The Fate of Fonts, Part Five

The Fate of Fonts

Typography and Danger in Germany

The debate about the appropriate typeface was not a new one in Germany. Introduced to the printing press as a substitute for handwritten Medieval manuscripts in the fifteenth century, the fraktur or Gothic script, fell gradually out of favor as the classic Roman script, Antiqua, rose in popularity because of its comparative legibility. But, because this heavily serifed font was associated with the German inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg (????- 1468), the German principalities held on to the black letter script out of national pride. The concept of “national” pride became more significant in the nineteenth century when the German principalities came together as one nation, united under Prussian domination in 1870. German nationalism had been awakened by the struggles with Napoléon I and only intensified with the Franco-Prussian War, which coincided with the unification of Germany. It could be said that “Germany,” in its early years, was defined in opposition to France, which had been occupied by the Romans. Out of war and a mélange of principalities, a modern Germany emerged, needing a new identity. One aspect of Germanic identity that was particularly significant to Germans was the fact that the Roman army never succeeded in going east of the Rhine River. Germany remained German, never Romanized nor classicized. Therefore, part of what defined “Germanness” was its ancient “Germanic” history, and its distinctive alphabet, the Bruchschrift, was a visible and always present signifier of a Teutonic heritage. Ironically the reason for the prominence of fraktur was its outmoded historical presence, a very old alphabet that had long since been abandoned by other modern nations–except for ceremonial purposes. By the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, there were already arguments for Germany joining the international community and abandoning what was now an idiosyncratic font. But there were factions that felt buffeted by the winds of Modernism (France), and, especially after the Great War, felt that it was more important than ever that the Bruchschrift be retained. The post-war debate about Germany’s national font and its fate was a metonymy for larger concerns and deeper questions: What, in the wake of a humiliating defeat, was the meaning of “Germany?”

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The Fraktur Script

It is difficult to know if the strong feelings that surrounded a historical font were due to the sheer newness of Germany or it these reactions to the possibility of using Antiqua were out of a genuine concern for German history. Bismark, the first Chancellor of Germany, once declared that he refused to read “German books in Latin letters.” Bismark’s nationalism pointed to the uncomfortable fact that the Roman font was already being used in Germany, but his sentiments were also nothing new. The poet Johann Wolfgang von Göethe had many publishers, but one of them, Johann Friedrich Unger, also took a stand against the Roman typeface for the poet’s writings. ”Why should we Germans renounce our originality? To please foreigners who learn our language?” he asked, “Does any nation do the same for us?’‘ The nineteenth-century argument carried over into the twentieth century and the discourse on the fraktur font centered on national identity. In 1910, the proto-fascist Adolf Reinecke wrote The German alphabet. Its Origin and Development, its Expediency, and Its National Significance (Die Deutschen Buchstabenschrift) or The German Alphabet, for short, stating that “Fraktur is more compact in printing, which is an advantage for fast recognition of word images while reading. Fraktur is more suitable for expressing the German language, as it is more adapted to the characteristics of the German language than the Latin script. Fraktur is still prone to development; Latin script is set in stone. Fraktur makes it easier for foreigners to understand the German language..” In other words, Fraktur was uniquely German. Even though the font was an old one, it was not antique, like the Roman script which was decidedly not German. This alien Latin lettering was the psychological equivalent of the Roman army invading the territory of the ancient Germanic tribes.

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Roman Lettering carved on Monument

