Alan Dodson

Printer expert in Caslon types


Alan Dodson, typographer and letterpress printer: born New Malden, Surrey 22 January 1924; married 1954 Margaret Thorp (one son; marriage dissolved), 1984 Elin Phillips; died Malvern, Worcestershire 10 January 2007.

Alan Dodson's fame as a fine letterpress printer spread abroad from his small but unusually well-ordered workshop in Grahamstown during the 1970s. He was in particular known for his painstaking and sensitive use of the types of the 18th-century typefounder William Caslon.

To those of us who also delighted in the work of this greatest of all English typefounders, he became something of a hero when from South Africa he alerted the Sheffield typefounders Stephenson Blake to the fact that they were using faulty matrices to cast in lead type the Caslon 12-point lower-case "n" and the 24-point lower-case "o". For years we had assumed these slightly inconsistent characters were just part of Caslon's eclectic charm, but it was Dodson's gentle but persistent coercion that finally restored these characters to their pristine state.

As he later wrote: The 12-point lower-case "n" unaccountably diminished in size in successive recuts until it finally looked like a wrong fount in the line. I prevailed on the founders to make a new matrix - by whatever means - and the "n" is now closer to the original than for many years. The 24-point "o", which had become thinner and thinner until it no longer matched its fellows, was corrected by the ingenious expedient of casting from an accented-letter matrix, made many years ago and struck from the original 18th-century punches, and then shaving off the accent after casting. One cannot but wonder at the lack of supervision or awareness which allows these obvious faults to remain unchecked and uncorrected through to the production stage.

The authentic tones of Dodson outrage can still be detected in that final sentence.

Alan Dodson was a founder member of the Caslon Club, an organisation so discreet that often even its members are unaware of their enrolment. He wrote fluently and passionately about the history and use of the Caslon types, describing them as

rather like working with a lot of different people: each size has its own character, and over the years one comes to know every letter in every size as an individual with certain qualities which one may be able to exploit, or for which one may have to compensate.

He also had an encyclopaedic knowledge of continental typefaces. His knowledge and enthusiasms grew from his handling and use of the lead types in his workshop, a skill now increasingly rare since the Gutenberg revolution came to an abrupt end some 25 years ago.

Dodson's lifelong love affair with type and typography began just before the Second World War at the Kingston College of Art, where as an adolescent architectural student he discovered letterpress printing, and devoted the rest of his long life to its practice and history. Dodson later described his first job at the Coombe Press in New Malden in 1942, where he worked while he was waiting to be called up into the RAF:

Nearly 60 years later I can still remember the peaceful atmosphere in the composing room on a summer's afternoon, with the sun filtering through the skylight, patterned by the shadows of trees round the building. At times the stillness was unbroken except for the buzz of the occasional fly and the click of type as it went into the stick.

He was demobbed in 1947, and went to Switzerland to work with the renowned Swiss typographer and editor Rudolf Hostettler, where the cleanliness and precision of Swiss design and printing made a powerful impression on him. On his return to England he worked for the Bradford-based printer-publishers Lund Humphries, pioneers in introducing the elements of Swiss typography to England.

In 1954, on the recommendation of Francis Meynell, he succeeded Harry Carter as Head of Layout at Her Majesty's Stationery Office, which at that time was setting worldwide standards for the design and printing of government publications. Here Dodson was responsible for HMSO's official guide, Standards for Authors and Printers. Five years later he went to live in South Africa, where he taught typography at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg and later at Johannesburg Technical College.

In 1985 he returned to England with his second wife, Elin, to live in Malvern, where the orderliness of his small workshop put most other printers to shame, and from which emanated a small but steady stream of some of the most beautifully printed examples of all time of William Caslon's types. A significant collection of these is now in the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library, and Dodson's types and equipment have been acquired by Liverpool University.

John Randle, Christopher Dodson and Storm J. Russell

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