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John Dreyfus, 1918–2002

Founding member and second president of ATypI

John Dreyfus at 80, shot in 1998 in Heidelberg by Christine Steiner, Woelfersheim. Erich Alb, who sent the picture, comments: “Normally he was very much a photo model, but after he got about 80 he looked really a bit old.”


The Times

Orbituary that appeared in the London Times on January 8, 2003.

John Dreyfus
Typographer, academic printer and historian of important, beautiful and privately printed books

John Dreyfus was an important figure in postwar European type design, as typographical adviser to the British Monotype Corporation in succession to Stanley Morison, at a time when the technology of typesetting was undergoing enormous change; as President of the Association Typographique Internationale at a time when typeface protection was becoming of urgent importance; and as a designer and writer. A recital of his distinguished appointments, however, cannot convey his authority or the generosity of his informal guidance to many in the fields of book design and printing history.

John Gustave Dreyfus came from a cosmopolitan background: his father was from a Basle banking family and moved to London in 1895 to set up a stockbroking business; his mother was from Paris. He went to school at Oundle, and then read economics at Trinity College, Cambridge. There his growing interest in typography led him to apply for a graduate traineeship at Cambridge University Press, although this was delayed by the outbreak of war in 1939.

Dreyfus volunteered for army service, but while waiting for orders to report for duty he helped Brooke Crutchley, then the assistant university printer, in putting together an exhibition of printing at the Fitzwilliam Museum which opened in May 1940 to celebrate the quincentenary of Gutenberg’s invention.

This showed not only the well-known milestones of the history of the book — from Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible to its descendant designed by Bruce Rogers in 1935 — but also emphasised the contribution made by printing to the advancement of knowledge.

The Cambridge exhibition was dismantled after only a few days when the invasion of the Netherlands brought Cambridge within range of German bombers, but its guiding principles were followed in the landmark exhibition Printing and the Mind of Man, held in London in 1963. Dreyfus was also involved in the planning of this later exhibition, and he designed both the catalogue, printed at Oxford University Press, and the sumptuous commemorative volume which was printed at Cambridge a few years afterwards and which remains an excellent guide to the most significant printed books of all eras.

Dreyfus spent much of the war as an ambulance driver, was promoted to captain, and later transferred to the Education Corps. In June 1945 he found himself in the Amsterdam area, in the recently liberated Netherlands. He had been asked by Stanley Morison to visit the distinguished type designer Jan van Krimpen, whom no one in England had heard from during the war. The Dutch had endured a hard winter with severe shortages of food and fuel, and Dreyfus later wrote of Mrs Van Krimpen’s delight at being brought a tin of ham.

The subsequent relationship with Van Krimpen, fruitful though never easy (since he was a hard man to please), involved overseeing the Monotype cutting of his last typeface Spectrum, and also the handsome book Dreyfus wrote on his work to celebrate his 60th birthday in 1952.

After the war Dreyfus returned to Cambridge University Press, becoming assistant university printer from 1949 to 1955, when he succeeded Morison at Monotype. He remained typographic adviser to Cambridge, as Morison had been before him. Dreyfus’s years at Monotype coincided with the momentous shift from hot-metal typesetting to photosetting and then digital character generation. The first Monophoto machine went into service a couple of years after his arrival, and a year after his retirement in 1982, Adobe announced work on the PostScript page-description language.

Throughout this period Monotype maintained the production of hot-metal systems side by side with new technology; but while the early years in the type-drawing office were spent adapting the best-known metal types for film, increasingly the trend was towards new designs for new processes. The last major new face to be cut in metal was Jan Tschichold’s Sabon in 1966. A few years before that Monotype had begun producing the extensive Univers family of sans-serifs in metal and film, and Dreyfus also commissioned the first new types designed for film alone, Apollo and Photina.

Among John Dreyfus’s writings were two of the delectable series of Cambridge Christmas Books, on Baskerville’s punches and on Edward Johnston’s Cranach Press italic type; he also produced a study of Van Krimpen, a major history of the Nonesuch Press, and the story of the Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Four Gospels, with its magnificent type and engravings by Eric Gill, as well as much editorial work. A selection of Dreyfus’s essays was published by the British Library in 1994 as Into Print.

He was president of the Printing Historical Society in Britain and a laureate of its American sister organisation, European representative for the Limited Editions Club from 1956 to 1977, and a recipient of the American Goudy Award (1984) and the German Gutenberg Prize (1996). Elected to the Double Crown Club in 1947, he was its longest standing member, and had been president.

John Dreyfus married Irène Thurnauer in 1948. They had two daughters, and a son, Michael, who was killed in a car accident in Kenya at the age of 30.