The debate over German identity resumed after the interruption of the Great War with renewed urgency. At first, there was a genuine desire to acknowledge the new century and the new machine age. Designers working in Germany were not part of the old debate and entered boldly into a new age with reform in mind. Although the phrase “New Typography” is credited to Bauhaus master Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1923, we also think of Paul Renner, Herbert Bayer and, most significantly, of Jan Tschichold (1902-1974), a calligrapher from Leipzig, when considering the introduction of a truly modern–as opposed to the merely legible Roman font–alphabet. Tschichold was the son of a sign painter and grew up with letters and lettering and was educated in the practical or applied arts at the Academy for Graphic Arts and Book Production in Leipzig. Although he was only seventeen when he entered, Tschichold was so skilled a calligrapher he was appointed an assistant for the evening classes in lettering at age nineteen. Being someone who was an artist, he was a rapt student of the flourishing excesses of German fonts and was particularly fond of the very elaborate “Maximilian grotesk.” But then his life changed. Tschichold attended the famous Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar in 1923 and was impressed with the forward-looking vision of the school and its artists. As his biographer, Ruari McLean pointed out in Jan Tschichold: A Life in Typography, “Curiously, the Bauhaus artists tended to use type as a component of abstract art rather than for communication. Their typography was wild, sensational, eye-catching, but in terms of legibility, impractical..the typography (by Herbert Bayer) is all in sanserif, and entirely without capital letters–a good example of theory ignoring practicality. Capital letters, like punctuation marks, are functional, since they signal the beginnings of sentences, proper names, different meanings of words, and so on. To omit all capital letters simply makes printed matter a little more difficult to read.”

Design for a Bauhaus Exhibition Poster

Herbert Bayer Bauhaus Poster

It is probable that Tschichold was attracted by the modernity of Bauhaus typography and recognized that a dialogue on a new typography had been opened among artists. He approached the conversation on from the standpoint of the son of a sign maker, who understood that the need to communicate should outweigh the role of design. In fact, he had already been working in a new position, which he termed “the previously unknown profession of typo­graphic designer,” for the firm, Fischer & Wittig. Far from being the invention of Moholy-Nagy or El Littizky, the idea of the “layout” for a page had filtered down to publishing firms where Tschichold had become a “book artist.” But as Robin Kinross pointed out, spurred by Moholy-Nagy and El Littizky, he looked east, past Germany to Russia at the ideas of Constructivism. His first book, titled Elementary Typography (elementare typographie) was a gathering of contemporary writings from avant-garde artists on modern design, rethinking letters and words, and pages as works of art and design. This anthology of theories and arguments from leading modern artists, particularly from Russi seems to have been aimed towards the printing trade or profession as if to spread ideas from one community to another. Like Renner, he understood the need to bring German printing into the international community, and, in 1928, he wrote his own highly influential book, predictably called The New Typography. Sadly, this important book was not translated into English in the late 1960s by McLean when she was writing his biography. This author described the original published version, which was “a working text for compositors and printers. Nevertheless, it has both elegance and originality, qualities which recur in nearly everything that Tschichold designed. The flexible case, in black linen with silver blocking on the spine, is pleasant to touch. The text pages, in a contemporary (non-artist designed) sanserif, are printed on a non-shiny off-white text paper. The typography is not assertive (as was so much Bauhaus typography) but expressive and practical, and the book begins unforgettably with a black frontispiece.

Inside pages of The New Typography

Finally, under the supervision of Kinross, The New Typography was published in English in 1995,

The fate of the “new typographic artists” in Germany will continue in the next post.


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The Fate of Fonts, Part Three

History of French Fonts, Part One

Cassandre and Deberny et Peignot

When an artist heaped with honors in his lifetime, including the being promoted an officer of the French Legion of Honor, ends his career with suicide that is a terrible tragedy and a great loss to the art world. But before the inexplicable end, this artist was the famed author of the visual culture of the post-war period. Born to French parents in the Ukraine, Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron (1901-1968) shunted back and forth between France and Russia, until in 1915, the family moved to Paris permanently, thus missing the upheavals of the Russian Revolution. The young artist attended the local art academies in Paris, moved to Montparnasse in the 1920s, but did not take the expected path towards fine art. Instead, Mouron gravitated to a new and emerging field–modern graphic design, making his bones first as a prize-winning poster designer. In these early years, he adopted the pseudonym of “Cassandre,” which appeared from time to time with his last name or as “A. M. Cassandre.” Eventually, as he became famous, Mouron became the one the only and uniquely “Cassandre.” The artist first gained fame when he designed an orange-gold and black poster for a furniture company, Bûcheron, (the poster designs of Cassandre will be discussed in a later post), radiating diagonal lines that seemed to announce not just chairs, tables and bureaus but also the arrival of a new era of geometric shapes. Prominently displayed in Paris, this obvious and striking example of modern design won first prize at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs of 1925. The poster and the prize it won caught the attention of Charles Peignot, the head of one of France’s oldest and most innovative typefoundry, Deberny et Peignot, a new combination of two firms, which had just merged in 1923. Under the guidance of the artistically minded leader, Peignot, the role of the foundry expanded from manufacture to font design. Cassandre was invited to join Peignot and one of the other new designers, Maximillien Vox (Samuel Monod) (1894-1974), in the task of creating modern typefaces suitable for the modern machine age.

