The muddy Doves type

The murky story of the Doves Press, a tale of bitterness and vengeance.

First page of the five volume Doves Press Bible

It’s exactly 100 years since an elderly man carried out a shady act of determined vengeance against his one-time business partner. Over the six months from August 1916, Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, at dusk and in the dark, threw more than a tonne of metal type pieces into the Thames, just to stop it ever getting into the hands of the man who designed it, Emery Walker.

Embittered by an acrimonious dispute over ownership of the Doves typeface, which had been created by Walker at Cobden-Sanderson’s behest, and even though after the partnership dissolved in 1909 Cobden-Sanderson gained usage rights to the typeface for the duration of his lifetime, upon his death in 1922 it was revealed that the typeface had been ‘bequeathed to the Thames’.

The Doves Press had been established in 1900 by Cobden-Sanderson, then aged 59, and Emery Walker, ten years his junior. After a first career as a barrister, Cobden-Sanderson became a bookbinder at the urging of his friends William and Jane Morris.  Emery Walker, an engraver and printer, and collector of medieval books, was also a friend of the Morrises.  William Morris, of course, is well known as the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a term in fact created by Emery Walker when, together with Morris, he set up the first Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society.  Morris also started his own private press, The Kelmscott Press in 1891 for which he also created his own typefaces, Golden, Troy and Kelmscott.

The private press movement began in the late nineteenth century in response to the increasingly mechanised methods of book production wrought by the industrial revolution.  Traditional skills and jobs were being lost: punch cutters, typecasters, typesetters, printers, papermakers, bookbinders. Private press owners set about reviving the craft of making books using high quality ingredients: hand made paper, high quality ink, vellum bindings with gold tooling, and often designing their own typefaces. The Doves Press was a major contributor to the private press movement of the twentieth century.

Cobden-Sanderson wanted to create the highly desirable ‘book beautiful’, an ideal based on the medieval and pre-printing press era illuminated manuscripts.  The thing that sets Doves Press books apart from other private press offerings of the Arts and Crafts Movement is that there are very few, if any, illustrations within its pages, relying instead on the beauty of the typography and clarity of the printed page.

In 2013, East London graphic designer, Robert Green, engaged the Port of London Authority’s divers to search the murky river bed around the Hammersmith Bridge for the tiny pieces of type that Cobden-Sanderson had flung there.  After years of research and attempts to recreate Doves type for use in this digital age, Green knew he needed to try and find at least a piece of the original.  He found over 150 pieces.

Robert Green’s digital Doves Press typeface. Photo:
The fight over the Doves“, The Economist, December 21, 2013
William Morris and the Private Press,
“The ‘Other Man’ Behind the Private Press Movement”, BookTryst Blog
Doves Type,
Further reading:
BBC Radio 4 audio documentary, “An Obsessive Type: the Tale of the Doves Typeface.”

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