History of Lettering

Sunday’s with a vintage Penrose

There’s nothing better than spending a fine summer Sunday with a Penrose. Often when I’m preparing a light lunch I’ll pull out one of the Penrose Annual’s and have a browse while something’s simmering on the hob. Today I had the 1964 volume out, blew off a covering of dust, and at the back, among the advertisements (which are often the greatest source of delight) came across this. It’s for GF Smith & Son (London) Ltd of 2 Leathermarket, Weston St, SE1, though the firm had branches too in Hull (Lockwood St) and Birmingham (Gazette Buildings, 168 Corporation St). The purpose of the ad was to promote a cover paper (Caslon Duplex Bright White/Blue Ripple, for the record); but that’s subsidiary to this typographic gem.

[If, like me, you love a Penrose click here for other posts.]

lettering Typographic ephemera

Signwriter: the art of Rosalie Gascoigne

She may not be much known out of her native Australia, and even here she has a limited audience. I first came across her work on a visit to this continent when I was still living in London, by the date of the catalogue from which these illustrations are taken, sometime over 1998/1999. She died in October 1999 so this exhibition, held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, was to be something of a memorial.

Typographers will be drawn to her work immediately, as I was – although she trained as a flower arranger in the Japanese sense of that term (ikebana), and only took to art in the mid-1970s. (She was born in New Zealand in 1917, moving to Oz in 1943.) Gascoigne collected – that is what she did, including scraps of signs she found on roads near her home, assembling them into sculptural entities, much as she used to ‘assemble’ floral arrangements.

She wrote in the catalogue: “Beware of nice things that you find that say nothing: they are like new wood from a hardware shop. I look for things that have been somewhere, done something. Second hand materials aren’t deliberate; they have had sun and wind on them. Simple things. From simplicity you get profundity…I am not making pictures, I make feelings…I want to make art without telling a story: it must be allusive, lyrical”.

The first piece shown here is titled Southerly buster (1995, 117cm x 115cm); the second is a detail from Far View of 1990 (three panels, total dimensions 89cm x 221cm) and is made of sawn soft drink crates.

History of Lettering

Phil Baines, Robin Nicholas, Nimrod and Monotype

Phew. A lot of names in the title. But this illustration brings them all together. I bought this poster from Monotype in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It measures 61cm by 91cm, was designed by Baines and printed on a Monotype Lasercomp. It is one of a series, and I have others to delight you.

Elements of Lettering

Architectural lettering – a lesson from history

Now I am not going to say these two local examples (Murwillumbah, NSW, Australia) are wonderful evidence of type, yet I am always fascinated when I come across pieces like this to consider the architect’s (or builder’s) intentions.

In the case of the Budd sign, probably simple advertising, although it is not easy to see and I have passed by that shop for years now without noting it. In fact, it was only when I was on the balcony of the recently renovated adjacent cinema a few weeks back that I spotted it.

The second example is more intriguing since it is purely decorative.

It reminds me of the illustration taken from Alan Bartram’s wonderful Lettering on Architecture (1975), shown here. I also think of Rome with its multitude of monumental signage, also pictured in Bartram’s text (pp 154-155).

Also see this blog on Ralph Beyer.

Comedy Humour lettering

Eating the letter R or Eric Gill for lunch

I recently posted on VS Naipaul and typography here. Still reading Mr Biswas I came on this sentence: ‘ “I could eat the Gill Sans R,” the editor said.’ [Everyman Edition, 1995, p.310).  I could eat the Gill Sans R! What a wonderful expression. Made me think what other letters I would choose to eat at a dinner party; indeed who I would invite to that dinner party to eat those letters. More to follow….your comments/guest list welcome.


Jan Tschichold

Famous for his book on asymmetric typography (1935 – notice the i tucked up into the r) and a huge influence on mid-20th century design, especially at Penguin.

Less well known for a publication issued in 1946 (in English) titled ‘An Illustrated History of Writing and Lettering’.

I’d forgotten I had this book, because of its slimness it had got ‘lost’ among larger companions and it has a battered cover, which of course adds to its charm.

In the introductory note Tschichold writes: ‘The immense flood of printed matter which characterises the present day has not only diminished our reverence for language. It is also beginning to destroy our living sense for the visible representation of language, for writing and lettering. There are few people who are still sensitive to the positive and negative values in lettering, probably because it is under the eyes whichever way we turn, and everybody has to make use of it, even if it be only on the typewriter’.

He has a point, though I think he would have delighted in the freedoms allowed today in the graphic arts and would have enjoyed using a Mac and excelled with InDesign.

lettering typography

Stanley Morison and book jacket design

Stanley Morison is one of the giants of 20th century  English typography, a man whose influence is felt everywhere, no less than at the Monotype Corporation where he was typographical adviser for many years. His death in 1967 prompted that company to issue a special edition of its ‘house magazine’, the Monotype Recorder, for the Autumn of 1968 from which these illustrations are taken.

The first illustrates one of Morison’s flamboyant book jackets for Victor Gollanz, publisher and left-wing advocate. Though undated it is probably from the early 1930s and demonstrates his approach in using the cover as an advertising tool for the text. The colours were chosen to make the book stand out from the crowd, a method that could well be used today – much more effective than a bland photo. (See my blog here on modern book jackets.)

The title page from the Recorder is a wonderful example of restraint. The typeface is Barbou, series 178, which has an interesting genesis as being the heavier, and Morison’s preferred, version of Fournier when first cut in 1924. For more on this see Carter (1987), Twentieth century type designers, p.34.

lettering Typographic ephemera

Characterful signage – Gents

What I love about this sign is that it was hand-painted, and has been weathered and scared over the years. The s is particularly beautiful.

alphabet Elements of Lettering History of Lettering Thoughts on lettering

Letraset – or sticky-on lettering

A recent post about space-age typography made me wonder about the fate of Letraset, that rub-on lettering  highly popular in the 1970s and 1980s, maybe a bit longer. Computer typography has made the process obsolete, as Letraset made hand-drawing of lettering obsolete. I remember using it and cursing when it failed to peel off from the backing plastic. It was a pain but when it did work it was quick.

Here are some of the fonts, taken at random, from a catalogue dated 1980 that I have in my collection.


Spot the difference – futura

These illustrations are from a wonderful book called Lettering for Advertising, by Mortimer Leach, 1956. In those days (think Mad Men) advertising drawings were done by hand. I’ll have more to show from this book in future posts.

Sufficient to show the example from his example of how to draw Futura by hand.