John Dreyfus, typographer, was born on April 15, 1918. He died on December 29, 2002, aged 84.

The Independent

Orbituary by Nicolas Barker appeared in the UK Independent on 4 January 2003.


Monotype Imaging published a Tribute to John Dreyfus.

Memories from other ATypI members

Erich Alb

I’ve had the strange feeling that John Dreyfus is not well, since he didn’t reply my letter I’ve sent him some month ago. I visited him two years ago in his home, we spoke during a morning about Type and Print. He was so organised, and his memories about names and places was enormous. We’ve had lunch together in a small good reataurant, and Gentlemen John was in his element as in every ATypI conference from the big old days, before things changed with Type ’90.

Robert Bringhurst

Vancouver, 9 January 2003

My first direct connection with John Dreyfus came when I attempted to forge his signature. He and I had corresponded for some time but never met. What was then called the School for Liberal & Professional Studies at Simon Fraser University had invited him to Vancouver to give a series of three public lectures and two seminars on book design, typography and the private press. I was designing the brochure to announce these events, and I had decided that John’s signature should speak for itself on the cover. (The rest of the text was set by hand at Barbarian Press in Spectrum and Joanna, since Gill and Van Krimpen were among the artists on whom Dreyfus would be lecturing.) The signature was handsome, but all the examples I had were in blue ink — a shade of blue at which the process camera balked. So the signature had to be forged — and forged well enough that John, when he saw it, would not be embarrassed.

Our next encounter was illusionary too. He was coming by train from Montreal, and I went to the station one day in late September 1985, to meet him on arrival. I knew from photographs what he should look like, and from the telephone how he should sound, but no one who resembled him alighted from the train. Having no better alternative, I went to the station again a day or two later, to meet the next trans-Canada train. To my considerable relief, he appeared on the platform, cheerful and brisk, in coat and tie as always, and unable to explain why I should ever have imagined he would be there any earlier than he was.

I remember the coat and tie with particular clarity; but more, I remember the easy grace and vigor with which he wore them. John was 67 years old when he alighted from that train, and I was 38. He was a European, raised among well-made books and immensely experienced in making them. I was a North American, interested, to be sure, in fine typography, but woefully short of practical experience, in that as in many other fields. I found him immensely gracious and patient with all the things I didn’t know and he did.

Years later, when I was living temporarily in London and spending most of my days at the British Library or at St Bride’s, I became obsessed with solving some or another problem which entailed consulting documents John owned. He made me welcome at his home in Lennox Gardens, around the corner from Harrod’s, and I worked at a temporary desk in his front room each day for several days.

I am a writer by profession, and writers, in North America, are not members of society. They belong to a specially privileged class, together with pig farmers, honey-wagon drivers and university professors, and they learn to behave accordingly. So it is that I arrived chez Dreyfus, on day one, in my professorial robes: jacket and sweater, with a rucksack full of notebooks, pencils and erasers hanging from one shoulder.

“Why, you look like a regular hobo!” John said cheerfully.

That afternoon, he also fed me, laying out several cheeses with several differently shaped knives in close proximity.

“Of course I don’t care at all which knife is used,” he said.

I have no training as a houseguest, but I do have some as an anthropologist. I therefore understood that this remark might be connected with my preference for rucksack over briefcase, and should not perhaps be taken altogether at face value.

I watched quite carefully to see how the knives were used, and we agreed, John and I, in our lunchtime conversation, that the North Americans and the British are two intensely different tribes, prone to befuddle one another because of the illusion that they share a common language.

“You and I, of course, can talk to one another,” he said — that irrepressible generosity and graciousness again — “because we have something in common.”

And so as an act of courtesy, as well as an anthropological experiment, I called on him next day in coat and tie, the rucksack folded like a package under my arm. He had just turned 70, I was nearing 42. “Don’t you look nice!” he beamed. He would have made an excellent headmaster — and was in fact, I now believe, the finest one of those I ever had.

Kathleen Tinkel

John Dreyfus at ATypI Antwerp 1993, shot by Kathleen Tinkel

I spent a little time with Mr. Dreyfus, at the ATypI Antwerp 1993 conference — I made this picture there. At the reception in the bank he persuaded me to try the smoked eel, earning my permanent gratitude. Later, he and I and Pete Mason (of Altsys, the perennial Fontographer resource) and some others I do not remember were talking in the TypeLab when I stopped to take this snapshot. I remember John Dreyfus as a charming man with a formidable memory of the real history of modern type (including, I think, many things he preferred not to tell). I’m sure we will all miss him.

