The Type Archive holds the National Typefounding Collection, purchased with grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund; broadly comprising; 1. the typefounding materials of the Sheffield typefounders, Stephenson Blake, a collection dating from 16th century London typefounders to their 20th century counterparts; 2. the hot-metal archive and plant of the Monotype Corporation, operating from Salfords in Surrey from 1897, and in London's Lambeth from 1992 to date; and 3. the Woodletter pattern collection and plant of Robert DeLittle in York from 1888, and in Lambeth from 1996.
The Type Archive holds the National Typefounding Collection, purchased with grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund; broadly comprising 1. the typefounding materials of the Sheffield typefounders, Stephenson Blake; 2. the hot-metal archive and plant of the Monotype Corporation; and 3. the Woodletter pattern collection and plant of Robert DeLittle.
In 1970 the price of lead went through the roof, and the art, craft and industry of letterpress printing, essentially unchanged for five centuries, became suddenly vulnerable. Property speculators, rival technologies and alternative media all threatened a world dependent on precision engineering and subtle manual skill. To Susan Shaw, who has died aged 87, this was a challenge to which she devoted the rest of her life, and in 1992 she founded the Type Museum (now the Type Archive) in Stockwell, south London, to rescue the remains of the dying industry.
In that year, the Monotype Corporation, pioneers of the leading type-composition system, went into liquidation. Susan went to Salfords, near Redhill, Surrey, where the Monotype factory was, saw the size of the plant, and planned to take it over. She chatted up the owners of a 1900 industrial complex near her home in Stockwell, and persuaded them to sell it to a trust set up for the purpose, borrowing the money.
The main building had been a veterinary hospital, with floors solid enough to support circus elephants, and now heavier stuff. She next organised the transport of plant, keyboards, casting machines and associated equipment, together with all the records of the corporation worldwide, altogether several hundred tons. She called its transport and reinstallation Operation Hannibal, and an elephant became her trademark.
Susan was born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, to Constance (nee Peach) and Thomas Mahon. Her father was a tax inspector, a reserved occupation during wartime that kept him constantly moving as Susan was growing up. Her education was thus erratic, mostly in denominational schools of different faiths (religions always fascinated her), but her father’s large library was a constant factor. A holiday job at Butlin’s with her sister paid for Vespas, on which they explored western Europe in the 1950s.
Susan was still at school in Derby when she got her first job, in the public library. One of the staff showed her an advertisement for a vacancy in publishing, at Penguin Books; she applied and got it. Publishing and printing were to be not just a livelihood, more a way of life. She worked at Chatto & Windus, the Hogarth Press and, last and longest, at Faber & Faber, where she idolised the great lettering artist, Berthold Wolpe. Inspired by him, she set up her own business, the Merrion Press, and in 1960 printed and published Wolperiana, reproducing the drawings of her hero Wolpe by Charles Mozley.
Marriage in 1964 to a typographic designer, Montague Shaw, and the birth of two sons held up her private work, but further broadened her horizon. Her next book came in 1972; it was a facsimile of Johann David Steingrüber’s 1773 Architectural Alphabet; it displayed a new sense of design backed by professional press-work. Another calligraphic facsimile, the 1565 Opera of Augustino da Siena, followed in 1975, with a series of charming booklets based on Thomas Bewick’s cuts, and in 1979, George Darley’s Select Poems, edited by Anne Ridler, whom she met at Faber’s. She also published Elizabeth Harris’s The Common Press (1978) and herself created replicas of Charles Holtzapfel’s “parlour press”, as originally made in 1846 for the use of amateurs.
Her reputation for good design now brought her more substantial work. She had met Sir Robert Sainsbury, and like him was an enthusiast for modern arts and crafts, notably the work of the potters Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. She designed the catalogue of The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, eventually published in three volumes in 1997. Next came monumental books printed for the Roxburghe Club, Two East Anglian Picture Books (1988), Medieval Pageant (1993) and The Great Book of Thomas Trevilian (2000); wonderful though they were, they took far longer to complete than she calculated.
In 1996 came a final challenge, to rescue the ancient Sheffield typefounders, Stephenson Blake, threatened by motorway development, and the York wood-letter makers, Robert DeLittle. This time the Heritage Lottery Fund came to her rescue; not one but two manufacturing plants were loaded up and moved to south London. Stephenson Blake’s historic equipment was catalogued by Justin Howes with a grant from the Pilgrim Trust.
Loved and admired by those who shared her vision and enthusiasm, Susan could upset those who thought they knew more than she did, or infuriate those less committed than she was. She hated to be patronised, but the group of old Monotype hands and new enthusiasts who shared her faith saw a different Susan. Fearless in taking on what she was told was impossible, her real aim was to share the delight she got from what she did. Her last success was to see the Type Archive’s street sign changed in 2016 to Alphabet Mews.
Her marriage ended in divorce, and both sons predeceased her. She is survived by her niece, Kate, and four great-nieces.
Susan Shaw, publisher, born 12 August 1932, died 13 June 2020
Nicolas Barker, chief trustee of Type Archive
Published in the Guardian on Wed 15 Jul 2020 16.09 BST
The Type Archive is home to the art of printed words. We hold an amazing collection of letterpress fonts in metal and wood which celebrates the joy of printing: the craft that has served as the fundamental basis of modern civilisation and graphic design.
Presently we are open by appointment.
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While modern typefoundries are entirely digital (Monotype.com) the Type Archive's collection spans the nearly 600 year period when the foundry cut letters in steel, drove them into brass blanks, and cast lead type from them in molten lead.