Dear Editor, I have always thought that too little has been done to recognise and honour the true genius of John Baskerville, and when I read that the new Library of Birmingham is to be situated between the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Baskerville House, I immediately thought that this sitting is providential and would give the city of Birmingham a golden opportunity to not only exhibit Baskerville’s classics (which they do from time to time), but to locate a printing museum within the new library, which would enable visitors the opportunity of viewing the complete 18th Century letterpress printing process involved with the reproduction of Baskerville’s classics.
After reading the proposals for the new library, I remembered a visit I made to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, which in its first few years was part of the city library. To help launch the museum, a number of publishers, manufacturers of printing machines and printing houses donated books, apparatus and machines. In time, the museum expanded to include sections on printing techniques, book art, graphics, paper and the history of writing of all cultures of the world. The museum moved into a new library building on the Rheinallee in 1912, and later in 1927, into the Romischer Kaiser, where it attracts experts and tourists from all over the world. It is interesting to note that the installation of a reconstruction of Gutenberg’s workshop soon became one of the museum’s main attractions.
I have been to see an exhibition, held in the Central Library, of the magnificent books printed by John Baskerville. Between 1757 and 1774 Baskerville printed 56 books in his printshop at Easy Hill, Birmingham. Four editions of the Holy Bible and a book of Common Prayer were printed at the Cambridge University Press, for which he had been granted a special licence to print in their workshop. These prodigious achievements are even more remarkable when you realise he printed all his books on presses of his own design and making, created his own superior white bond and wove papers, manufactured the finest of black inks, designed, cut and engraved counter-punches, and struck matrices to cast in hot metal his own typefaces – all financed by himself entirely.
One reason for writing this letter is to summarise Baskerville’s outstanding achievements in the world of printing and to prove that they are more than equal to Gutenberg’s. The added interest of a print museum would draw (in a most fitting environment) increasing visitors from home and abroad to see the progression of printing techniques throughout the ages, right up to present day digital printing. I’m sure this would also attract commercial interest, and their support.
I have already written to the planners of the new library with my idea for a print museum. They thought my idea was interesting, but they were looking at opportunities such as interactive exhibitions in the new state-of-the-art gallery space or themed event programmes with partners, including the REP and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.