeath” every single piece of molded lead to the Thames, he effectively destroyed any prospect of the typeface ever being printed again. That might well have been the case, were it not for several individuals and a particularly tenacious graphic designer.

Robert Green first became fascinated with Doves Type in the mid-2000s, scouring printed editions and online facsimiles, to try and faithfully redraw and digitize every line. In 2013, he released the first downloadable version on typespec, but remained dissatisfied. In October 2014, he decided to take to the river to see if he could find any of the original pieces.

lead pieces of letterpress held in an open palm at Emery Walker's House

Doves Type recovered and held here by Lukasz Orlinski at Emery Walker’s House. Photo: Lucinda MacPherson.

Using historical accounts and Cobden-Sanderson’s diaries, he pinpointed the exact spot where the printer had offloaded his wares, from a shadowy spot on Hammersmith bridge. “I’d only been down there 20 minutes and I found three pieces,” he said. “So, I got in touch with the Port of London Authority and they came down to search in a meticulous spiral.” The team of scuba divers used the rather low-tech tools of a bucket and a sieve to sift through the riverbed.

Green managed to recover a total of 151 sorts (the name for individual pieces of type) out of a possible 500,000. “It’s a tiny fraction, but when I was down by the river on my own, for one second it all felt very cosmic,” he said. “It was like Cobden-Sanderson had dropped the type from the bridge and straight into my hands. Time just collapsed.”

The finds have enabled him to further develop his digitized version and has also connected him with official mudlarks (people who search riverbanks for lost treasures, with special permits issued) who have uncovered even more of the type.

A mudlark by the Thames with Hammersmith Bridge in background. Photo: Lucinda MacPherson.

Jason Sandy, an architect, author and member of the Society of Thames Mudlarks, found 12 pieces, which he has donated to Emery Walker’s House at 7 Hammersmith Terrace. This private museum was once home to both business partners, and retains its stunning domestic Arts and Crafts interior.

Much like Green, Sandy was captivated by the Doves Type story, and mounted an exhibition at the house that displays hundreds of these salvaged pieces, including those discovered by Green, as well as mudlarks Lucasz Orlinski and Angus McArthur. The show was supplemented by a whole host of Sandy’s other finds, including jewelry and tools. An extant copy of the Doves English Bible is also on display.

The Doves Bible returns to Emery Walker’s House. Photo: Lucinda MacPherson.

“It is not that unusual to find pieces of type in the river,” Sandy said. “Particularly around Fleet Street, where newspaper typesetters would throw pieces in the water when they couldn’t be bothered to put them back in their cases. But this is a legendary story and we mudlarks love a good challenge.” The community is naturally secretive about exactly where and how things are found. For example, Orlinski has worked under the cover of night with a head torch, to search for treasures at his own mysterious spot on the riverbank.

For Sandy, the thrill comes from the discovery of both rare and everyday artifacts, which can lead to an entirely new line of inquiry: “The Thames is very democratic. It gives you a clear picture of what people have been wearing or using over thousands of years. And it’s not carefully curated by a museum. The river gives up these objects randomly, and you experience these amazing stories of ordinary Londoners. It creates a very tangible connection to the past. Every object leads you down a rabbit hole.”

Mudlarking: Unearthing London’s Past” is at Emery Walker’s House, 7 Hammersmith Terrace, London, through May 30.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.

Continue Reading