In his book, Modern Typography. An Essay in Critical History, Robin Kinross wrote, referring to the “black art,” or typography, “One might argue, with this distinction in mind, that ‘modern typography’ is indeed a duplication of sense because when printing becomes typography is also when printing becomes modern. Printing becomes modern with the spreading of knowledge about itself: with the published description of its practices; with the classification of its materials and processes; with co-ordination of dimensions of materials, enabling their exchange and better conjunction; with the establishment of a record of its history.” He continued with a discussion of the beginning of modern type or the beginning of sans serif. “Sanserif, as a printing type, made its first appearance in a specimen of 1816 (of William Caslon IV), though it became established as a recognized style of type only in the 1830s in England..” Matthew Carter commented in Eye Magazine on the contribution Kinross made to an understanding of the importance of printing, fonts, characters to modernity, “Robin Kinross dates modernity – implicit in the very idea of printing – as an explicit attitude that began in about 1700, when printing began to be used as the means to describe itself. Here, ‘printing’ is the practice, ‘typography’ the ordering of that practice by instruction, and in the manuals of Moxon (1683-84) and Fertel (1723) typography became articulate and therefore modern.” In other words, Kinross asserted in 1992, a certain self-consciousness about information and how it is dispersed begins to stir. In 1683, Joseph Muxton published, Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, which not only wrote done a tradition passed down orally, he also wrote what would become a handbook for printers for the next two hundred years. In in the mid-seventeenth-century, the typographer began to separate himself from a “printer,” such as Joseph Muxon and became more aware of design. But the marriage of typography and design, or perhaps more precisely, the transformation of typography into design came in the late nineteenth century. “The familiar account, which I think has much truth in it, is that out of the Arts & Crafts rebellion emerged the figure that we call the designer—the typographic designer, the book designer. This person attempted to order the processes of production in printing and attempted to reinfuse the aesthetic element, the dimension of material and visual surplus—pleasure—which printers could no longer provide as an inbuilt part of what they were printing,” Kinross wrote.

Kinross focused primarily on British printing, but some of the most distinctive fonts that emerged from the modern period came from France. It is possible to argue that although English artists precipitated the shift into typography as an art form, it was the French and the Germans who took the next step. Leading the way in France was the firm of Deberny et Peignot. The history of Deberny et Peignot was an interesting one, starting unexpectedly with the famous author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). Balzac paused, at the beginning of his writing career and became a businessman before he became a famous writer. According to B. R. Tolley’s article “Balzac the Printer,” in a 1959 issue of French Studies, from 1825 to 1828, he was a publisher, a printer, and a typefounder. As Tolley wrote,”Balzac used his commercial experience and technical knowledge in his novels.” The detour into publishing seems an odd one for Balzac, but he was an author who saw the opportunity to turn this field to his advantage. Balzac had experienced some success as a writer in the early nineteenth century, and, indeed, his definition of “success” was to become rich by churning out books rich with entertaining soap opera. Balzac admired Sir Walter Scott, who had turned the writing of historical novels into a lucrative business. Balzac, however, as an observer of the “human comedy,” and was more interested in observing the contemporary age and was one of the literary pioneers in the new genre of “realism,” meaning the recording of modern life. In The Politics of Style in the Fiction of Balzac, Beckett and Cortáza by M. R. Axelrod, the author noted that “Balzac’s approach to Realism, like his mentor, made a business out of literature. In his own way, he was the ultimate bourgeois writer..” Indeed, when he hadn’t become famous by the time he was twenty-six, Balzac ventured into the printing business, convinced as Alexrod put it, that “his fortune would be made and leave him plenty of time for writing.” Using money borrowed from his mistress, Louise-Antoinette-Laure De Berny, and his mother, Balzac partnered with André Barbier, a typesetter. The publishing venture, located on the Rue de Marais-Saint-Germain in Paris was to publish the works of La Fontaine and Molière, not to mention those of the struggling author, failed, and Balzac was advised to make money to cover his debts by purchasing a printing press, a financial move that only put him deeper in debt.

