The Typographic Hub

Leonard Jay

Using archival material in both Birmingham City University and Birmingham University, this project will document the life, work and teachings of Leonard Jay, head of the Birmingham School of Printing. Jay was a teacher par excellence who influenced and transformed the outlook of a whole generation of printers, making a significant contribution to British printing education in the first half of the twentieth century. He made the Birmingham School without equal in Britain, and exercised a world-wide influence on printing education policy.

Leonard Jay, head of the Birmingham School of Printing, was a teacher par excellence who influenced and transformed the outlook of a whole generation of printers thereby making a significant contribution to British printing education in the first half of the twentieth century. He made the Birmingham School without equal in Britain, or possibly any other country and exercised a world-wide influence on printing education policy.

Jay first became known in 1913, when he began teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London as an assistant to J H Mason. In 1925, after twelve years at ‘The Central’ Jay moved to Birmingham where he worked until his retirement in 1953. When he began he was the only full-time teacher on the staff and there were only two half-day classes a week. At his retirement, 537 students attended the school; there were seventy-four classes, of which forty were day and thirty-four in the evening. 

Leonard Jay was instilled with the principles of the ‘Private Press’ movement and was an admirer of Morris. However, he was more egalitarian in his work than Morris and he strove to link the aesthetic principles of the Arts & Crafts Movement with the Typographical Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, and bridged the early twentieth century chasm between book and jobbing printing.

Jay was also a pioneering teacher who advocated the application of fine printing standards to commercial jobbing work. He was rare in having the perspicacity and courage in 1925 to practise and teach the new idea that mechanical composition could be used to produce excellence in printing as effectively as hand composition. His instruction was directed by the belief that nothing worth printing was too small, humble, or inconsequential to be well designed, and that every job deserved the highest possible standards of composition and presswork. In order to achieve superlative levels of work Jay saw that it was necessary to understand and experience all areas of the printing process. Although the machinery of printing was important, the mechanics were of little service without the human element of experience and brains, and that if the human element that controlled the machines had acquired all those artistic qualities necessary in good printing, it would be possible to produce work of exceptional quality and achieve commercial success.

Jay was a superlative craftsman and made craftsmen out of others by teaching them to discriminate and to reject whatever was substandard in design or execution. He also taught that if there was no end to the making and issuing of good books, there was certainly no end to the education of a typographer, as Updike had written:

[printing is] a broad and humanising employment which can indeed be followed merely as a trade, but which if perfected into an art, or even broadened into a profession, will perpetually open new horizons to our eyes and new opportunities to our hands.

There are influential men in every generation, but few whose influence transforms the outlook of a whole generation and leaves an indelible record on the history of their times. Leonard Jay made a major contribution to the development of technical education. His combination of idealism and practical vision transformed not only the work of the Birmingham School but, in due course, the prevailing landscape of typography in one of the largest and most important centres of printing in Britain, and Europe.

Under Jay, the Birmingham School of Printing produced over 150 publications that won worldwide praise for their high quality of design and production. They are his indelible record on printing history. However, Jay’s most important legacy is those boys who trained under him and who took their learning into printing businesses throughout the country and thereby helped to raise standards in the industry. But his bequest does not stop with the cohort he trained: that generation educated the next and we at BIAD are grateful beneficiaries of the holistic teachings of Leonard Jay.

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