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At the Bar with Andrew Bainbridge: A Natural History of Letterforms

A tale of long lost artefacts discovered in a Jacobean farmhouse on the high fells of Westmorland. A trove of typographic specimens not seen since the HMS Pica returned from her voyage of discovery in the 1830’s.

A remarkable example of early photography in the portrait of the Reverend Jackson Whitehead, fully garbed in ecclesiastical dress.

Are you intrigued yet?

Warning: this blog post contains puns and anecdotes of dubious authenticity.

Author and illustrator Andrew Bainbridge (or Andy, to his pals) was the latest guest to enthral us all at the monthly At the Bar event in our Amsterdam Studio with his tales of the typographic adventures of his great, great grandfather, the Reverend Jackson Whitehead. (An early picture of the Reverend was presented to us, bearing an uncanny similarity to Andy himself – not one that Andy acknowledges himself, somewhat suspiciously.)

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Andy’s discovery from that windswept farmhouse in Westmorland.

A little while back, Andy uncovered a great many of his ancestor’s belongings whilst renovating a farmhouse that had been in his family since the fifteenth century, including a huge collection of the Reverend’s wondrous illustrations.

So ensued an evening of typographic flourish and fun, with Andy sharing the work of Whitehead and details of his fantastical life, beginning with some early pieces showing the Rutland Red Ram and Ewe – prized for their production of triplets – and extraordinary ornithological specimens such as the Little Dimwit, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and the Lesser Spotted Startle, the only bird known to lay oblong eggs – truly startling!

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The triplet-producing Rutland Red.

It was, however, the typographic specimens made during his expeditionary voyage as the ship’s Chaplin on the HMS Pica that were the stars of the show. Sailing from Plymouth in December of 1831, Reverend Whitehead began sketching the characters aboard the ship, including Claude Garamond, the ships purser: “Avant garde type. Claude liked to enter the room with a flourish and was a favourite below decks.” Of the ship’s chef Pierre Didot he writes, “a temperamental type and a bit of a case.”

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Avant Garde Type Claude Garamond.

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Temperamental Chef Didot.

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A long rivalry between Darwin, a contemporary of Whitehead. They were known to arm wrestle to solve arguments over the relative merits of moustache vs beards.

The voyage of the Pica lead to an untold wealth of typographic creatures in far flung lands. In Madagascar, for example, Whitehead discovered the Copy Cat (latin name Xerox Xerox): “Slightly larger than a domestic cat, each one I encounter appeared slightly paler version of the last. My last encounter as to all intense purposes an Albino.” On reaching the Masi Mara, Whitehead was witness to the annual migration of Bewilderbeasts. An utter pandemonium of confusion, 50,000 Bewilderbeasts: bulls, cows, Heifers and calves all randomly bumping into each other, aimlessly roaming in an attempt to get somewhere.

It was on making landfall after a storm that they were to discover the island chain of San Seriffe, the long-thought-to-be mythical landmass, previously dismissed as an old nautical tale. Whitehead wrote in his journal, “we encountered some of the islanders and I was swiftly able to establish communications with them as they appeared to be fluent in Lorum Ipsum, so my Latin schooling meant I could converse with ease. They confirmed that we had dropped anchor off Gill Sands on the island of Lower Caisse.”

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The discovery of the island of San Seriffe was first reported in The Guardian, 1 April 1977.

Whitehead struck up a convivial relationship with the Bembo Bembo tribe, fascinated by their permanent markings (what we would call tattoos), which he referred to as body copy.

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The Bodoni Tribe; Bembo-Bembo – the tribal witch doctor, Rapid Fox – Warrior, Lazey Dog – Warrior and Boldface – Chieftain of the Bodoni tribe.

Beyond the fascinating tribe, the island chain proved a rich source of sea life – giant crabs and exotic tropical fish abounded – The Font, Little Kerning, Ligature Compasiter and Dingbat fish to name a few.

So what became of the Reverand Whitehead? Why did he hide all of his records? It all remains a tantalizing mystery to be uncovered by Andy…

Interestingly the Reverend’s great great, great grandson has obviously acquired some of his ancestor’s typographical skill and wit, as he produced a wonderful commission for us of Amerigo, Sinterklaas’ horse, a wonderfully observed print that captures the proud stead (you can read all about this print here).

Strange that such skill should skip so many generations and appear with such canny similarity between Whitehead and Bainbridge, and there is definitely more to Andy and the story of the Reverend, a delightful mystery that captured all of our imaginations.


A gift for Sinterklaas – Amerigo.

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Andrew’s book Typographic Specimens is a great Christmas gift to all your creative friends!

A special thank you to Claire Parker for capturing the story in these lovely and engaging words!


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