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Justin Howes

Historian of typography

Few people have a perceptive eye for the fine points of letters, so few that it seems an innate rather than acquired gift; fewer still turn it to the historical study of letters, as well as to current practice. Justin Howes had this gift, and spread it generously in both directions.

Justin Howes, typographer: born Solihull, Warwickshire 4 April 1963; died London 21 February 2005.

Few people have a perceptive eye for the fine points of letters, so few that it seems an innate rather than acquired gift; fewer still turn it to the historical study of letters, as well as to current practice. Justin Howes had this gift, and spread it generously in both directions.

He was born in 1963 in Solihull; his father was English, his mother Persian-Russian. The family moved to south London when he was a baby, and later first to Hamburg and then, in 1971, to Rome. There he went to St George's English School, where he acquired a feel for antiquity, inscriptions, old coins and the Etruscans in particular. He came back to Dulwich College as a boarder in 1973 and in 1981 went up to Christ Church, Oxford, on a scholarship to read English.

He was still at Dulwich when he wrote to Priscilla Johnston, daughter of the great calligrapher Edward Johnston, with a long list of questions, ending, almost casually, that he hoped to publish before his 18th birthday. He did not, in fact, but "Noel Rooke: the early years" appeared in Matrix in 1983. He was just 20 and in his first term at Oxford, where he joined the Oxford University Bibliophiles. A visit to Oxford University Press, still active then, led him to the history and practice of printing.

Leaving Oxford, he went to Bath University with a three-month contract to list the Edward Johnston collection and archive at the Crafts Study Centre. His ability was immediately recognised, and with a Leverhulme Fellowship he turned this into a comprehensive catalogue, Edward Johnston: a catalogue of the Crafts Study Centre collection & archive (1987). Even before this, he brought out what Johnston himself, a procrastinator on a heroic scale, never finished, the publication of the famous teaching sheets for his Central School lectures. Edward Johnston: Lessons in Formal Writing, edited by Heather Child and Howes, was published in 1986.

He kept in touch with the Crafts Study Centre, founding its magazine, Craft History, but then spent a year at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, designing the last exhibition of Edward Bawden's work in his lifetime; the catalogue was published as Edward Bawden: a retrospective survey (1988).

Howes then went to Edinburgh, spending five happy years with his friend Greg Fleming, designing books for Edinburgh University Press and others.

All this while, an idea had been growing in his mind, that a pen-work origin formed a subterranean link between the 18th-century types of William Caslon and Johnston's formal script, despite their disparate shapes; "Italic" script and its derivative "English Vernacular" were just an overlay. He saw this realised in the fount of Caslon bought by Johnston's neighbour Hilary Pepler for his Ditchling Press; the famous "Sans Serif" for the London Underground was thus poised between script and type. Johnston had been a consultant on design as well as a practising scribe, and Howes likewise saw a double role for himself in letter design (now computer-generated) and letter-press printing. He was the author of Johnston's Underground Type (2000).

In 1992 he began the Herculean task of writing, organising and designing manuals for the Advent 3B2 typesetting software. This grew to over 1,000 pages of technical documentation, punctuated with "subversive" inroads into the finer points of old-style typography, such as kerning and ligatures. With this he taught the new technology to four teams of Monotype keyboard operators, and wrote the software to convert a computer-generated text to 31-channel paper tape to drive a Monotype caster.

This led him to undertake a research project at Manchester Metropolitan University into the Caslon type, analysing each letter in microscopic detail, with the aid of a small fount of type cast for him by Caslon's successors, Stephenson Blake of Sheffield, and an 1843 hand-press. The subtle refinements of form in different sizes were maintained in the digital versions he then created; his work was published as "Caslon's Punches and Matrixes" in Matrix in 2000.

This project complete, he left Edinburgh and came south to live in a deserted shoe-factory at Rushden, south of Northampton. There he set up his growing collection of computer equipment, old presses and type on one floor, living on another. From this base he issued the entire series of Caslon Old Face founts for use on PC and Macintosh, some through International Typeface Corporation in 1996, and the remainder himself, trading under the firm's old name, H.W. Caslon & Company.

Rushden, if spacious, was lonely, and in 1999 he returned to London. He founded the Friends of the St Bride Printing Library, and with its Librarian, James Mosley, organised the exhibition on the history of the sans serif letter at Sir John Soane's Museum in 1999, designing Mosley's The Nymph and the Grot to accompany it. He designed the forthcoming British Library catalogue of English books printed in the 15th century.

In 1995 he had acted as registrar for the Type Museum when it acquired the historic fonds of Stephenson Blake, including the Caslon types. In 2002, funded by a grant from the Pilgrim Trust, he became Curator at the museum, with the formidable task of cataloguing the same material.

His work was just done there, and he was about to go to Antwerp for six months to cast type in the even older matrices at the Plantin-Moretus Museum, when he was struck down by a heart attack.

Nicolas Barker