Roger Black

Dreyfus was co-founder of ATypI, with Charles Peignot. He really made the organization come to be. And when I joined in the late ’70s he was a constant, positive force. John was much more than “honorary vice-president” of the association. He was a founder, a guide, and a civilizing influence on ATypI. Moreover he helped many of our members in their own pursuit of type. I am grateful to be counted as one of them.

Taro Yamamoto

Mr. Dreyfus’ contribution in the field of typography is immeasurable. Though I had known Mr. Dreyfus only through books printed by him and his writings on Jan van Krimpen, I had a very short encounter with him. “Mr. Dreyfus, I found Dr. John Fell’s portrait on that wall [of the dining hall of Christ Church],” I said. “Yes, he was in Christ Church, but you can see more interesting men here. Look at that wall, you will find Lewis Carroll who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” he said with a smile. This was my first and last encounter with the late Mr. Dreyfus at the ATypI conference in Oxford, 1990.

Sharon Moncur

One of the hallmarks of John Dreyfus was complete and utter courtesy and warm respect to those he came in contact with. He never imposed his greater experience or knowledge on those who knew less, or were less able, than himself. Even though I’m only a humble organiser, rather than a designer or typographer, I always felt valued and appreciated by John. He was available for advice, encouragement and friendship. His contribution to ATypI, and the wider community, was great and he will be remembered with great affection and gratitude here in the ATypI office.

Jean François Porchez

I know him by reputation from my early days of discovery of typography, as in my first year of graphic design courses, my calligraphy teacher share to us some extract of the ’Encyclopaedie de la Chose Imprimée’ conducted by him and Fran ois Richaudeau. A couple of years after, I finally meet him, and I was charmed by his perfect French, with a nice English style, and his gentleman manners. From this moment, I always have the impression that all the type legends was on the same room when he was there and start to speak, very strange effect, but so nice and good.

Then, we started some correspondance time to time, and suddenly, when Gérard Blanchard died during the summer 1998, a couple of weeks before the ATypI Lyon, I contacted John Dreyfus to ask him to wrote on Gérard Blanchard life, naturally he answered to me positively. A couple of days later, I receive a very nice text from him and, more fascinating, a week after, he came to Paris to visit his daughter and take the opportunity to check the final proof of his contribution in the small book we’ve built Jacques Andr and myself. What a great honor to receive this legend in my humble flat of Malakoff (at the time), then, we ve sit down under the kitchen-living room table and review in very simple manner the book and discuss about the forthcoming ATypI conference.

John Dreyfus was a key of the entente cordial between Great Britain and France typographers during several decades, his engagement was very constructive and help us, French, to understood better the value of our past. I will keep forever his voice tone and manners in my memory. Merci.

Petra Černe Oven

My MA thesis at Reading University was on Edward Johnston’s design of blackletter for Hamlet, published by Harry Kessler’s Cranach Press in Weimar. Since this topic overlapped with some of Dreyfus’s research on Johnston’s (in)famous Cranach Press Italic, it was suggested to me to contact Mr Dreyfus. He promptly replied and invited me to visit him at his home. I suppose I don’t need to explain how nervous I was on the day I visited him. But, all my tension melted away during our first lunch which he prepared in his little kitchen, talking about vitamins in bananas and why it is good for me to have one for a dessert.

Generous as he was, he was ready to share his extensive knowledge and material from his private collection even with a complete stranger like me. While I was studying materials in his library, he was — eighty at that time — working in his study (I remember well hearing typewriter noises). I returned to his home many times, always with new information as well as new questions. With slight amusement and pride, Mr Dreyfus pulled out nearly any book or article I mentioned and explained many useful facts. His library holds even the book I was doing research on — English edition of Cranach Press Hamlet — so we had plenty to talk about. I found Mr Dreyfus to be a very kind person, a real gentleman and utterly modest scholar.

Christopher Burke

My experience of meeting John Dreyfus left me with the same impression of his generosity that others have already described. Indeed, before I met him, he kindly replied at some length to a letter I wrote to him while doing my postgraduate research. His reply showed a penetrating knowledge of European type history. Then, while I was doing research into the pre-Morison years of Monotype for the centenary issue of the Monotype Recorder, I wrote to him again to clarify something he had previously written on the subject. He invited me (or perhaps summoned is a better word) to his flat in London to clarify the issue. I remember him picking out from his library some of the Cambridge University Press books that he was most proud of having designed, showing me them with enthusiasm. Our pleasant chat inevitably wandered on to other subjects, including an amusing anecdote involving Stanley Morison and bermuda shorts. He was an expert lecturer, by which I mean he was brilliant at delivering a lecture. I once heard him give a fascinating and eloquent talk on Edward Johnston. He leaves us an admirable body of writing which continues to serve researchers in our field.