Facsimile versus Resetting the Type
The original edition of Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum was produced in London 1652 by J. Grismond for Nathaniel Brooke. The task of printing such a large tome [over 500 pages] was tremendous and required many laboring hands to set the lead type, cut the engravings and print the pages. While printing houses often had numerous sets of typefaces, it was often necessary to redistribute the type in order to have enough of the face to print subsequent pages. Inevitably mistakes would be discovered before the rest of the book was actually printed. Thus it was common practice at the time for the foreman of the presses to keep a record of the errors so that these could be printed at the end of the book in an effort at correction. This 17th century example of the errata sheet survived and forms the basis of the corrections in the present edition.
The Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum is an important collection of Alchemical material which encompasses many authors of the Hermetic tradition and deserves to be in print to this day. A useful facsimile edition with prefatory material by Alan Debus was available in the late 60s and it was better than the cheaply produced photocopies offered by reprint houses in recent times. Yet these editions failed to make corrections to the original printer’s typographical errors despite the errata clearly printed in the rear of the text. The Ouroboros Press edition of Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum is entirely reset in classic typefaces and features the Complete Corrected and Rectified Text. The result is a clear and well presented text which is a pleasure to read. This is Fine Esoteric Bookarts at its best in an edition Elias Ashmole himself would be proud of.
Literary Style and Typographical Considerations
Since Middle English was used, the text itself carries the charm of the old stylistic forms including erratic spelling, and while this may be vexing to the contemporary eye it is aptly addressed by Ashmole himself by way of explaining the archaic [even for 1652] language utilized in the poems:
“The Style and Language thereof, may, I confesse (to some) seeme Irksome and Uncouth,
and so it is indeed to those that are strangers thereunto; but withall very Significant:
Old words have strong Emphasis; others may look upon them as Rubbish or Trifles,
but they are grosly Mistaken: for what some light Braines may esteem as Foolish Toys;
deeper Judgements can and will value as sound and serious Matter.”
This brings us to the question of why we have chosen the typographical design that we have. Far be it from us to completely modernize such choice and by now historic materials. Instead we sought to render the typography more readable for contemporary eyes while at the same time preserving the feeling of that era. The desire to preserve an old world feel to the book required careful consideration. Ashmole’s monumental achievement deserves more than simply the text being reproduced in facsimile as all reprints prior to this one have done. Instead we chose to reset the type of the book in its entirety and, even better, restore the text as Ashmole originally wanted it by making the corrections delineated in the errata sheets provided in the first and subsequent editions. These corrections were of primary importance and as all copies of the TCB contained an errata sheet bound in the rear of the volume, there was a second errata sheet, which is lacking in many copies. Supplying erratum is a practice which today is quickly becoming antiquated though I note that finer publishing houses still uphold the tradition. Once the elusive errata sheet was located and the corrections were made we were able to turn our attention to the typeface itself.
There are many intentionally antiquated typefaces available today from digital foundries but the fact remains that many of these are lacking the essential components required to properly set type for a volume of this nature. There is more to typesetting then the mere shape of the letters. Proper typefaces are made up of hundreds of glyphs, and each face is comprised of different weights, styles, roman, italic, ornaments and ligatures. In addition to this the spacing of each character is important in that it must be able to fit with any other character in the set without distracting the eye. Of course the typographer has ultimate control over such spacing but if the characters are not designed properly the elegance of the printed page suffers accordingly. Joseph Uccello, who is tasked with the work of setting the type for the TCB, came across an excellent essay on Williams Caslon Text by type designer William Berkson which summed up our desired approach for the TCB in the first paragraphs of the article*. His sentiments about authenticity hit home with us and the article solidified our decision to use the typeface he designed.
*Typophiles will find this article quite enjoyable.