History of typography: Transitional

For a modern-day transitional typeface, be sure to check out the Brill typeface family.

Part 3: Siècle des Lumières

Welcome to part three of our Type Terms series. In part one we traveled all the way back to the 15th century to take a closer look at the Humanist or Venetian style types with their distinctive lowercase ‘e’ (remember that sloping crossbar?). In part two we considered the Old Style or Garalde types and also discovered how this era gave birth to the first italic type in 1501.

Today we’ve moved along the time-line to the cusp of the 18th century, the start of a period in history that we now refer to as the The Enlightenment, a time that was to sow the seeds of revolution in France, North America and beyond. But today we stand in the cobbled streets of 17th century France; Louis XIV is on the throne and Jacques Jaugeon is working on what is now considered to be the first Transitional (or Neoclassical) style typeface, the Romain du Roi or King’s Roman, commissioned by Louis XIV for the Imprimerie Royale in 1692.

Roman du Roi

The Romain du Roi marked a significant departure from the former Old Style types and was much less influenced by handwritten letterforms. Remember, this is the Age of the Enlightenment, marked by resistance to tradition, whether that be art, literature, philosophy, religion, whatever; so it’s no surprise that this same era should give birth to radically different types.

The Romain du Roi is often referred to as Grandjean’s type, but the designs were produced by a committee* set up by the French Academy of Science. One of the committee members, Jacques Jaugeon — at that time better known as a maker of educational board games — in consultation with other members, produced the designs constructed on a 48×48 grid (2,304 squares). The designs — also known as the Paris Scientific Type — were engraved on copper by Louis Simmoneau, and then handed to the punchcutter Grandjean (not to be confused with the earlier Granjon of course), who began cutting the type in 1698. Interestingly, Jaugeon also designed a complimentary sloping roman (often referred to today as an oblique) as an alternative to a true italic**. However, Grandjean himself was to produce the italic from his own designs.

The principal graphic novelty in the ‘Romain du Roi’ is the serif. Its horizontal and unbracketed structure symbolizes a complete break with the humanist calligraphic tradition. Also, the main strokes are thicker and the sub-strokes thinner….Letter Forms, page 23, Stanley Morison

The first book to use these types wasn’t published until a decade later in 1702. In fact the full set of 82 fonts wasn’t completed until half a century later in 1745.

Baskerville of the Types

The Englishman John Baskervile is a fascinating character, and reading about him is like reading the biography of two men in one. Space doesn’t permit to list all of his achievements; suffice to say that he always strove to improve upon existing methods and materials, whether that be in his recipes for new inks, or his finer quality glossy papers.

[Baskerville] was not an inventor but a perfector….He concentrated on spacing. He achieved amplitude not merely by handsome measurement but by letting in the light.–Type, the Secret History of Letters, Simon Loxley, page 54 (quoting from English Printed Books)

“Baskerville has less calligraphic flow than most earlier typefaces”***, and this can be said of just about all the Transitional Style types. Whereas the earlier Humanist and Old Style types owed much to the handwritten letter form, the pen’s influence has all but disappeared in the Transitional types. The following is a detail from one of Baskerville’s type specimens:

Baskerville specimen

During Baskerville’s lifetime his types had little influence in his home country. However, In 1758 Baskerville met Benjamin Franklin who returned to the US with some of Baskervilles’s type, popularising it through its adoption as one of the standard typefaces employed in federal government publishing. Franklin was a huge fan of Baskerville’s work, and in a letter to Baskerville (1760) he enthusiastically defends Baskerville’s types, recounting a discussion he had with an English gentleman who claimed that Baskerville’s ‘ultra-thin’ serifs and narrow strokes would blind its readers.

Franklin mischievously tore off the top of a Caslon specimen (to remove any mention of Caslon, of course), and showed it to the gentleman, claiming that it was the work of Baskerville. The gentleman examined the specimen, and thinking that it was indeed a Baskerville specimen, started to point out the worst features of ‘Baskeville’s’ type.

Another notable character from this period in type history is Pierre Simon Fournier who developed the ‘point’ system (Fournier Scale), and also designed and cut his own type. William Caslon is yet another notable figure, though his types were based on the Dutch Old Style; however, some modern interpretations of Caslon’s types would sit more comfortably in Transitional.

Whereas Caslon’s letters are thoroughly Baroque, Baskerville’s are thoroughly Neoclassical.—A Short History of the Printed Word.


1 Vertical or almost vertical stress in the bowls of lowercase letters. (See also A Short History of the Printed Word, Chappell & Bringhurst, pages 160-161):


If you read parts one and two, you may well have noticed a trend here: with the stress, like the minute-hand moving from the humanist axis to rationalist axis at 12 o’clock. (Tip: if you’re trying to approximate the angle of stress, pick the lowercase ‘o’ and draw a line through the two thinnest sections [the actual stress is the fattest parts of the stroke]).

2 greater contrast between thick and thin (sub-) strokes:

stroke width contrast comparison

3 Head serifs generally more horizontal:

head serifs

It’s worth noting that the above characteristics are guides only. Modern-day revivals of these types vary in their ‘authenticity’.


Baskerville (many flavours), Bookman (Linotype), Cheltenham (ITC), Clearface (ITC), Fournier, Joanna, Slimbach (ITC)

And in a brief Back to the Future moment, here’s Baskerville in the 21st century, seen here in the retailer Habitat’s logo (set in Fry’s Baskerville):

habitat logo


Spot the odd ones out. Three of the following are not generally considered to be Transitional style types. Which ones are imposters?

(a) ITC Zapf International | (b) Sabon | (c) Times Europa | (d) Melior
(e) Bodoni | (f) Caledonia | (g) Old Style 7 (Linotype)

Remember, the screen is one place to compare type, but not the best place. Why not take an Old Style type like Bembo and a Transitional like Baskerville and print some of the letters as large as you can—one per single A4 sheet of paper. Also print out some sample body text in each typeface, say, at 9 or 10 point, to determine differences in the color of the type (the relative darkness or lightness of the type when viewed en masse).

There is so much more to be said about this period in type history, but I’ll save it for another time.

In part four we’re going to look at the so-called Modern types.

Read part one | two | three | four | five


* Under the presidency of the Abbé Bignon. The table of the proportions of the letters was drawn up by Truchet. Page 25 of Stanley Morison’s Letter Forms.
** An italic does not need to be ‘sloped’ or inclined to be an italic; in fact an italic type can be upright (and some of the early italics were).
*** from The Elements of Typographic Style, page 56, Robert Bringhurst

Related Links:

Chappell, Warren & Robert Bringhurst. A Short History of the Printed Word. 2nd ed. 1999.
Loxley, Simon. Type: The Secret History of Letters. 2004.
Morison, Stanley. Letter Forms: Typographic & Scriptorial. 1968.
Tracy, Walter. Letters of Credit: A View of Type Design. 1986.
Typophile forum: John Baskerville.

Solution to the ‘imposters’ exercise.

This weekend I have another Sunday Type and then next week an article by type designer Kris Sowersby. And after that some more great interviews, some video tutorials and lots, lots more. So, if you haven’t already subscribed, join some 10,000 other type-nuts and subscribe to I love typography today.

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