The Imprimerie H. Balzac was willing to publish anything and, like a true capitalist, the author purchased the typefoundry of Jean-François Laurent to establish control over all aspects of his enterprise. Alexrod wrote, “Becoming a printer in order to save his publishing, he finally became a type-founder in order to save his printing, by purchasing a bankrupt type-foundry.” But none of those businesses succeeded, mainly because Balzac spent all the profits on his mistresses, plural. His partner, Barbier, abandoned the failing enterprise, leaving the writer with the consequences of his own bad management and bad judgment. Balzac concluded his ill-fated business career over 100,000 francs in arrears, and the author refused to descend into a bourgeois fate of declaring bankruptcy. Fortunately, in 1828, he was able to turn his debts over to his mistress and to foundry owner, Laurent. The nineteen-year-old son of the aristocratic Louise-Antoinette-Laure, Alexandre de Berny, became the new partner and, not wanting to mix nobility with business, renamed himself “Deberny.” As any reader of Balzac understands, the author’s ignominious experience as a failed printer and bankrupt businessman became materials for his mature works. But during his checkered career in publishing, Balzac printed some 168 pamphlets, newspapers, and books, and some sources say this number was as high as three hundred.

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An early article on Balzac as a Printer

Four decades later, in the waning years of the Second Empire, Gustave Peignot (1839-1899) acquired a foundry with the idea of manufacturing fonts or letters. For decades Peignot systematically acquired other foundries (and their font collections), building a business large enough and solvent enough to support the father and his five sons, including Georges Peignot (1872-1915). Georges made all the “aesthetic” decisions, from the artistic selection of fonts to business moves that guided the firm in the direction of innovation. One of the most important decisions he made was to not only acquire already existing typefaces from other firms but to also create new fonts. Starting with emerging style, Art Nouveau, he hired the Swiss architect, artist, and designer, Eugène Samuel Grasset (1845-1917). Today Grasset is best known as a designer in stained glass and is famous for his distinctive Art Nouveau posters, especially in America. In fact, although he is almost forgotten today, Grassat was an extraordinarily versatile artist, a well-known furniture designer for Charles Gillot and the decorator of the famous Chat Noir cabaret. His fame would have been a magnet to the twenty-five-year-old and ambitious Peignot, who approached the artist and informed him of his ambition to update the moribund business of typography. In fact, he told the startled artist, he wanted nothing less than a revolution that would separate France readers from the old and outmoded Didot and Garamond fonts. He wanted an Art Nouveau font. The artist himself had already attempted to get his own font engraved but no foundry was interested. When he saw Grassat’s drawings, Peignot was impressed with the rejected Art Nouveau font and incorporated the “Grasset” font in 1898 into the family business. The “Grasset” font was based on an old font, dating back to 1471, the alphabet of Nicolas Jenson. The foundry offered the new font in thirteen sizes and based the letters directly on the work–the drawings–made by the artist. The Grassat font was introduced at the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris, the event that introduced the new style of Art Nouveau to the public. The contemporary Art Nouveau version was an immediate success and the striking design foregrounded a nearly forgotten art form, the creation of fonts.

