Everybody knows, don’t they, that Times New Roman was designed by Stanley Morison? Surprise, surprise, the typeface design was for The Times newspaper, and was part of a comprehensive face-lift that took several years to implement fully.

Morison was, beyond that, a remarkable man. He was born in 1889 and brought up in north London, a city he always expressed himself reluctant to leave. He didn’t attend university but managed to become formidably learned. He was described as the most intelligent man in Europe by his friend R. M. Barrington-Ward, editor of The Times. Typographical consultant to The Times, he was at one point almost dragooned into becoming its editor. He did serve as editor of The Times Literary Supplement from 1945 to 1948. He was a consultant to the Monotype Corporation where he helped usher in many classic typefaces, refusing ever to compromise quality.  He was also a consultant to Cambridge University Press, joining there with Walter Lewis, the University Printer, to launch and consolidate the mid-century revolution in the design and printing of books.

Morison, who converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of nineteen, always wore black suits which he’d obtain from an ecclesiastical outfitter. Lord Beaverbrook, a friend, alleged that the black hat he always wore was one size too small for his head. Morison was a life-long Marxist, and was a conscientious objector in World War I, spending time in jail in consequence. In the Second World War his Regent’s Park flat was bombed out with the loss of immense amounts of early print and manuscript evidence, but he couldn’t get there for hours as he was on the roof of Barrington-Ward’s house a few doors down putting out fires from another bomb. On more than one occasion he declined to be knighted.

He promoted a clean, uncluttered design scheme. His First Principles of Typography amounts to a manual for creating a book layout using one typeface. “The primary claim of printing is not to be an art, but to be the most responsible of our social, industrial and intellectual mechanisms; it must, like a transport system, be most disciplined, most rational.” The transport simile is characteristic: Morison was a wild fan of railway trains, and once rode to Edinburgh on the footplate of “The Flying Scotsman”. Perhaps more clearly he writes in First Principles “Typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian and only accidentally aesthetic end, for enjoyment of patterns is rarely the reader’s chief aim . . . Even dullness and monotony in the typesetting are far less vicious to a reader than typographical eccentricity or pleasantry.” Many today would benefit from this advice.

As well as his work on book design and the history and design of typefaces, Morison was expert in the history of letter forms, manuscript hands, and ecclesiastical printing. He edited and wrote much of the four-volume History of The Times (1935-52). Towards the end of his life he was a member of the board of editors of Encyclopedia Britannica.

In his biography Stanley Morison Nicolas Barker writes “Morison found typography without organized history or principles: he left it with both, and in addition a substantial body of work exemplifying them. The future is unlikely to dispute the size of this achievement.” He was direct, and often outspoken. Barker compares him in this to Samuel Johnson. Johnson I fear is the English author I’d come closest to wanting to punch on the nose — so portentously opinionated; so irritatingly often correct.* However, I started working at Cambridge University Press a couple of years before Morison’s death in 1967 so naturally grew up uttering his name with awed respect.


* D. H. Lawrence runs him a close second. Might there be a lit. crit. genre abirthing here? Authors one feels violent toward?