06 February, 2006

English vernacular

Sign painted on glass, about 1825. Museum of London.

Edward Johnston, whose writing manual was published just a century ago, is revered as the founder of a movement which restored letters made with the broad pen to their rightful place, as some have seen it, as the basis of formal scripts, printing types and everyday handwriting.

Less attention has been given to the fact that this simplistic idea, although sincerely held, did some injustice and much real damage to a valuable existing tradition. The contemporary ‘copperplate’ script, written with a flexible pointed pen, was denounced as unnatural. Signwriters were encouraged to abandon their traditional roman and italic letters, and new forms supposedly based on Roman inscriptional capitals supplanted the older forms of painted ‘block letters’. ‘Old face types’ were praised and ‘modern face’ types were deprecated.

There has been some reaction against this narrow-minded view. In the United States a ‘Spencerian’ hand – based on the decorative business writing of the 1890s – is written by several skilled calligraphers of the present day. In France Jean Larcher, who has spent a part of his career in Britain, is a master of the écriture anglaise, and among the greatest of contemporary virtuoso writers. In his Miller type (1997) Matthew Carter gave us an excellent British ‘modern face’ that was as well drawn as some of the innumerable versions of earlier types based on historical models.

But in painted and stone-cut lettering the more formal traditional roman and italic letterforms, styles capable of great beauty and expressiveness as surviving memorials and gravestones show, were more or less annihilated during the course of the twentieth century, and letterers who wish to make traditional painted or stone-cut letters have little encouragement.

This is a pity, because there are places where a failure to use this traditional letter leads to falsification. For the celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of Trafalgar, Nelson’s Victory was refurbished. I am sure that every block, every detail of the rigging and even the colour of the paint is accurately restored to its configuration of 1805. But the lettering is naturally an exception to this rule, and the name at the stern of Victory was repainted in a pallid version of ‘Trajan’ capitals that belong to public buildings of the 1950s, a staggering anachronism, and a needless neglect of the magnificent lettering of the period.

A good way of marking this centenary year of Johnston's Writing and illuminating and lettering would be to republish one of the manuals of this excellent traditional letter that were published for the use of signwriters and letter cutters, such as the set of Roman and italic print alphabets printed by Carington Bowles in London in 1775.