History of Lettering Thoughts on lettering

The joy of having a (small) typography library to hand…and more on Spectrum

I’ve been collecting books since I was a teenager – books of all sorts, though literature and printing predominate. I was fortunate when I was a kid (13 and on) to have two wonderful secondhand bookshops nearby (now both gone) where I lived in south London.

I’d visit them once a week, and I can still remember my excitement at finding the Shakespeare Head copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, as printed in Stratford-upon-Avon. They cost me what was then a fortune – maybe 50 pounds – and I packed them carefully in a cardboard box, lashed it to the carrier on the back of my bike, and, rather unsteadily, and at times having to get off and push (there were several hills between the shop and home) rode back. 

That Shakespeare is one of my pride and joys. As are the various Penrose Annual’s I’ve managed to acquire. Not enough, of course, but sufficient. OK, I know these days one can use ABE and source a copy of a book at the flick of a mouse. But where’s the pleasure in that? That’s why I was delighted a couple of weeks back to stumble upon the Civic and Memorial Lettering volume by Percy Smith. And see where that has led.

Anyhow, this lunchtime, as I was waiting for something to heat up on the stove, I happened to pull down from the ‘library shelves’ the Penrose Annual for 1955. In it I stumbled across this article written by Will Carter on Monotype Spectrum, quite forgetting I had written about Spectrum last November, following an article in the 1954 edition. Carter was a very fine letter carver and printer, and ran the Rampant Lions Press in Cambridge for several decades. [See below for more on the press.]

Carter notes that the capital A of Jan van Krimpen’s design ‘has the cross stroke too high, leaving a diminutive counter that will fill with ink and fluff sooner than any other letter’ [this in the days when letterpress was in its prime] and making it optically too high-waisted a letter’.

He’s similarly critical of the W: ‘Here, it would seem, is a strong case for avoiding the crossed stroke, which is always a little fussy and in a narrow form particularly so.’ 

He goes on to give a wonderfully lucid critique of W in general. ‘Our preoccupation with parallel lines has blinded us to the true balance of white space which should not, as is commonly thought, consist of three triangles of equal area. An imperceptible opening of the two feet and closing of the upper arms will accomplish a proper balance, coupled with the disposal of the middle serif (vide Baskerville) which is an anachronistic reminder that the letter was originally a double V’.

[Re the Rampant Lions: an article in Matrix 27 for 2007, which I’ve also recently acquired – direct from the Whittington Press – notes the press closed in 2006 having been going since 1924.]

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