Tiffany Wardle Memorial Liveblogging™ of a presentation at ATypI Brighton 2007 (q.v.)

I thought, as a new member of ATypI, I’d better just establish some credentials. (Shows slide of a a railway engine and reams of text. Took him seven years.) And it shows my other affliction, which is a love of steam locomotion, which is probably due to being born in that house (shows house overshadowed by train right nearby). Gill Sans was used for the numbering and naming of the locomotives and was later adopted and nationalized by British Railways. That established my passions at a very early age, something like five.

Eric Gill’s mentor was Edward Johnston, often described as the father of modern calligraphy. Born in South America in 1892, died in Ditchling in 1944. (Shows his house, Cleves, where he lived from 1920–44.) (Shows animated slide with Zapfino.)

Today’s digital font technology has allowed Hermann Zapf to finally realize a vision from over 60 years ago – to capture the freedom and liveliness of handwriting. Zapf always regarded Johnston as his master, and when he comes to Ditchling he puts a rose on his grave. (Shows illegible quote from Zapf that he does not read out.)

Johnston’s own work and Gill’s have changed the face of British printing, some say. The biggest change in the shape of letters in 450 years or more. Yet Johnston was a man devoid of any personal ambition. Loved the ancient book hands and mediæval scribes lost in the invention of printing in the 15th century. By 1906, shortly after he started teaching at Central School of Arts and Design, he wrote his first book, in continuous publication ever since. Sidney Cockrel described it as the best handbook ever written on any subject.

Johnston’s kind of public race is the alphabet he designed for London Electric Railways. These are printed from the original wood blocks by Ian Mortimer (slide). (Shows current slide, a nice one, from White City.) Not many people know that Johnston also designed the roundel here. It was commissioned by Frank Pick in 1916.

(Shows precursor, just like Franklin, really.) With typical early single-width sansserif letters, which I’ve seen described as the worst letters in use at the time. (He means monospaced.) (Shows a station in 1906, same one in 1932 with much more legible type and in Arts and Crafts style by Charles Holden.) This is what Pick calls his new architectural idiom, the drum type of Underground stations. (Others were folding-screen type.) His byword was: If in doubt, leave it out. (Many remarks on architecture untranscribed.)

75 years later, the exciting new postmodern architecture of the Jubilee Line extension, with Johnston Sans and the roundel still in evidence. (Shows Canary Wharf by Foster.) Those roundels there are twice the size of any other. So London Transport still put their faith in Johnston Sans.

The timelessness of his lettering really stems from the awareness of very fine proportions of the best of the imperial monumental capitals of Rome (shows Trajan’s column, inevitably, from 112 A.D.). In The Elements of Lettering, they showed how early Greek lettering was based on pure geometry, an showed how a Roman alphabet could be created from Euclidean plane figures of triangle, square, and circle. But because there are so many widths of letter, it is not that pleasing. So Roman lettering is about unification of widths while maintaining diversity of form. (Round, wide rectangles, narrow, and square. Circle and square have same area; other two are halves and quarters.)

But Johnston’s study and analysis of ancient manuscripts, I think, is his greatest contribution. After a dalliance with uncials and half-uncials, eh was directed toward the Carolingian period. (Shows old bible.) Introduces the concept of hierarchy of script: Roman capitals as heds, uncial hand as subhed, Caroline minuscule as book hand. (Shows version he taught with that has more English forms, larger and rounder.) Saw this as a perfect form for his foundational hand.

Johnston taught very much angle of pen, weight of pen, and form of letter. (Describes how the circular O makes it easy to relate other letters to that immutable shape – vary the weight the pen angle, the roundness, as with elliptical for italic, angular for blackletter, extended for uncial. Add order, direction, and number of strokes and the speed of writing and you’ve got it all.) (Shows video of hand writing at 45° angle. Shows the preceding copperplate hand with thin pen, with lots of pressure for thick strokes and release of pressure for thin, so not really a calligraphic hand, one that relies on virtuosity and knowledge of where to apply thick and thin strokes. Whereas the broad-edged pen does it for you.)

Johnston’s a gentle man with a worldly outlook and whimsy. His outlook and way of living endeared him to many of his students and colleagues. Loved mathematics and algebra, which helped him enormously in his analysis of mediæval manuscripts. “When a problem has been clearly stated,it can be considered half solved.”

(Shows amazing photo of blackboard illustration at Royal College of Art.) (Longish presentation about how 30° is just right for a foundational hand.) Most calligraphers are unaware of the need to continue the curve at the bottom and draw too narrow a t. The need to get the top halves right is that we tend to scan the letters in the top halves. If you were presented with (lower half), you would really have to construct the word. Johnston was really aware of that epiphenomenon. “Heads are more important than feet.”

Try to keep the counters containing the same space [surface area] as the interletter space. (Shows other slides, past and present, that derive from the Johnston influence.) (Shows Steve Jobs, who said that auditing a calligraphy course set him on the journey of understanding typefaces, including for the Mac.) (Shows calligraphers’ fonts, like Lithos, Gill, Joanna, Snell, Veljovic, Stone, Basalt, Ex Ponto, Zapfino, Minion, Palatino, Goudy, Brioso, Trajan.)

(Q&A: I asked which came first, Underground or Gill? Underground!)

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.09.14 10:46. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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