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1940’s French type foundry drawer from a Deberny Et Peignot typesetter’s chest

Georges Peignot was very important to the history of modern French fonts because he recognized the need to update letters and understood that characters needed to express their own time. The other field of visual culture Peignot opened was the culture of name recognition through typography. The Art Nouveau fonts he sponsored, such as those of Georges Auriol (1863-1938), whose “Auriol” font was used ten years later for the Paris Métro, became distinctive typefaces, which “branded” certain experiences. To walk under the distinctive Hector Guimard Métro entrances was to commit to using a new form of transportation that needed to be announced by a distinctive look. The Métro used the most modern font available and the Piegnot fonts became the visual metaphor for Art Nouveau. These Art Nouveau fonts were highly specialized and worked best in selective venues. For example, the fonts of Grasset or Auriol were used only for certain kinds of decorative or “fantasy” books. For serious printed works, only the historic Garamond and Didot (acquired in 1912 by Peignot) fonts were appropriate. Peignot continued to commission artists to create new fonts until his death in 1915 in the Great War. Four out of the five Peignot brothers died in this conflict, leaving behind the memory of the important foundry, honored in Paris in the Rue Quatre Frères Peignot and a surviving young brother.

Like his father, Charles Peignot (1897-1983), the only heir, was artistic and left the business end of the foundry to those better suited to running a manufacturing establishment. In the early twenties, the main competitor for the Peignot company was the old business of Balzac, Deberny, and the two firms understood that it would be more profitable to combine forces. In 1923, Deberny et Peignot came together, combining Deberny’s traditional fonts and the modern fonts of Peignot into one enterprise with Charles Peignot as the artistic head of the new firm. Peignot began an eight-year partnership with Maximillian Vox in 1924, promising to work with the artist to actualize Vox’s “typographic conceptions.” Vox speculated, “It is not impossible that France, with its innate sense of proportion, will see the birth of 20th-century type.” Referring to the history of the role Deberny et Peignot played in revolutionizing fonts, the designer also paid tribute to Georges Peignot, stating that he was “the first French typographer who did not think of his job as confined to supplying the printer with little pieces of metal.” When the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes opened in Paris in 1925, it was clear to Peignot that the day of Art Nouveau had passed and the machine age called for a sharp and clean line of modern fonts, to rectify the excesses of Art Nouveau. It was at this point that the printer made contact with Cassandre and asked for an Art Deco font. And so the long winding road brought Balzac and Cassandre together in an improbable association in the firm Deberny et Peignot.

In the next post, the modern fonts of Cassandre will be discussed.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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The Fate of Fonts, Part Two

The Fate of Fonts

Typography in the 1920s, Part Two

Printing and its old-fashioned fonts had long been viewed as problematic, and, in the nineteenth century, the English designer, William Morris, set out to revive what had once been an art form with the famous Kelmscott Press. His “reform” of mass-produced books was a prelude to the modern movement in typography that actually originated in England before and after the Great War. As Robin Kinross wrote in Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History,

The movement took up Morris’s fight for high standards and for an awareness of aesthetic qualities in printing: as at least one of its leading members reported, the sight of a Kelmscott book had provided the shock of excitement that started a life-long engagement with typography. But the reformers dissented from Morris on the question of the machine..Furthermore, the legacy of Kelmscott, as taken up by the private presses, had, there, become ossified in the cult of the ‘book beautiful’ or had degenerated in weak imitations of the original conception. The advent of Art Nouveau, and its degeneration, had brought further confusion, especially to a trade printer trying to keep up with fashion. In the face of this situation of decline, the compromise made by the reformers was to accept the machine and provide it with good typefaces. For the book-centred reformers, ‘the machine’ meant above all the Lanston Monotype composing machine, which in Britain was dominant in the sphere of book-printing; line-compos- ing machines predominated in newspaper production..

