Can’t have too much. These black and white illustrations from a book on London I picked up from a secondhand shop over Christmas.
‘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.
This blog would not have been written (at least not yet) had I not had cause to pull a Ward Lock & Co guide to London from my bookshelf. It is the 42nd edition and while undated must be around the early 1920s.
While looking for a reference (to Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais sculpture in Victoria Gardens), I came across a London Underground map tipped in. In the bottom left corner is the name MacDonald Gill (look closely at the image lower down – the lettering is all by hand). What, I thought, who is this, having forgotten all I once knew on the Gill clan.
MacDonald (also Max) was himself a letterer, craftsman and rather ‘ordinary’. This from Fiona MacCarthy’s biography (Faber and Faber, 1989, but quoting from the paperback edition of 1990, p255): ‘He too had a reputation as a letterer, had been a member of the War Graves Commission Committee and designed a standard headstone for the British Army dead of the First World War. He had specialised in decorative graphics…Compared with Eric he operated on the artistic middle ground. He was the sort of artist his father understood. Moreover, he was married (though not happily) to the daughter of a canon, whom he left eventually for the daughter of Edward Johnston. Eric’s father made it clear, from early days, that he would like it if Eric could be more ordinary, more like Max’.
And so a man’s life is written.
This picture of him is taken from that same book, dated 1930. (The extract is also the only decent mention of the man, and I have found nothing else in my collection of Gill, so far – I’d be pleased to hear from readers if they know more about Max.)
Separately, it is clear how revolutionary Pick’s map was when it was published in 1931.
PS – thanks to Michael Barker for alerting me to the fact Max was a younger brother of Eric – born 6 Oct 1884, to EG’s 22 Feb 1882. The index in McCarthy’s 1990 pbk edition is in error, but I should have taken more care.
Over the last year or so since this blog has been up and running I can find no mention of Edward Johnston. I don’t know how this can be, given how important he was to the growth of lettering in the early twentieth century and his continuing influence on designers. Let this post be a belated apology for the gap. It starts with this brochure for a book printed in 1994 by the London Transport Museum, called London’s Handwriting. I regret that I did not subscribe but expect the price of 295 pounds was a put off to a struggling hack with a young family and a huge mortgage back then. Google turns up a few references to the volume but I can’t find any for sale through the normal sources (ABE etc). If you hear of one please let me know, or snap it up as it appears to be a fine example of fine printing.
For those who don’t know Edward Johnston visit the Foundation
and there’s a fascinating overview here.
As with many archives, a lot of his stuff is now in the US, at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. As with Gill I’d urge any American readers who live nearby to go visit. For those in the UK a visit to Ditching is a must – just 9 miles north of Brighton. With spring in the air now’s the time…
UHU Glue is one of the most distinctive brands around, simple use of black on yellow, strong typeface that underscores the strength of the product. Futura dates back to 1927, designed by German printer Paul Renner during a period when designers were looking at ways to create a geometric sans-serif. It may owe its genesis to work by Edward Johnston and his famous alphabet for London Underground
On launch Futura was criticised as being ‘block letters for block heads’ but over 80 years later it still looks good. According to Alexander Lawson, author of Anatomy of a Typeface (Hamish Hamilton, 1990), for whom I am indebted for the basis of this article, ‘the type became enormously successful and instigated a sans-serif renaissance that quickly spread from Europe to the US’.
It inspired other designers, among them Rudolf Koch who designed Kabel, made public also in 1927. Lawson notes that in the lowercase the ‘e reaches back to the VEnetian period in its retention of the slanted crossbar’ while in the uppercase ‘several letters are unique in having slanted stroke endings’.
As an end note Gill Sans was launched in 1928 by Monotype in the UK but, writes Lawson, ‘the American Monotype firm refused to offer the Gill type for the American market’, which is how Futura became so widely used there.