Jenson-Style Typefaces: An Overview

Jenson-style typefaces are inspired by the work of 15th Century printer Nicolas Jenson (born c. 1420, Sommevoire, Champagne—died 1480, Rome), whose Roman typefaces “marked [the] transition from an imitation of handwriting to the style that has remained in use throughout subsequent centuries of printing.” (Encyclopedia Brittanica Online)

The Jenson-style typeface saw a revival in the early 20th Century. Here are shown three well-known examples of a Jenson style typeface. This page provides context for Elizabeth Colwell’s creation of Colwell Handletter, also designed in the Jenson style.

 

Golden by William Morris, 1892

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Image originally accessed via University of Iowa’s William Morris Archive

“By instinct rather than by conscious thinking it over, I began by getting myself a font of Roman type. And here what I wanted was a letter pure in form; severe, without needless excrescences; solid, without the thickening and thinning of the line, which is the essential fault of the ordinary modern type, and which makes it difficult to read; and not compressed laterally, as all later type has grown to be, owing to commercial exigencies. There was only one source from which to take examples of this perfected Roman type, to wit, the works of the great Venetian printers of the 15th entry, of home Nicolas Jenson produced the completest and the most Roman characters from 1470 to 1476.” – William Morris, A Note By William Morris on His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press, 1895. (Quote accessed via Anatomy of a Typeface by Alexander Lawson)

 

Doves Type by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, approximately 1900

Doves_Press_Bible

Image from the Doves Bible, originally accessed via Library of Congress website.

“The Doves type began, like the Kelmscott, with Jenson, and was cut by the same punch cutter, who had earlier advised Morris on the selection of a type. But Cobden-Sanderson eschewed the strongly decorated Kelmscott pattern and turned instead to pure typography. This breakaway from medievalism of Morris better suited the requirements of the nascent twentieth-century art of the book.” – Anatomy of a Typeface by Alexander Lawson

 

Centaur by Bruce Rogers, 1914

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Image originally accessed via Harvard Magazine (Online).

“What made [the Jenson] style so groundbreaking in 1470 and so appealing in the twentieth century? More sculptural than calligraphic, Centaur still appears lively without too much flair that might otherwise distract a reader, while slight irregularities in the ties, terminals, and crossbars keep the typeface from becoming monotonous inkblots splashed across the page.” – Fine Books Magazine (Online).

“…probably the most admirable of the numerous revivals of the fifteenth century type of Nicholas Jenson.” – Anatomy of a Typeface by Alexander Lawson, page 73.

For Centaur, Rogers wanted as faithful a version of the Jenson Roman as possible; when drawing his typeface, he enlarged the characters and wrote directly over them. (Lawson 67)

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