History of Lettering lettering

More architectural lettering from Australia

Having noticed recent interest in a post first made in September 2011, I belatedly follow up with another taken during my productive vacation the other month. Regular readers will have noted my comments on Dorrigo (click here if you missed them), but on the way to that township we went through the larger outpost of Bellingen (30.4333° S, 152.9000° E).

It was in this place that I spotted the rather wonderful cast-iron lettering shown here, Bellingen boots shoes signagewhich adorned, by the looks of it, a late-nineteenth Bellingen Ironmongeryhaberdashery shop (the sort of emporium that sold everything to the local population unable to make the trip with any frequency to a city).

bellingen emporiumNow I have been scouring my books, in particular Bartram’s The English Lettering Tradition from 1700 to the present day (Lund Humphries, 1986) and Nicolete Gray’s Lettering on Buildings (The Architectural Press, 1960) and XIXth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages (Faber and Faber, 1938) and make the observation that what we have here is what the former describes as ‘decorative’ and the latter as ‘Tuscan style’, though most definitely Victorian in origin. (For more on Gray see here.)

Gray writes: ‘Like the Egyptian, the nineteenth-century Tuscan was at least as much an architectural as a typographical invention’.  This example shows a range of typefaces from the 1860s and 1870s.Gra and Tuscan lettering_0001

Gra and Tuscan letteringIts origin, she continues, may be traced to fourth century Rome and ‘one of the greatest of letterers, Furius Dionysius Filocalus. The name is undoubtedly a pseudonym and expresses the man’s attitude to his work: conscious, devoted and expressionist’. This example (below) comes from the Catacomb of St Calixtus, Rome and is taken from Lettering on Buildings – a must read for any serious student of typography.

The other images above are taken from Lettering and XXIXth Ornamented (another volume to add to the Christmas wish list).

So, from Bellingen to Rome in one fair sweep.

Filocalus lettering from 4th century Rome
Filocalus lettering from 4th century Rome
Elements of Lettering

Roman lettercarvers named

It is rare for individuals who carve lettering to be remembered. I have carved a number of public inscriptions in the UK and I doubt anyone in a thousand years time will pause to reflect on the hand behind the cut. I would not expect otherwise. So I was taken aback when browsing Alan Bartram’s indispensable Lettering on Architecture (one of two books that should be on the bookshelf of any serious student of lettering – the other is Nicolete Gray’s A History of Lettering – see here for an earlier post on her) of the revelation that certain monumental inscriptions in Roman can be identified with one Luca Horfei and Matheo de Meli, in or around the late 16th century. Now I would like to write more on these characters, and Nicolete Gray gives a hint as to where to find further information – none other than James Mosley. For those who have not stumbled across that name before take note. He was librarian of the famous St Bride printing library in central London for many decades (until 2000) and what he didn’t know about printing history could…well, it could be written on the back of a postage stamp. He is a legend and I remember visiting that library when I was working in Fleet Street and being awed by the great man’s presence. Of Mosley, and this is a digression, a long one, I quote from Bulletin 32 [page 19] of the Printing Historical Society that I happen to have to hand: ‘After lunch, the company reassembled for James Mosley’s “Morris and the ‘Rugged’ School of Typography”. The most invigorating and original of the day’s offerings, this included a particularly fine and telling sequence of slides and [unscripted] commentary bringing to life an apparently neglected context of Kelmscott typography lying in some of the freehand drawn lettering of its period.’ You get my drift. Anyhow, regarding further commentary on Horfei and de Meli, that can be found in Mosley’s 1964 article ‘Trajan Revived’ printed in Alphabet. However, Gray offers a glimpse when she writes that Horfei followed the style of the writing master, G.F. Cresci, and designed ‘much of the lettering connected with the great town planning works in Rome inaugurated by Pope Sixtus V (1585-90)’ [p.147]. The illustrations below show: Luca Pacioli B; a B based on Trajan from Cresci (1570); and lettering designed by Horfei and cut by de Meli (1588).

