Musings on Victor Hammer's unique character for the personal “I” in his uncial type faces. By Peter Thomas (2016)
Victor Hammer is well known in calligraphic circles for his rendering of uncial scripts into metal type, and he is well known in fine press printing circles for his immaculate presswork when using those types to print fine press books, but to the more general public, for whom typography is basically unimportant, he is pretty much an unknown. I first learned of Victor Hammer, his uncial types, and his fine press books whle I was working with William Everson at the Lime Kiln Press in the library of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Everson, a poet and printer, admired both the craftsmanship and design of Hammer’s Stamperia del Santuccio books. Everson’s use of Hammer’s American Uncial in his second book, A Triptych for the Living, is a testimony to that admiration, and perhaps an unexpressed acknowledgement of their kinship. Like Hammer, Everson uncompromisingly sought perfection in his printing. And both were deeply spiritual: Everson spent almost two decades as a Dominican monk, and Hammer’s motto, “To the Greater glory of God” speaks clearly his religious inclinations. Finally, both men were deep thinkers and larger than life teachers who drew students and apprentices into their circles and soon inspired them to seek the vocation of letterpress printing.
Victor’s wife, Carolyn Reading Hammer, founded The King Library Press at the University of Kentucky in 1956 to produce work in the typographic tradition of Victor Hammer. In 2006 I visited The King Library Press to give a talk and workshop as part of their fall Seminar in Graphic Design. The King Press houses Hammer’s 1927 Laurentian wooden handpress and many cases of his American Uncial type. During the workshop I used both Hammer’s press and original type to print a quote about the “mystical quality of handiwork” from Hammer’s Memory and Her Nine Daughters, the Muses, a Pretext for Printing Cast into the Mould of a Dialogue (Lexington, KY: Stamperia del Santuccio, 1956.) After that experience, I always wanted to return to the King Library Press to print more of that same essay using Hammer’s type. That finally happened in 2011on our Wandering Book Artists road trip. Paul Holbrook, current director of the King Library Press, set Hammer’s American uncial type before we arrived, but we decided to reset the first few lines to make room for a linoleum cut Donna would make with the first line of the essay: “I am a craftsman.” As I re-set the type I noticed there were two styles of the capital ‘I’. Paul explained the reason, that Hammer had created a unique character to use when the letter ‘I’ represented the first person singular pronoun. At home we had both Samson and American Uncial types in our shop and I could not remember seeing this character before, but when I returned home, sure enough, both fonts had the personal ‘I’. I had thought it was a variant capital ‘J’ and put it with the capital Js. I wondered how many other printers were also clueless about this funny looking ‘J’ and thought I should share my discovery. I can’t say that I become an expert on the subject by any means, but as with any research project, I have learned a few interesting facts that are worth sharing.
Victor Hammer was born in Vienna on December 9, 1882. As a child Hammer continually tried to persuade family and friends to “set” for him and let him paint their portraits. While in “mittleschule” at a Jesuit Father’s School in Vienna, Hammer announced his intention to become an artist. Continuing his education at the Academy of Arts and Crafts in Vienna, he was an architectural apprentice under Camillo Sitte, who encouraged him to apply to the Academy of Fine Arts. Hammer began studying there in 1898. He took and excelled in both painting and sculpture, but settled on painting: “I could not afford to be a sculptor and knew I could make my way as a painter.” Today Hammer is remembered as the designer of uncial typefaces, but he made his living as a portrait painter and continued practicing that vocation throughout his life. In fact he was first brought to America as a portrait painter, rather than a printer.
In school Hammer had studied letterforms. He employed them in his portraits, in the renaissance manner, both naming the subjects and dating the portrait, as well as when signing the painting. He began a deeper study of letterforms, writing the same words and phrases in Latin, German, and English, comparing them for clarity and beauty. He concluded that Roman letters, based on a fifteenth century humanistic manuscript hand, were best suited for romance languages (where the words are composed predominately with letters like ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘o’, ‘u’, and ‘s’ and have relatively few letters with ascenders and descenders, and therefore the space between the written line is a smooth visual line.) He decided that languages like English, German and French would be better served by a different letter form, and that the uncial letters of the early sixth to ninth century would provide a good model to work from.
Hammer loved the beauty of fine printing, but was not a rich man. He once wrote art critic Sir Herbert Read, saying the only way he was ever going to have fine books was to make them … but that would necessitate having type. We do not know if this was Hammer’s impetus, but in about 1921 he began designing an uncial type face: “With this uncial type I am aiming at a letter form which eventually may fuse roman and black letter… into a new unity.” The punches for this type were cut by a professional punchmaker, A. Schuricht, and in 1925 the Klingspor Foundry cast and sold the type as “Hammer Unziale”. Hammer was not satisfied with the result and never used the face. Several English and American presses did print books with it, including Fredrick Goudy, and most notably, Elmer Adler, who used it in the Pynson Printers edition of Beowulf, giving the type worldwide recognition.
