Geoffrey Tory, Master Designer & Typographer

Gutenberg’s bible was a meticulous imitation of the hand-written illuminated manuscripts that dominated the written word for centuries. Because manuscripts were the only precedent that early printers had for what a text should look like, and because it was what the audience both expected and desired, early incunabula (printed books from before 1501) mimicked manuscripts in the same way that Gutenberg did. The heavily embellished script of these early manuscripts, called “lettre batarde,” or bastard script, was the basis for early typography, and the rules of layout design in general were copied almost exactly. In many ways this was to assure the book buying population that printing was as attractive and valuable as handwritten works, and while it succeeded in causing widespread adoption it also lead to a stagnation in the advancement of typography, an art in its earliest infancy.

An example of “lettre batarde” Gothic type that dominated early printing.

Although there instances of incunabula laid out in a modern serif “Roman” typeface, they are rare, and the rules of design were thoughtful but uninspired imitations of illuminated manuscripts.

This continued until the 1520’s, when a hard-working Parisian printer and designer named Geoffrey Tory laid out new standards for printing that disposed completely of the manuscript style and produced an entirely new design ethos specifically for the visual nuances of the printed word, not the written word. Geoffrey Tory produced a Book of Hours and a treatise on the French language called Champfleury which, together, completely revolutionized the face of printing and typography. He was a sensation in his own day, and his stylistic precedents are foundations for all generations of type designers and layout designers in the five centuries since then.

Biography Of A Printer

Tory was born in France in 1480, roughly 25 years after Gutenberg’s bible and only 10 years after the introduction of printing to France. He studied literature at various universities in Italy and then returned to France to settle in Paris in 1505. Paris during this time was experiencing a massive growth in the book and printing industry, with printers like Thielman Kerver busily involved in the production of government and religious works as well as popular texts, like the Book of Hours. Tory found work as an editor and bookbinder, and he became popular for taking on high workloads and maintaining a high level of production. He quickly became a university professor and then principal, giving lectures which reportedly drew large audiences. After a time he became increasingly interested in the arts and left for Italy, where he studied again for several years before returning to France one last time and taking up the study of illuminated manuscripts.

His passion for art was very much the mark of a renaissance man, and he also showed signs of an unusual sensitivity. He fathered a daughter named Agnes who he doted on and taught Latin to, and upon her death at the age of 9 he wrote poetry about their time together, going so far as adopting Agne’s burial urn for his printer’s mark when he began printing. This emotional attachment and ensuing commitment reflected a character of man not entirely usual for the 16th century, and it is believed that the profound shock of the loss of his daughter influenced his creative career in the following years.

He became a printer around this time and printed his two most famous works, his visually revolutionary Book of Hours and his typographically unprecedented Champfleury. He also worked hard to produce French variations on books which were otherwise only available in Latin, leading the push from Latin into the vernacular that characterized Renaissance literature, and in doing so he standardized the written form of the language, introducing and changing elements of French to suit his vision; he introduced the apostrophe, the accent, the cedilla, and other simple punctuation marks.

In 1530 he was appointed imprimeur du roi, or the official printer to the king, of King Francis I. He took on many apprentices, one of which was future imprimeur du roi Claude Garamond, a lead typographer in the history of type whose seminal typeface “Garamond” is still a fundamental part of modern publishing. The impact of Tory’s typographical vision is evident in Garamond’s typefaces, as it is in most Roman-based typography that came after him.

By 1533, at age 53, Geoffrey Tory was dead. Nothing is known about the circumstances of his death; the date itself is given on a lease, which refers to his wife as a widow.

The Book of Hours

Books of Hours, or horae, were the best-sellers of medieval Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Although some were still being produced as illuminated manuscripts in the 16th century, the advent of printing gradually replaced them due to their affordability. These printed replacements sought to mimic the originals with lavish illustrations and extensive border decorations, and over time the designs became increasingly elaborate and, in the words of some contemporary critics, garish. Thielman Kerver found commercial success in horae and produced many thousands in a number of varieties over his career, an example of which is given below. Although they were very beautiful in many respects and are valuable collector’s pieces today (a hand-rubricated Kerver horae from 1505 in black ink on vellum with red, blue, yellow, and gold rubrication in excellent condition is worth anywhere from $10,000 – $25,000), they had little regard for the concept of differentiation between printing and manuscript production, and no sense of typography or book design beyond what manuscripts dictated.

