A brief history of the Fell Types

S Stanley Morison, in his “THE ROMAN ITALIC & BLACK LETTER bequeathed to the University of Oxford by Dr. JOHN FELL” (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1951), began this way the description of the FELL TYPES: «The Oxford Printing house holds the oldest punches and matrices surviving in England, material not only treasured but used; types cast therefrom being employed for the composition of books and other printed matter». It’s essentially the inheritance of the will of «John Fell, D.D., died on 10 July 1686, aged 61, Bishop of Oxford and Dean of Christ Church. He was a man of the strictest religious and moral principles, and for many years had held a dominant position in the University, by which its abuses were reformed, its privileges increased and its reputation for learning and good manners raised. […] He spent his inherited means and his income largely for university, public and charitable purposes and lived frugally». It’s Stanley Morison again introducing him in his “JOHN FELL THE UNIVERSITY PRESS AND THE ‘FELL TYPES’ (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1967).

John Fell's Portrait

John Fell's Portrait (P.Lely).

Fell wanted to be a “publisher”. Philosophy, philology, classical texts and Christian documents: the knowledge and the criticism lived on printed pages. And the ecclesiastical schisms, the controversies of the Reformation and counter-Reformation accelerated the demand for printing. And for new types beyond those required for Greek, Latin and the western vernaculars. He firstly had in mind an Oxford edition of the Bible and since 1668 he spent his life creating a ‘learned press’ in Oxford, endowed with invaluable equipment, setting an high standard for the future of his publishing. He called it the ‘work of the Press’. He wrote: «The foundation of all successe must be layd in doing things well, and I am sure that will not be don with English letters» (to Jenkins, 2 Dec. 1672). So he collectected types available in the foreign market: mainly France, Holland and Germany. And from the best artist. Among others:

  • Garamond: Pica Roman.
  • Granjon: Double Pica Greek; English Greek; Long Primer Greek; Pica Italic; Small Pica Italic; Long Primer Italic; Brevier Italic; Flowers (partly).
  • Haultin: Pica Greek; Nonpareil Roman and Italic.
  • Van Dijk: (Probably) Long Primer Roman; Small Pica Roman (partly); Brevier Roman (partly).
  • Unknown: English Roman and Italic; Music; Flowers.
List of type bought in Holland written by John Fell

List of type bought in Holland written by John Fell.

Fell's New Testament, 1675

Fell's New Testament, 1675.

Fell decided to develop types in its own ‘workhouse’ too. Peter De Walpergen became his personal type-founder. Says Harry Carter in “THE FELL TYPES. What has been done in and about them” (Oxford University Press, New York, 1968): «He was born at Frankfurt am Main, descended from a Protestant refugee from Antwerp. He was engaged by the Dutch East India Company in 1671 to work as a type-founder and printer in Java. The comparative crudity of his letter design makes it seems unlikely that he had been trained to cut punches». John Fell entrusted him with the cut of the larger bodies: Great Primer Roman and Italic; Double Pica Roman and Italic; French Canon Roman and Italic; Three Lines Pica Roman. De Walpergen cut other types and letters for existing types to be harmonized with the larger bodies. Commented Morison: «The design of these large Fell Types is difficult to characterize and impossible wholly to approve. It has some affinity with the Dutch work of the second half of the seventeenth century, especially with the bigger size of type shown in the Widow Elsevier’s specimen-sheet of types attributed to Christoffel van Dyck; but De Walpergen went much further in the contrasting weight of thick and thin strokes and his design has crudities about it of which Van Dyck would not have been capable».

Mostly De Walpergen types Specimen

An excerpt with the De Walpergen's larger bodies.

In 1686 John Fell died. In his “will” he bequeathed the entire collection to the University of Oxford. Remembers Morison: «This entire collection of ‘founding Materialls of Punchions Matrices Moulds’ was ‘got together’ by John Fell ‘and others at great expense’. Fell’s instructions that they ‘be carefully kept together’ by his executors were duly observed. The Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars of the University of Oxford honourably played their part in sustaining the interests of ‘learning and printing’ and thus the collection was not dissipated but manteined entire». De Walpergen continued working for the University Press until his death in 1703. The University honoured Fell printing and publishing three catalogs of all its types in 1693, 1695 and 1703 with the title: A Specimen of the Several Sorts of Letter given to the University by Dr. John Fell late Lord Bishop of Oxford. But after the advent of William Caslon, in 1720, the fame of Fell faded. The Specimen of the University Printing House of 1757-8 has no name of Fell on it. The Fell Types were relegate as obsolete in comparison with Caslon’s Dutch-style types. Since 1864 the Fell Types lived a revival based on a renewed interest and began to be used again and new types were cast from the original matrices.


Hymns edited by Robert Bridges

Modern use of the Fell Types during the Revival period.