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Bruce Rogers and His Centaur

The first book to be set in Bruce Rogers's typeface Centaur was The Centaur, by Maurice de GuÈrin, in an edition hand set by Mrs. Rogers and published by the Montague Press in 1915.

In Harvard University Press: A History, editor and historian Max Hall writes, “Bruce Rogers (1870-1957), an urbane, scholarly, meticulous, ingenious, roving man from Indiana, who applied his arts for many publishers and printers on both sides of the Atlantic, is widely considered the first great professional book designer. Some think him the greatest ever.”

In 1920, Hall notes, when Harvard’s press was still both publisher and printer, “Rogers was 49 and had just returned from one of his sojourns in England, where he had been printing adviser to the Cambridge University Press and had put new typographical life into that ancient institution.” At the request of its own shop, “the Harvard Corporation created for Rogers the part-time position of printing adviser to Harvard University Press. The connection lasted till 1936, but he served mainly in the eight years from 1920 to 1928. At the outset he spent two or three months helping to reorganize the work of the Printing Office, and thereafter, for years, he was on hand for at least one spell a month. He designed some 30 books for the Press. He also made creative suggestions and generally improved the appearance of the Press’s books and catalogues and of the ephemeral printing jobs performed for the University. His very presence in the shop was inspiring.”

Hall also writes of three Harvard courses in printing and publishing, given by the Business School intermittently from 1910 to 1920. “The Society of Printers helped organize the courses. For the instruction [the society’s secretary C.C.] Lane depended upon a parade of distinguished outside lecturers, including D.B. Updike, Bruce Rogers, and William A. Dwiggins, who were to become perhaps the three most honored American book designers.”

Rogers had come to Boston in 1895 and was hired in 1896 by Houghton Mifflin to design trade books and advertisements at its Riverside Press in Cambridge. In 1900 a special department was established for the design and production of limited editions for sale to collectors. Rogers ran it until 1912. He designed his first type for the printing of a three-volume folio edition, The Essays of Montaigne, which was in the works for three years, 1902 to 1904. He had seen a copy of Nicholas Jenson’s 1470 printing of a work by Eusebius in an exhibition at the Boston Public Library and been much taken by its typography. He copied Jenson’s letter forms as closely as he could for his new typeface, named Montaigne after the book in which it was first used, as was the typographic custom. But he was never wholly pleased with the cutting of Montaigne. He used the same Jenson model for Centaur, cut a dozen years later, and was satisfied with it.

Joseph Blumenthal in The Printed Book in America writes: “Rogers spent the summer of 1912 in England. Unable to make acceptable working arrangements that would also provide a living, he returned to four lean years in the United States. Nevertheless, this period saw the completion of the Centaur type, one of his most brilliant achievements. The Centaur is based closely on the Jenson letter in the Eusebius of 1470, but with considerable freedom in the redrawing. The undertaking was sponsored, with some proprietary rights, by Henry Watson Kent, then secretary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where he had established an excellent press in the museum basement for announcements, posters, labels, etc. The type’s first book appearance was in Maurice de GuÈrin’s The Centaur which gave the type its name and which has become one of the most sought-after of the B.R. books. Hand-set by Mrs. Rogers, it was printed in an edition of 135 copies [in 1915] at Carl P. Rollins’ lively and idealistic Montague Press at the Dyke Mill in Massachusetts.”

The upper-case letters were first used in 1914 by the museum. The complete font was cast for its first use in 1915 in 14 point and was set by hand. It was later issued in several other sizes. At the request of fine printers, Rogers agreed to make the type available in a Monotype version for that company’s typesetting machines. The new fonts were first used in 1929. Centaur was roman only, but at Rogers’s request, the Monotype version added an italic based on drawings by Frederic Warde. Warde’s italic is an interpretation of the work of the sixteenth-century printer and calligrapher Ludovico degli Arrighi and is called Arrighi. In 1948, Rogers wrote and printed a book about Centaur and Arrighi; a reprint of Centaur Types is available from Purdue University Press.

Blumenthal writes about Centaur in his 1977 book: “Centaur is a beautiful type, delicate and subtle, which was made available on Monotype composition. It has never been widely popular in the trade, but has been used with elegant effect by sensitive typographic designers.”

Daniel Berkeley Updike in his mighty, two-volume Printing Types, first published in 1922, writes: “Mr. Rogers describes the letter as a refinement on his Montaigne type, and thoughóas is his wontóhe sees ways in which this font could be bettered, it appears to me one of the best roman fonts yet designed in Americaóand, of its kind, the best anywhere.”

Blumenthal’s introduction to his long section on Rogers goes as follows: “The forces that converged to produce an American typographic renaissance found [their] finest realization in the work of Bruce RogersÖ.Rogers’ earliest masterpieces among the Riverside Press editions were set by hand and printed sheet by sheet on dampened handmade papers. His ultimate triumph, the Oxford Lectern Bible, was entirely a product of the machine, set in type and printed at the Oxford University Press in England. Bruce Rogers’ genius was doubly clear in his ability to have crossed over from the frontier of handcraftsmanship to control of the machine, and to have retained artistry and finesse in the transition. His greatness lay in the felicity of his brilliant manipulation of type and ornament, in his command of all the basic processes and their consummation in beautiful booksónoble books that can be read with pleasure and owned with prideónot objets d’art to be stored behind glass. One of the present century’s immortals of the printed book, Sir Francis Meynell, producer of the superb procession of Nonesuch Press volumes, made the carefully considered statement that Bruce Rogers ëwas the greatest artificer of the book who ever lived.’ Artful devices, subtle stratagems, delicate maneuversóthese are the uses of the artificer, joined under this designer’s hand to originality and ingenuity. Add endless variety, novelty, dexterity, and, yes, humor and jeu d’esprit.”