Kerver Book of Hours, 1503

A Kerver Book of Hours, imitating 15th century illuminated horae.

Tory’s interest in illuminated manuscripts following his second trip to Italy would most certainly have exposed him to a variety of horae, and it is natural that he would have sought to print one of his own. However, it is difficult to imagine where he must have gotten his vision from, for his horae was entirely unlike anything – printed or written – that came before him. He dismissed  almost every convention of popular horae printing, creating something which lead to an immediate paradigm shift in book design and, to the modern collector, is almost the holy grail of post-incunabula printed Horae.

Tory’s Horae had 16 full-page borders and 13 large woodcuts, following the tradition of Horae in general, and used a light Roman type to set his text in. All of the borders and woodcuts were made by Tory’s own hand, and although they have been criticized as comparably rough, their style is unique to the time. They are highly stylized line drawings, employing stark but minimal contrast between black and white, as well as expert and deliberate use of white space, something otherwise lacking from earlier horae. Furthermore, when his woodcuts were colored (as some would be and some would not be, depending on expense and budget), they employed thin and conservative lines in blue and red, utilizing a sophisticated and delicate shading technique that was completely unlike other popular colorizations of the time, which typically mimicked paintings with flat, heavy colors and no regard for white space. Below are examples of Tory’s horae, both colored and uncolored. The expert use of geometry and perspective reflects the heightened artistic sensibilities of the renaissance, while the stunning style of line drawing seems almost 20th century, as though it were something W.A. Dwiggins would produce.

Geoffrey Tory colored folio

Geoffrey Tory black and white folio

Only 17 copies are known to survive of Tory’s own 1531 printing (which was so beloved by the king that it granted Tory unique permissions to publish Francis I’s own works), but Tory devices appear in other horae from the era as well, sometimes with different border illustrations, and sometimes even with a different typeface – there is a beautiful Horae on the market right now for $48,000 printed by Simon du Bois for Geoffrey Tory with the traditional lettre batarde Gothic script, pictured below – and thus there are various opportunities to own a Tory-inspired Horae outside of the 17 1531 printings.

Tory du Bois Leaf


Aside from producing the most important Book of Hours ever printed, Tory wrote and printed one of the most important typographical texts – both for the French language and for typography at large – in history, the Champfleury. It is divided into three parts, the most important of which is “The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face,” wherein he details his meticulous methodology for designing type, what typography itself should be, and the principles it should adhere to.

Tory utilized geometrical shapes and proportions to construct a grid-based system of letter production, influenced specifically to the natural proportions of human anatomy, especially the face. Although his new conventions were not particularly intended for printing, but rather for a reformation of the French language at large, his techniques nonetheless had a great influence on lettering and printing in its wake.

A fairly extensive photo gallery of this work detailing all of the amazing letter forms and techniques can be found here.

File:Geoffroy Tory Letter A 1526.png


Geoffrey Tory was a leading humanist, scholar, publisher, printer, engraver, and orthographic reformer whose commitment to the reformation of the French language and book production almost singlehandedly determined the style of French renaissance typography and book publishing, setting standards that would persist into the centuries. Both his functional and his aesthetic contributions helped establish printing as something firmly distinct from traditional illuminated manuscripts, recognizing the artistic potential in printing as a medium and book production as something modern. White space, appeal to geometry, minimalism, light Roman type over heavy Gothic imitation, and other elements changed the face of book design altogether, and halted a 75-year old tradition of copycatting illuminated manuscripts.

Today, Tory’s contemporary productions are highly valued, and justifiably so. His horae is perhaps the single most desirable printed horae available, and perhaps one of the most valuable books of the early 16th century period. His Champfleury is a historically significant work for anyone interested in the development of written French as well as principles of type design. Copies of the Champfleury from the last 200 years are available at reasonable prices, while a collector would have to be willing to pay thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, to own something from Tory’s own time, if they can even find one in the world to buy. If you ever do encounter a Tory book of hours, however, it would be so distinct – and so immediately breathtaking – that it would be almost impossible to pass over.


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