John Dreyfus

Typographical adviser and historian

Saturday 04 January 2003 01:00
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John Gustave Dreyfus, typographer and historian of letters: born London 15 April 1918; Assistant University Printer, Cambridge University Press 1949-56, Typographical Adviser 1956-82; Typographical Adviser, Monotype Corporation 1955-82; European Consultant, Limited Editions Club 1956-77; President, Association Typographique Internationale 1968-73; Sandars Reader in Bibliography, Cambridge University 1979-80; President, Printing Historical Society 1991; married 1948 Irène Thurnauer 1948 (two daughters, and one son deceased); died London 29 December 2002.

Nobody knows the exact year in which printing was invented. But by a long tradition going back over four centuries it has been supposed to be 1440.

If both England and Germany had not been otherwise engaged in 1940, the year would have been devoted to an exhibition of printing at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, showing not only its technical development but also its greatest monuments, typographic, intellectual and imaginative. The exhibition actually opened on 6 May 1940, but due to "a sudden change in the war situation" it closed 10 days later. The catalogue, from which those words come, was none the less printed at the Cambridge University Press, and the first name in its list of acknowledgements is that of John Dreyfus, then just 22. It was a name that came to stand for all the qualities typified in the exhibition.

There was a special appropriateness about this first appearance of his name in print. The Dreyfus family originated in Alsace, not far from the birthplace of printing. One branch established a bank in Basle, preferring, though, to live in France. Edmond Dreyfus decided to seek his fortune in England in 1895; naturalised in 1900, he became a stockbroker in 1904. His wife, Marguerite, was of German extraction, but her father had moved to England before settling in Paris, where she was born. It was into this thoroughly cosmopolitan family that John Dreyfus was born in 1918, and among which he grew up.

He followed his elder brother to Oundle, chosen for its excellent reputation for technology and engineering. But it was to read Economics that he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1936. In fact, however, the die that determined his future had been cast long before.

From a very early age he had been fascinated by the physical form of books and print. Just as his future mentor Stanley Morison had been captivated by The Times "Printing Supplement" in 1912, so Dreyfus was taken with the new type and layout with which Morison transformed The Times on 3 October 1932. Seven years later, Dreyfus joined the Cambridge University Press, where Morison was also typographic adviser, as a graduate trainee.

The quincentenary exhibition at Cambridge had been inspired by a letter from the Director of the Gutenberg Museum at Mainz, Alois Ruppel, but it was now without German participation, and the task of organising it, securing loans of over 600 items from a hundred lenders, fell to the Assistant Printer, Brooke Crutchley, and Dreyfus. It was an introduction to a wide range of books and people that stood him in good stead. But hardly was it over when he was removed from this new world, and by the following September he was in the Royal Army Service Corps.

The accident of a foreign name providentially delayed his commission, and with it a probably fatal posting to the Far East. Instead, he was put in charge of field-ambulance supply soon after D-Day and fought through the war in Europe; his last and most congenial posting was to supply field libraries.

He was welcomed back to the Cambridge University Press, and in 1949 became Assistant University Printer when Brooke Crutchley was promoted to be University Printer. The same year his first book came out, The Survival of Baskerville's Punches, the story of how the work of the great Birmingham printer was preserved by Beaumarchais, passing eventually to the Parisian typefounders Deberny & Peignot. The printing of this book revived the University Printer's happy custom of giving a book to friends of the press at Christmas, and, partly as a result of it, the press itself received a gift next year, the surviving Baskerville punches, generously presented by Charles Peignot. A third participant in this was Dreyfus's French wife, Irène Thurnauer, whom he had married in 1948 and whose help is gratefully acknowledged in the book.

As Assistant Printer Dreyfus was much concerned with the design of Cambridge University Press books. At the end of the Second World War, still in the Army, he had been the first to seek out the Dutch typographer Jan van Krimpen and make sure that he was all right. This led to a friendship and that to Dreyfus's second book, The Work of Jan van Krimpen, finely printed in van Krimpen's own types in 1952.

In 1954, when Stanley Morison, the press's typographical adviser, decided to retire, Dreyfus was his natural successor. Morison had come to admire both Dreyfus's eye for design and his ability to deal with work punctually and without fuss, and a year later recommended him as his successor as typographic adviser to the Monotype Corporation, the pioneer of new type designs and manufacturer of composition equipment for them. In 1956 also he became consultant to the Limited Editions Club of New York, which specialised in fine printing, rather as the Nonesuch Press had before the war.

These new responsibilities gave him a European reputation that, with his family background, came easily to him. He and Irène moved to London in 1959, to a large rambling flat in Queensgate with a distinctly continental feel, where their three children grew up. In 1963, the great "Printing and the Mind of Man" exhibition, staged at Olympia and the British Museum, finally fulfilled Morison's hopes, frustrated in 1940, for a grand celebration of all that printing had achieved. Dreyfus had a large hand in this, and his design for the catalogue was a masterpiece of simple but logical typography, embellished with Reynolds Stone's beautiful woodcut lettering.

From 1968 to 1973 Dreyfus was President of the Association Typographique Internationale, founded by his friend Charles Peignot. He was largely responsible not only for the association's popular annual conferences then, but also for its campaign for legal recognition of the designer's rights to the types he designed. This was achieved in the teeth of an initial response that all letters were the same, their individual forms not distinct, at least to the legal eye.

Through the Monotype Corporation, he was able to provide valuable opportunities for younger type designers to see their work realised. He saw the necessity of moving with the times, and of the advance from metal to film and ultimately to digital letterforms, which sadly came too late to save the Monotype Corporation. In 1982 he retired from his posts at Monotype, Cambridge and the Curwen Press, of which he had been a director since 1970.

His interest in the history as well as practice of typography was not forgotten. He organised the Printing Historical Society's conference to celebrate the quincentenary of Caxton in 1976, becoming its president in 1991. He was also the general editor of the series Type Specimen Facsimiles (1963-71). He wrote several monographs himself, of which A History of the Nonesuch Press (1981) and Aspects of French Eighteenth Century Typography (1982) were the most substantial. With François Richaudeau he edited La Chose imprimée (1977), a highly original and stimulating encyclopaedia of printing.

A graceful and popular lecturer, Dreyfus was much in demand in the United States as well as Europe. His particular subjects were the fine printing of the last century, from William Morris and T.J. Cobden-Sanderson to Harry, Count Kessler. He was awarded the Goudy Prize of the Rochester Institute of Technology and the laureateship of the American Printing Historical Society in 1984. His extensive travels brought him friendship with Norman Strouse and then Sandy and Helen Berger, who shared his tastes. In 1994 the British Library published Into Print, his selected papers, and in 1996 he received a final accolade in the Mainz Gutenberg Prize.

Although a man of precision in thought, word and appearance, Dreyfus was the soul of modesty himself, readier to promote others than himself. At the same time he had a proper pride in his own achievements, and was delighted by the wonderful collection of tributes – drawn, printed, engraved or handwritten – presented to him on his 80th birthday by his many admirers. He enjoyed the company of his children and grandchildren, and was deeply saddened by the death of his son in an accident in Kenya in 1979.

A true European avant la lettre, he has left a legacy of good taste and attention to detail in the design and study of lettering, which will grow as its importance comes to be more and more appreciated.

Nicolas Barker

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