Saturday, 4 June 2011

John Baskerville (1706-1775) Dandy, Spy, Printer, Atheist?

By Francis O'Regan

There has been a long history of skeptical thought and enquiry in Birmingham. One of those thinkers was a Birmingham entrepreneur called John Baskerville who is most famous for the publishing house he set up in later life and for his work on designing new fonts and dies for use in his press. He is less celebrated for his objection to revealed religion.

I like John Baskerville. I can see him now, resting against the bar at the back of our Skeptics in the Pub meeting room in the Victoria, one hand holding a pint while the other toys with the gold lace on his red waistcoat. I think he would have been ready with a barbed but insightful comment rounded off with a quote from Voltaire.  Our fellow skeptic was born in 1706 in the village of Wolverley, nr. Kidderminster where it's believed he may have gone to the Grammar School. By the time of his death in 1775 he had built a major business and published some of the most magnificent works in English printing, started a revolution in typography, took part in the discussions of Birmingham Lunar Society and upset clergy throughout the region.  On his death he instructed his widow that he was to be buried in an a conical tower on his own property and his self-penned epitaph reads:-

Beneath this cone in unconsecrated ground
a friend to the liberties of mankind
directed his body to be inhumed.
May the example contribute to emancipate thy mind
from the idle fears and superstitions
and wicked arts of priesthood.

In the Beginning

When he was seventeen Baskerville came to Birmingham to earn a living.  Birmingham was noted for its varied manufacturers but more noted for its freedom, by which it seemed to have the power of attracting artisans of every trade and every degree of skill. It allowed almost perfect freedom to all: Dissenters, Baptists, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Quakers and Heretics of all sorts were welcomed. It was into this open and questioning atmosphere a young Baskerville came. He was a free thinker, entrepreneurial, industrious and above all ambitious.

On the Path to Success

Young John's first job was as a servant to a clergyman. His master soon noticed that Baskerville was good with the quill and had him teach poor boys in the parish to write. I do wonder if some unrecorded experience in the house of this priest had something to do with Baskerville’s later strident Anti-clericalism. Always looking for an opportunity to advance he applied for the job as writing master at King Edward's School in the town, got the job and taught writing and bookkeeping. He later turned his hand to calligraphy and became interested in transferring his penmanship to stone. It was this deep understanding of text that heavily influenced his later designs of type.

As always he was looking for a way to progress and make a few quid. I get the impression that if was around today he would have pleased Alan Sugar and got the job in the Apprentice. In 1736 John was thirty, the clock was ticking, life was speeding by: time for a bit of risk taking. In this year a man called John Taylor came to Birmingham and started a business making Japanned wares and soon created an enormously successful business.

I Spy With My Little Eye

Baskerville saw an opening and realised there was a huge market for Japanned products; the only problem he had was he didn’t know how to make the secret lacquer that was the key to making them. Baskerville needed Taylor’s secret varnish recipe if he was to start his own Japanning business so he realised that a little bit of industrial espionage was in order. He decided to follow Taylor as he went to his suppliers

“He went and ordering precisely the same species, kind and quality of articles that he had ordered he thus learned not only the ingredients of the varnish but their proportions”

So he combined the recipe with his own artistic talent and his business was a great success. He was obsessive about improving the design and how his products were made, as well as having the knack of employing good staff. By 1749 his business was booming and making candlesticks, stands, salvers, waiters, bread trays and other household goods.

Nice House, Fancy Carriage and Scarlet Woman

He did so well that he leased eight acres in the north-east of the city and spent £6000 building a nice little mansion, which he called “Easy Hill”, located a quarter of a mile from the town. Alexander Carlyle called the house handsome and elegant and a later description from the Birmingham Daily Mail in 1883 said “the pasture was luxuriant, great elm tress shaded the park like expanse of verdure and ample fish pond stretched away westwards and a picturesque disused windmill standing upon a slight elevation was ready to be converted into the most captivating of summer houses”. The site is roughly that which is now occupied by the Hall of Memory and the the former Civic Centre now named Baskerville House but extending as far as King Alfred’s Place.

Baskerville was not the shy retiring type and he went around in a bling-covered carriage. This equivalent of a pink porsche with gold-plated alloys had Japanned images on each side.“It was one of the wonders of Birmingham, one section richly gilt and painted with little naked cupids and flowers drawn by two cream coloured horses with net hanging almost to the ground”. He dressed in a striking way as well, often in a green suit of clothes edged with narrow gold lace. Over this he wore a scarlet waistcoat with wide gold lace and a small round hat with more lace to finish it all off.  He was said to have attended at least one funeral in this suit, no doubt to the shock of the other mourners.

