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The Diverting History of John Gilpin by William Cowper, Ronald Davis edition

Contributed by Blythwood on Jan 4th, 2017. Artwork published in
May 1931
    Source: "Pages Volants" bookseller, Paris. License: All Rights Reserved.

    Cochin in regular and italic styles — with caps from Nicolas Cochin for the title, thanks to Mr. Hardwig for noticing this! — adds the flavour of an eccentric, hand-drawn engraving for this title page and body text of an edition of a rather silly 1782 poem by William Cowper.

    Published by Ronald Davis (c. 1885–1931), an expatriate British bookseller and publisher in Paris. This was to be one of his last publications, according to an article on him, as he was killed by an accidental blow while practicing indoor golf in this year. (The article doesn’t give any information on his family and background before he moved to France, although his obituary reportedly names his father as the late Herbert Davis of Sloane Street, London, and I haven’t found him in census records — any more details would be very much welcomed.) Art by the French lithographer Jean-Emile Laboureur.

    Cochin, based on French engravings, may seem like an odd choice for a book set in England, 1782 (even if published in France) — mightn’t Baskerville or Bell or Caslon or something be more fitting? — but it’s actually a quite inspired choice. For comparison, a 1784 engraved map of the area where the story is set shows how British engravings of the 1780s also used spiky, stylish lettering quite similar to Cochin, with features like the single storey ‘g’ in italic — these styles hadn’t made much impression in printing yet, Baskerville aside, although they would soon. You also see this kind of delicate, Mrs. Eaves-ish lettering in a finer setting on many contemporary tombstones (another example, and one with extended text). (From looking at pictures online, Cowper’s poems seem to have been published at the time in the standard Caslon-ish fonts of the period.)

    The poem seems to have caught the fancy of quite a lot of publishers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) in the preceding decades as a fun subject to do illustrated editions of, although I think this has one of the nicest layouts of them from the few samples available. I guess “wacky eighteenth-century costumes” was a hard subject for book illustrators of the time to resist. It forms the basis of the medal for best American children’s picture book.

    Source: University of Virginia. License: All Rights Reserved.
    Source: Wikimedia Commons (out of copyright). License: Public Domain.

    For visual reference: A period sample of lettering on a map, engraved by Thomas Conder in 1784.


    • Cochin
    • Nicolas Cochin




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    3 Comments on “The Diverting History of John Gilpin by William Cowper, Ronald Davis edition”

    1. Jan 4th, 2017  8:09 pm

      Nice contribution, Blythwood! Keen observation about Cochin and its similarities to engraved and inscriptional lettering. Indeed this style was common on both sides of the English Channel. These days, those who seek an engravers’ typeface that is more specifically Anglo might choose Surveyor. By the way, MVB Sirenne is another (more complete) type family in the Cochin vein.

    2. Blythwood says:
      Jan 5th, 2017  3:15 pm

      Yes, those are good modern comparisons. Surveyor has a lot more nineteenth-century to it, of course. Goudy did a few rather wonky fonts in the same vein like Pabst, Powell and Goudy Modern, too, if you like that sort of thing.

    3. Blythwood says:
      Jun 16th, 2017  10:40 am

      Other point of interest I forgot to mention – two misspellings on the title cover apparently caused by the compositor confusing italic 'h’ and 'b’.

      Nicholas Cochin uses the old 'closed-form’ italic 'h’, which looks very like a 'b’ if you’re not paying close attention. Although there is the rounded loop at bottom right on the 'h’ to slightly increase the difference.

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