Horfei and Matheo de Meli_0001 Horfei and Matheo de Meli

Elements of Lettering History of Lettering Thoughts on lettering

‘…humble greeting to all true and devoted Lovers of well-formed Letters’

So wrote Geofrey Tory as introduction to his 1529 volume Champ Fleury, The Art & Science of the proper & true Proportions of the Attic Letters, which are otherwise called Antique Letters, and in common speech Roman Letters.  (All quotes from the 1967 Dover edition of the translation published by The Grolier Club, 1927.) Part two of this book considers the letters and proportions in context of the human body, or, more precisely, ‘compared to those of the natural body and face of the perfect man’. His method is geometry – the circle, square and triangle – and when I was starting out in letter carving I filled my notebook with examples of this system. Why? I forget, for the letters are, to the modern eye, stale, dull and passionless. Nevertheless, there is sometimes need to look back and reflect on how things were once done; maybe even learn something. (Such as to be reacquainted with the nine muses and the seven liberal arts – see page 38 of the Dover edition.) As for Tory (1480-1533), Steinberg writes that ‘… not least of his achievements – [he was] the teacher of Garamond’. (Five Hundred Years of Printing, Penguin, 1955, p35.) The first two illustrations are from the 1967 volume, the last is my effort back in the 1990s.


Literature and lettering and signwriting

Possibly a rich resource, as yet untapped. Prompted by this paragraph in VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, the eponymous ‘hero’ cast as a sign-writer.

‘So Mr Biswas became a sign-writer…He had been used to designing letters with pen and pencil and was afraid that he would not be able to control a brush with paint. But he found that the brush, though flattening out disconcertingly at first could be made to respond to the gentlest pressure; strokes were cleaner, curves truer. “Just turn the brush slowly in your fingers when you come to the curve,” Alec said; and curves had fewer problems after that. After IDLERS KEEP OUT BY ORDER he did more signs with Alec; his hands became surer, his strokes bolder, his feeling for letters finer. He thought R and S the most beautiful of Roman letters; no letter could express so many moods as R, without losing its beauty; and what could compare with the swing and rhythm of S?”

[A House for Mr Biswas, first published 1962. This edition, 1995, Everyman’s Library, p.72-73.]

Sounds as though Naipaul himself had been a sign-writer at one stage, or at least had spent time with one. Appreciate any similar from your readings.

[Illustrations taken from Signwork: A craftsman’s manual by Bill Stewart, 1984, Granada Technical Books, London; Signwritten Art by AJ Lewery, 1989, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.]

Elements of Lettering History of Lettering

Squared capitals and Caslon

I posted the other day about the book Lettering for Advertising by Mortimer Leach [if you missed it please click here].

This book was written at a time when advertising drawings, in particular the lettering element, were hand-drawn. A time before Letraset.

In the early chapters Leach gives some examples of popular type faces that can be adapted to hand-drawing. I have noted his use of Futura. Now let us turn to Caslon.

In prefacing this he refers to Squared Capitals, as used by the Romans – Trajan Column et al.

This is his drawing of them, and they would be suitable for use in stonecarving as is.

Elements of Lettering lettering

The trouble with U – part two

Thoughts on lettering

The trouble with U – part one

Teaser. More to come. This illustration from ANNO’S ALPHABET, An Adventure in Imagination, by Mitsumasa Anno, Bodley Head, 1974

History of Lettering lettering lettering, typography, alphabets, stonework typography

The letter D

Bernard’s essays in The London Mercury, see here, are fascinating, and will feature more in this blog I reckon over coming days and weeks.

As a starter take this illustration from his essay titled About Type-Design, itself reproduced from Frederic Goudy‘s The Alphabet. A key to the figures: 1 – Trajan;  2 – pen form; 3 & 4 – Gothic and Lombardic; 8 – Jenson; 9 & 12 – Kennerley (Goudy); 10 & 13 – Caslon; 11 & 14 – Bodoni.

Elements of Lettering History of Lettering lettering lettering, typography, alphabets, stonework typography

Fournier and Perpetua, a clarification

Thanks Marvin for pointing out that the titling shown on an earlier post about Fournier is actually Perpetua.

Here’s the proof: the pages taken from a Monotype specimen catalogue. Fournier of course follows the tradition of squared serifs, whereas Perpetua (by Gill) followed the Roman Trajan tradition with serifs that mimicked the action of the hand held chisel.

Thoughts on lettering

Elements of lettering – 5a

Can’t leave the letter R without a couple more illustrations, both from the Catich volume mentioned before – The Origin of the Serif. Both are brush drawn. The first also shows the various elements of the letter, while the second is simply an exercise in brush-manship, of which Catich (and more about him in  another post) was an expert. It is also the cover of the paperback edition I have. Will also have more to write about brush lettering, and its relationship to stone carving. I also touched on this before.