In 1750 a married woman with children called Mrs Eaves moved in to the mansion.  Her husband had been involved in a fraud while looking after a relative's will and he had fled from the frilly-cuffed arm of the law. She was left behind with no money and three kids to feed. It is thought she may have come to the house originally as housekeeper. At some point she stopped just making the beds and decided to help warm them as well.

They ended up living as husband and wife even though her husband was alive. She went everywhere with him as his wife and although this adulterous liaison is noted by many of scandalised commentators “It does not appear that his social position was at all impaired by this connection”. So much so that in 1761 he become the High Bailiff of Birmingham. In 1764 he married Mrs Eaves as her husband had died. During their time together they had a child, a boy, who sadly died as a baby. Baskerville was devastated.

Trouble at the Baskerville Press

It was during this period that he set up his famous printing press. By now he was a middle age man, fifty years old, lots of cash, nice house and he decided to go into the printing business. I am not going to go in to detail about this as most of biographies seemed based around his works at the press. To summarize, he is known for theextreme quality of his production, so much so, that some took years to produce as he pored over every detail. The press was not a great success financially. He expected people would pay for the extreme quality and artistry of his works. They didn’t.

He is famous for producing new and better types of type many of which are still in use to this day. He produced Bibles, Psalms, and various prints of Greek and Roman Classics, in fact when you start reading the catalogues of his works it would be easy to think this man wasn’t the despiser of organized religion he was reported to be, so many Prayer books and Bibles and Quaker texts, but it seems if there was money in it he printed it. His biographer Benton said “I think he can hardly be said to have printed a book which represented his ideas”. There were lots of people who didn’t like Baskerville because of his Anti-clericalism but also it seems a number of jealous Birmingham printers took a deep dislike to him. Benton quotes this from the European Magazine in 1785 “an unnamed correspondent signed as Viator says 'it is true he was very ingenious in mechanics but it is also well known he was extremely illiterate, and his jokes and sarcasm on the bible, with which his conversation abounded, showed the most contemptible ignorance of Eastern history and manners and indeed of everything'”.

Viator then goes on to claim that Baskerville's famous and sumptuous version of Milton's Paradise Lost was “a deep disgrace to the English Press. He could not spell himself and knew not who could”. It goes on to say he had to hire a country school teacher to fix it up as he was a dunce and spelled words in the “vulgar Warwickshire pronunciation”. Benton says these was just some of the lies told about Baskerville.

It seems that one of these printer rivals was a man called Tonson and he had a problem with Baskerville printing Milton's masterpiece. Tonson, one of the most important men of his day, threatened legal proceedings should works of older authors, such as Milton, be printed since Tonson thought he owned the copyright

however it seems an agreement was reached and the work published. Writing this piece I have to ask myself if Viator was Tonson. Baskerville's high standards, high prices and perfectionism combined with the hostility from the local print establishment spelled the end for the press.

In 1762 he wrote to Horace Walpole then an MP to see if he could get a government grant to help him carry on printing as the business wasn’t financially viable. In his polite letter to Walpole he asked for government help but his skeptical mind couldn't help pointing out that as “Parliament had given a handsome premium for a quack Medicine” it should spend some of the tax payers money on something useful such as supporting his press. Needless to say he didn’t get a penny. He closed it down soon after the death of his baby son as he said he had lost his heir and I imagine the will to carry on.

Baskerville Man and Boat

So what was he like as a man? It depends on who you talk to:-

“Although constructed with the light timbers of a frigate his movement was solemn as a ship of the line“,

“in private life he was a humorist; frivolous in the extreme“,

“he was remarkable polite to the strangers”,

“If he exhibited a peevish temper we may consider good nature and intense thinking are not always found together“ (love that one),

Chambers in his “Biographical illustrations of Worcestershire” says of Baskerville that he “unblushingly avows not only his disbelief of, but his contempt for revealed religion, and in terms too gross for repetition” (now we are getting to the good stuff).

One of the sons of the boys he taught to write told Chambers that he had often been to Baskerville's house and “found him ever a most profane wretch and ignorant of literature to a wonderful degree” and “he had wit; but it was always at the expense of religion and decency, particularly if in company with the clergy. I have often thought there was much similarity in his person to Voltaire, whose sentiments he was ever retailing”.