Hammer went on to create a total of eleven uncial typefaces. The history and character count of these types are thoroughly described in an article by W. Gay Redding titled A Documentation of Hammer Types.
Hammer Unziale – 1921-5
Typewriter Uncial – 1923-4
Samson – 1926-28
Pindar – 1933-35
Ratdolt (Titling) – cut before 1939
American Uncial (14 pt) – 1940-43
Aurora Uncial – 1941-42
Hammer Greek (to accompany 14 pt American Uncial) - 1949
American Uncial Initial Letters (30 pt) – 1953
American Uncial (18 pt) – 1954-55
Andromaque Uncial – 1958
Now back to the point of this article. Four of these faces have a unique letter designed to use for the personal ‘I’ that looks much like a capital ‘J’. In Samson, it is taller than the ‘J’. In American Uncial and Andromaque, it has a top serif while the capital ‘J’ does not. Why would Hammer have made a special character for the first person singular? According to Paul Holbrook “Since the letter ‘I’ as a personal pronoun often begins a sentence or paragraph in English, the letter form of Hammer's personal ‘I' would not just stand straight in a vertical line but would move the reader toward the right. And as an initial letter this variant letter has much more character than the straight, vertical 'I'. Hammer believed an alphabet should fall together in a sentence “like a string of pearls”. I believe the personal ‘I’ satisfied Hammer’s typographic aesthetic.”
The history and relationship of the letters ‘I’ and ‘J’ is complicated. The Latin language had no letter ‘J’, so ‘I’ was used to represent both the vowel and consonant sounds. The use of ‘J’ was developed in the Middle Ages by scribes on the European continent to distinguish ‘I’ from the strokes of the preceding or following letters, especially in italic hands. This letter shape also replaced ‘I’ when it was isolated as the final letter of a word or the last letter of a group. At the same time scribes began to represent the consonant sound with a different letter shape, first by extending the ‘I’ above and below the standard x-height of the line, and later by adding a hook to the bottom to create today’s descending ‘J’.
Was there historic precedent for Hammer’s use of a unique letter for the first person personal pronoun in his uncial faces? Only a few languages use a single letter to represent the first person singular. In English use of ‘I’ for the personal pronoun began in the early eighth century, derived from the unstressed form of Old English “ic”. By the middle of the thirteenth century the word ‘I’ began to appear written as a capital letter, most likely to avoid confusing it with the preceding or following word. In the British Isles scribes used uncial as a book hand from the fourth through eighth centuries, and every single British manuscript in an uncial hand was a Latin text. Latin does not use a single letter for the personal pronoun, so Hammer did not find his inspiration there. But he might have found it in early printed works; after movable type was introduced to England printers like William Caxton often used ‘J’ and ‘j’ in place of ‘I’ and ‘i’. And, in Caxton’s Chaucer there is a personal ‘I’ that looks quite frilly and very much like Hammer’s personal ‘I’.
To write this article I relied on the help of many people including Paul Holbrook, who is working on a complete biography of Victor Hammerand Theo Rehak, who ran the Dale Guild when they cast American Uncial. When I asked Rehak if he knew of any other type faces with a separate character for the personal ‘I’, he told me of one. While working at Wells College, in preparation for the casting, he found Hiero-Rhode, a face designed by J. A. Hieronymus Rhode (and made by Johannes Wagner and likely cast by Bauer, Barcelona) also had a personal ‘I’ in the small cap font. Theo said of this, “I believe those small caps may also have been italicized, or at least slanted a bit. The personal ‘I’ may have been a proprietary character for a patron, or special project, and not part of a standard font. It certainly was an odd design, but a very well drawn one, artistically. I have not seen the type. I heard a few fonts exist in New England somewhere. But of all the printers in the world, only a few would even know to look for such a character…It's necessity is so obvious, that no one notices or even realizes when it is not there.”
Hammer’s first book, the Opus I of the Stamperia del Santuccio, was John Milton's poem Samson Agonistes,. Hammer used his type that came to be known as Samson Uncial, and featured the use of the character for a personal ‘I’. This was printed in 1931 at the Villa Santuccio, in Florence. Hammer was not consistent in his use of the personal ‘I’. His 1943 American Uncial type has a personal ‘I’ character, but he did not use that character in 1945 when he used that type for first time to print A Dialogue on the Uncial between a Paleographer and a Printer. Hammer did use the personal ‘I’ again in later books printed with American Uncial. He used it in Memory and her Nine Daughters, and when I first read the text I didn’t even notice that a personal ‘I’ was being used. I didn’t see the character as odd, or recognize it as a variant. I just read and enjoyed the text. It took setting the type by hand, letter by letter, before I noticed. I think Theo was on the right track, but I would say it this way: It's necessity is so obvious that no one notices or even realizes when it is actually there.
Peter Thomas, Santa Cruz: