English writing master, stonecutter, letter designer, typefounder and printer. Although in his lifetime he was underappreciated compared with his close contemporary William Caslon, he is now recognized as the other half of the duo that transformed English printing and type founding.
After first working as an accomplished writing master and headstone engraver in Birmingham, he found business success japanning (coating with black varnish) trays and snuff-boxes. With capital from this, in 1750 he set up a printing business, hiring John Handy as punchcutter.
His quest for perfection meant his first complete book took until 1757 to produce, during which time he made major innovations in press construction (making a flatter, sturdier bed), printing ink (blacker, more even, and quicker-drying), papermaking (wove instead of laid), and of course letter design (which Handy cut to Baskerville’s designs). The result was a brilliant series of original typefaces and splendid books appearing from 1754 to 1775.
Baskerville lost a great deal of money in his printing ventures, and at one point asked for a government subsidy while he was printing his masterpiece, a Bible for the University of Cambridge.
The perfection of his work seems to have unsettled his compatriot printers, and some claimed his printing damaged the eyes! Abroad, however, he was much admired, notably by Fournier, Bodoni (who intended at one point to come to England to work under him), and Benjamin Franklin.
The modern revival of Baskerville’s designs began in the 1920s, thanks to the work of Bruce Rogers, and soon the major foundries all had their own Baskervilles.