Thoughts on lettering

Will Lethaby, the Central School of Arts and Crafts (London), Ed Johnston and Germany


‘No good form is ever made by consciously designing it.’ So said William Lethaby (1857-1931). By which he meant that things should be designed by the craftsman who made them. This man, who founded London’s Central School (1896) and was a mate of William Morris among many others, was also one of the first, what we would call, holistic environmentalists. ‘Right building is a part of nature. A proper house and church, before man turned round as the enemy of the rest of nature, were but bigger chambers in another kind of honeycomb…The care of the Earth is the greatest of all the arts…Is this to be a world of wrecked machines, crashed aeroplanes and stranded warships, rusty iron everywhere?’

Lethaby had a major influence on Johnston, who he met in April 1898. No wonder the latter (then 26) found such inspiration in a man who thought handwriting ‘the most universal of the arts’ and wrote: ‘We might reform the world if we began with our own handwriting…the form of a letter cannot be properly “drawn” or “designed”; it must be written’.

Significantly it wasn’t Britain that benefited from this philosophy. Rather it was Germany. By the end of the nineteenth century students from that country were coming to Central to learn calligraphy, as well as investigating architecture and design. The Germans took up Lethaby’s ideas and ran with it, leading to the creation of the Deutsche Werkbund in 1907. By contrast the British printing industry turned away.


Rubens, G. 1976. WR Lethaby and the revival of printing in The Penrose Annual. London, Northwood Publications.

Johnston, P. n.d. Edward Johnston and WR Lethaby in Lessons in Formal Writing (1986). London. Lund Humphries.

Newdigate, B.H. 1922. Scribes and Illuminators in Book Production Notes (1986). Oxshott. Tabard Private Press.


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