Prayer Book & Hymnal typography old and new


A colleague recently drew my attention to an article by one Adam Michael Wood regarding the typography of the Episcopal Church’s current (1979) and immediately previous (1928) Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal (1982 and 1940). As this subject is of considerable interest to me, I thought it worth responding to clarify and perhaps challenge some of Mr Wood’s assertions.

Mr Wood is not alone in using Adobe’s Garamond revivals (designed by Robert Slimbach) to match up with the Sabon in use in the Episcopal Church’s official liturgical books; I do the same for my parish’s liturgy booklets, given Garamond Premier’s ready availability and admirable adaptation to digital design and offset (or xerographic) output, over against the rather poorer effect of digital Sabons.

Sabon was perhaps chosen for the 1979 Prayer Book for one or more of the aesthetic or practical qualities Mr Wood outlines (equal set-width in roman, italic, bold; both traditional and modern); I concur that the typographic design of the book is quite in keeping with the late-Liturgical-Movement ethos otherwise embodied in it and other liturgical arts of the time. The immediate reason for the choice, I should think, was the involvement of Bradbury Thompson as typographic advisor for the project; he seems to have been fond of Sabon and used it repeatedly and elegantly in his other ‘late modern classic’ work (most famously the Washburn Bible, but also several of the series of keepsake books he designed for Westvaco).

Mr Wood makes an interesting attempt to draw a line between the theology or ethos of Hymnal and Prayer Book on the basis of their typography, claiming that the Hymnal 1982, set in Baskerville, is a more Protestant book, while the supposed Anglo-Catholicism of the Prayer Book is appropriately reflected by its setting in Sabon. I will grant that Baskerville (and Bulmer, which appears in the title of the Hymnal 1940 as Mr Wood notes) are very much of their British Protestant-Enlightenment time and place, and I will further argue that, like the architecture of the period, they are more suited to the domestic, civic, and academic spheres than the ecclesiastical (and the eighteenth-century Church of England was fairly domesticated, civilized, and academicized, it seems). But the Italian-humanist-derived types of the later sixteenth century could be put to use for both Catholic and Calvinist purposes (perhaps in that sense they are more small-c ‘catholic’); type, like other kinds of art and design, often divides at least as much along linguistic, national, or cultural lines as along religious ones, though of course all those lines are often closely intertwined. I have no information about Sabon’s (or Tschichold’s) religious leanings.

Is the Hymnal really more Protestant than the Prayer Book? This question would be interesting to tease out, and depends on one’s definitions. For the purposes of this article, I will say that I wish there was more convergence between the two books visually (as between the 1979 Prayer Book and the Church Hymnal Series, a run of trial-use publications leading up to the publication of the Hymnal 1982) as well as practically (I would grant one of Mr Wood’s commenters his hymns-only Hymnal if the service music – the basic chant settings of Prayer Book texts – were thoroughly integrated into the Prayer Book).

Back to Baskerville, this post, which appeared in my feed the same day I read Mr Wood’s article – gives a strong rebuttal to the survey Mr Wood cites regarding the ‘credibility’ of Baskerville. It’s not at all surprising that neoclassically elegant Baskerville should have been named ‘most trustworthy’ given a field consisting of a tiny pool of quite ubiquitous, heterogeneous, and mostly poor (or unsuited to purpose) faces: Times New Roman, Georgia, Trebuchet, Helvetica, Comic Sans, and Computer Modern. Most of these are not suited for serious text setting, while the last two hardly merit the name ‘typeface’ at all. How would Baskerville fare pitted against even, say, the small but stronger and wider-ranging catalog of faces developed by Monotype under Morison?

I would also mention that the text of neither the ordinary 1928 Prayer Book nor the Hymnal 1940 is in fact set in Baskerville or Bulmer (or Kis, as proposed by another commenter, though D. B. Updike’s handsome ‘Standard’ 1928 Prayer Book is indeed set in types by Miklós Kis, known under the name ‘Janson’). Both books are set in derivatives of the same face, [Antique] Old Style, designed by Alexander Phemister in 1858 for Miller & Richard of Edinburgh, Phemister’s employers. The 1928 Prayer Book uses one or more of the many versions of Old Style – perhaps Benton & Benton’s Century Oldstyle (atf, 1909) for the main text, though I think the rubrics and running heads are in two other closely related fonts. Most of the text in the full-music Hymnal 1940 is set in Bookman, Chauncey H. Griffith’s version (atf, 1936), though musical directions are in a different face, a true italic.

As Mr Wood notes, the title page of the full-music Hymnal 1940 is set in Bulmer. As for the title page of the 1940s(?)-era issue of the 1928 Prayer Book, only the title itself is in Bulmer, the rest being in a Baskerville-derived type (Monotype, I would guess, with the alternative C with only a top barb). I haven’t a complete series of the various issues of either book, but I note that my 1976-issue Hymnal 1940, with Supplements I and II, already has Sabon being used for the imprint on the title page, in keeping with the then developing trial-use materials. My somewhat late 1928 Prayer Book has the title page set in a terribly debased Bodoni or Didot that’s not worth tracking down, the italic of which is also used for refrains in my melody-only Hymnal 1940 (whose title page looks more like that of my 1940s ’28 Prayer Book).

Not having spent much time with these earlier twentieth-century books, and not being a connoisseur of the various derivatives of Old Style, which I consider pretty poor type, I hadn’t thought about the very general continuities between the faces used in the Hymnals 1940 and 1982. The width (actually something of a detriment in musical setting) is perhaps foremost among them. One could also observe that types of this kind match the modern forms of our musical symbols better than Renaissance letterforms do, having grown up at the same time and with the same tools, the pointed pen and graver – just as the broad nib naturally gave rise to earlier letterforms and square- and rhomboid-note musical notation. In the end, however, I suspect the choice of type for both hymnals was limited to some extent by what the music typesetters / engravers had available. I continue to set all texts for my parish’s booklets, sung or said, in Garamond, and while I will admit to having a catholic musical ethos, I do not think the choice of this face alone is sufficient to inculcate it among unsuspecting parishioners.