There does seem to be a constant attack on Baskerville's limited literary interests.  There is the underlying implication that he was uneducated and therefore his views were foolish. What we do know is that he was friends with the poet Shenston and he tells us that Baskerville’s favourite literary works were the poem Hudibras which is a satire on the Cromwellians and the Presbyterian church, as well as the works of Voltaire and he is said to have quoted him constantly. He sent Voltaire copies of his Virgil and Milton and offered to print some of his works. Voltaire thanked him saying “The old scribbler to whom you have been so kind as to send our magnificent editions of Virgil and Milton thanks you heartily”.

Death and Resurrection and Resurrection and Resurrection

Baskerville hand wrote his will in 1773 and it is here we for the first time we hear Baskerville's voice. In it he explains his feelings about religion and his plans for his funeral. These are his own words

“That my wife in concert with my executors cause my body to be buried in a conical building in my own premises, hear to fore used as a mill which I have lately raised higher and painted and in a vault which I have prepared for it. This doubtless to many may appear a whim perhaps it is so - But is a whim for many years resolved upon as I have a hearty contempt of all superstition the farce of a consecrated ground the Irish barbarism of sure and certain hopes.

I also consider Revelation as it is called exclusive of the scraps of morality casually intermixed with it to be the most imprudent abuse of common sense, which ever was invented to befool Mankind. I expect some shrewd remark will be made on this my declaration by the ignorant and bigoted who cannot distinguish between Religion and Superstition and are taught to believe that
morality (by which I understand all the duties a man owes to god and his fellow creatures) is not sufficient to entitle him to divine favour with professing to believe as they call it certain abused doctrines and mysteries of which they have no more conception than a horse. This morality alone I profess to have been my religion and the rule of my action to which I appeal how far my
profession and practice have been constant.”

Baskerville died and was buried in his conical tower in 1775

In 1789 the house on the hill was sold and then in 1791 during the Birmingham Riots the house was sacked and burnt to the ground. It is worth considering the possibility that the lingering memory of Baskerville’s Anti-clerical reputation and the religious nature of the disturbance, may have lead to the burning of the house. The conical tower remained and Baskerville’s body lay in it for almost a further 50 years. The property ultimately had a new owner and the body was removed to a plumber's warehouse “where it remained for some time subject to visits from the curious and even to scientific observation of the condition of the body”

The body went on show at a shop owned by a Mr Marston and he eventually applied to the rector of St Philip's to bury the body there but was turned down due to Baskerville's Atheism. A bookseller, Mr Knott, heard of this and arranged for the body to be secretly interred in his own vault in Christ’s Church. He said it was his honour to help but the curse of Baskerville struck gain and the church had to be demolished due to the expansion of the city and plans were made to rebury him again in St Philip's Church next to his wife but again the rector refused due to his Anti-clericalism. He ultimately ended up in Warston Lane Cemetery.

Deist or Atheist?

I started researching the life of Baskerville because I thought he may be a strident Atheist, the sort of man who were he alive today would have works by the so called “New Atheists” on his Kindle. The assertion of his Atheism is made on a number of sites, but from what I have seen and read I not sure this is true. There is no doubt he was Anti-clerical and he obviously had little respect for revealed religion but those confirmed facts don’t necessarily support the idea he was an Atheist. It is just as likely that he was a Deist like his beloved Voltaire.

He may have believed in god but not in revealed religion, just as Voltaire was highly critical of organized religion and revealed truth. If you read Baskerville's statement in his will it makes just as much sense if you assume a Deist stance and what are we to make of the line “by which I understand all the duties a man owes to god and his fellow creatures“? Mere words, or did he mean it? The question we need to ask is how influenced by Voltaire was he, was he aware of Voltaire’s strident attacks on the Atheists of his day and did he agree? We know he was Skeptical about revealed religious truth so at the very least he was one of us on that point.

Francis O’Regan is a regular at Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub and likes to Philosophise with an Axe.


The Baskerville Project: Video animation of Baskerville's Life

Humanist Heritage on Baskerville

Wikipedia Entry

Industry and Genius; or, the Origin of Birmingham. A Fable

A Collection of Baskerville books was donated to the University of Birmingham library by Victor Hely-Hutchinson in 1954 they are still owned by the Library for details look here


All quotes are from

Benton.J.H (1914) John Baskerville: Type Founder and Printer, 1706-1775

The Library of the University of Birmingham, (1955) John Baskerville Printer (catalogue) An Exhibition on the occasion of the 74th Annual Meeting of the Society of Chemical Industry (source of the Tonson material)

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