The Typographic Hub

Leonard Jay

Leonard Jay is the subject of BECKY HOWSON's PhD Research Project, which using archival material in both Birmingham City University and Birmingham University, will document the life, work and teachings of Leonard Jay, head of the Birmingham School of Printing.

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.

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.

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.