Kinross was right in pointing out that the task of printing books had gone beyond the scope of the printer and, by the twentieth-century had to become part of the work of designers. The newness of the emerging field can be traced by the uncertain nomenclatures surrounding a new need that no one knew how to name. “The post-war reformation was to be largely the creation of such ‘advisers’, bringing to the printing trade the elements of design. ‘Design’, that is, both in the sense of an aesthetic awareness and in the sense of rational coordination of production,” Kinross stated.“The difference was between the merely modern, seen against a backward trade or ossified bibliophile context, and the consciously modern or the modernist.” In other words, in England and in Germany, the old tradition of hand lettering, which had been replicated in old fonts, was being replaced by a rather belated admission of the role of the machine in printing. The hand had to be banished. By the early twentieth century, another element was presenting itself: the role of typeface in presenting what we would term today as “branding.” In other words, there were some products or services that were difficult to present visually, such as the London Underground.

The massive subway system needed to be united by more than rails under the Underground Group. As Oliver Wainwright explained in The Guardian, the subways, plural, were united into one, under a single “brand,” and in 1916, a calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872-1944) was asked by Frank Pick, head of the Group, to create a typeface that was modern, distinct and yet unobtrusive. The result was a font that was based on the sharp-edged lettering on Trajan’s column, the capitals the artist considered “held the supreme place among letters for readableness and beauty,” as “the best forms for the grandest and most important inscriptions.” The stripped down, lightweight and legible capital letters were san serif, something a bit new in the early twentieth century. In his article, “London to the Letter: Meet Edward Johnston, The Font of All Tube Style,” Wainwright credits Johnston for drawing attention to the way in which such clear and clean fonts could be read with ease. The London Underground script, as it is known today, seems to lift and fly with the speed of the cars rushing past, a prime example of a brand fitting the function of what it represents. One hundred years later, this font is still timeless and irreplaceable–just like Trajan’s column.

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London Underground Font

Johnston had a close associate, the younger designer Eric Gill (1882-1940) who was inspired by the trim look of the sans serif font to create his own font, known as Gill Sans, in 1928. A bit thicker than Johnston’s Underground lettering, Gill Sans is one of the best-known fonts today and was recently redone in 2015 for the contemporary eye, redesigned as the Gill Sans Nova and the Joanna Nova series. As the owner of these fonts, the Monotype corporation explained, “These are contemporary digital typefaces – with a wide range of weights, alternate characters, and extended language support – that pay homage to Gill’s original designs.” The creative director of Monotype, James Fooks-Bale, said, “The Eric Gill Series is what I’d like to refer to as a living narrative, not static and we’re a small part in its evolution since the 1920s.” Like Johnston, Gill’s font would become part of English transportation when Gill Sans was adopted by “London & North Eastern Railway in 1929 as its official typeface for publicity and posters, later appearing on trains themselves. Then Gill Sans really spread its wings, because at nationalisation in 1948 it was adopted by the British Railways Board for its station signage, rolling stock lettering, timetables, and publicity.”

As a 2013 article at UK Time explained, “The British Railways station signs worked so well because Gill Sans is a very dictatorial font, ordering you about in a no-nonsense way. As such, the signs were perfectly suited to the post-war period in Britain, the last time that men in bowler hats were in charge of everything before the 1960s came along and the whole structure of society was blown apart. How reassuring it must have been for a train traveller of the 1950s to know that when arriving at Barnstaple, or looking for the Way Out, they could be in no doubt at all that they were indisputably at Barnstaple, or the Way Out would be precisely where indicated.” Gill Sans was used until the British Railways were privitized in 1965 and Gill’s work was replaced by the Rail Alphabet.

British Railway Car with Gill Sans signage

In Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield wrote, “Oddly enough, Gill Sans is itself a curiously sexless font..In his autobiography, Gill explained that sans serif was the obvious choice when ‘a forward-minded bookseller of Bristol asked me to paint his shop fascia.’ The long wooden sign in question, for Douglas Cleverdon, led to something else–after seeing a sketch of these letters, Gill’s old friend Stanley Morison commissioned him to design an original sans face for Monotype. Its impact was instant and is still reverberating..It was the most British of types, not only in its appearance (spare, proper, and reservedly proud), but also in its usage, adopted by the Church of England, the BBC, the first Penguin book jackets and British Railways (where it was used on everything from timetables to restaurant menus). Each showed Gill Sans to be a supremely workable text face, carefully structured for mass production.It wasn’t the most charming or radiant, and not perhaps the most endearing choice for literary fiction, but it was ideal for catalogues and academia. It was an inherently trustworthy font, never fussy, consistently practical.” However, to return to the beginning of this paragraph, why did Garfield use the unexpected phrase, “oddly enough” to comment on the sexlessness of Gill Sans?

Perpetua, unlike Gill Sans, has serifs

The great design historian, Steven Heller, reported for Wired Magazine that Gill wrote about his penchant for bestiality and incest and produced pornography, even while designing the Perpetua font, in his diary. The combination of creating elegant fonts and exotic sexual tendencies, which, as the author observed wryly, earned “him posthumous scorn.” The author of the biography, Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God, that revealed Gill’s most interesting life, Fiona MacCarthy, considered the link between the artist’s work and the artist’s personal life: should one be judged by the other? For her article in The Guardian, she discussed a less known aspect of this work, his sculpture. Gill was as adventurous in his public sculpture as he was in his personal life. By 1910, a decorous time in the British arts, the sculptor and soon to be famous font designer, was exploring forbidden topics and producing heretofore rare subject matter. As MacCarthy wrote,

He was already working at the extremes of the domestic and the risqué; his placid mother and child carvings contrasting with the sheer effrontery of such works as Votes for Women, an explicit carving showing the act of intercourse, woman of course on top. Maynard Keynes bought the carving for £5. When asked how his staff reacted to it, he replied: “My staff are trained not to believe their eyes.” This was also the period at which Gill was making the almost life-size sculpture he entitled Fucking. This carving was over protectively rechristened Ecstasy when bought for the collection at Tate Britain, having been discovered abandoned in a boathouse at Birchington-on-Sea. Is it relevant or is it a distraction to know that the subject of the carving is Gill’s younger sister Gladys and her husband Ernest Laughton, entwined in a position of – well – ecstasy, and that Gill’s own incestuous relationship with Gladys was then in progress, continuing for most of their adult life? To me it is significant in stressing the artist’s dependence on the known and familial: his passion was the personal, he would not use outside models. It certainly deepens understanding of the element of voyeurism in Gill’s work.

The biographer’s 2006 article, “Written in Stone,” discussed Gill’s fonts only briefly, but mentioned that, during 1924, he created the Gill Sans series in a “ruined Benedictine monastery at Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains of Wales. Here he designed his brilliantly workmanlike typefaces for Monotype, typically throwing his reservations about machine production to the winds. Gill Sans, the sans serif typeface used on the covers of pre-war Penguin books, is rightly lauded in the current V&A Modernism exhibition as the first British modernist type design. What is striking,” MacCarthy wrote, “is that once the immediate commotion over Gill’s sexual aberrations had died down, there was a new surge of interest in his work.” in fact, the reissue of an updated version of Gill Sans, took place ten years later. Like the recent renovation of Gill Sans, the Underground font was also slightly altered. As the London Transport Museum reported, “In the 1970s, London Transport looked into the suitability of using Johnston or its replacement with a more modern letter form. In 1979, Eiichi Kono, a young Japanese designer working for Banks and Miles, revised the original Johnston with slight changes to the proportions to some of the letters and created bold and italic fonts. The New Johnston type is still in use across the network today.” Whatever one might think of Gill the man, it is clear that he followed the creed of his mentor, Johnston, that a font should demonstrate “Readableness, Beauty, and Character.”

But, for the purposes of this series, the question must be asked, why raise the issue of the artist’s life and Gill’s work in fonts? On one hand, there is an interesting contrast between the straightforward Gill Sans and the tangled life of the artist, but, on the other hand, the disturbance about his character underlines how important fonts are to our lives today. For German artists, fonts became deciding factors in their lives. At the same time, Eric Gill was working on his sans fonts in a remote monastery, his German counterparts were creating letters that would put their lives at risk. The next post will examine the dangers of making fonts for the wrong person–Adolf Hitler–at the wrong time.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.