07 December, 2009

Eric Gill’s R: the Italian connection

Last edited 13 May 2010
The letter R in any of Gill’s types is unmistakeably his own: the tail springs from the relatively small upper bowl with a dynamic curve and then, straightening, continues at an angle to the base line below, which it meets with a flat terminal, sometimes enlivened (as in Perpetua and Joanna) with a hint at a serif.
In 1930 Beatrice Warde picked out the R as one of the letters which helps Gill Sans to ‘achieve a personality of its own’, adding that it ‘would be recognised by anyone who had watched this letter develop out of Mr. Gill’s straight-tailed R’. A study of Gill’s lettering shows that this form of R did not so much develop as happen rather abruptly in about 1907.

Gill had begun to use a ‘straight-tailed R’ when he submitted to the discipline of the calligraphic teaching of Edward Johnston.

This R, with its tail springing from the main stem, was shown by Johnston in his Writing and illuminating and lettering (1906), above, as (slightly surprisingly) one of the ‘narrow letters’ in his list of the essential forms of ‘the Roman alphabet and its derivatives’.

In the chapter on lettercutting that Gill contributed to Johnston’s book he showed the same shape (above) adapted for cutting in stone, and he suggested that ‘beauty of form may safely be left to a right use of the chisel combined with a well-advised study of the best examples of inscriptions: such as that on the Trajan Column and other Roman inscriptions in the South Kensington and British Museums.’

But in an inscription that Gill cut in 1907 to the memory of Irene Nichols, a detail from which is shown above, several of the letters depart from his current style. The bracketing of the serifs extends so far up the stems of the thin strokes that these are almost wedge-shaped. E is a curved uncial form. G is curly. M has a high centre, and R has a curved tail springing from the bowl. None of these shapes is sanctioned by Johnston, although the high-centred M appears in his Underground letter. None resembles the letters of the Trajan column nor any other lettering of Imperial Rome. However all of them are present, sometimes as alternative forms, in an inscription (although it is not a Roman one), that is indeed in the South Kensington (now the Victoria & Albert) Museum, which acquired it in 1887.

The monument to the Marchese Spinetta Malaspina, dating from the second quarter of the fifteenth century, is from a vanished church in Verona. The wedge-shaped strokes of the letters of the inscription, which are cut to a uniform height of just under 4 cm, the high centre to M and the ‘sprung’ tail to the small-bowled R, are all characteristic of Italian, and especially Florentine, work of this period, and the resemblance to Gill’s Nichols inscription of 1907 is striking.

Gill was not the only British designer to have felt the appeal of this style of letter, whose influence can be seen in work by William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Gill’s mature letter forms are powerfully stamped with his own character, but they are a fusion of material from many sources.
In the Florentine R, however he discovered it, Gill found a form that would serve him for the rest of his life.

Gill was not historically minded, and his freedom from dependence on obvious models is not the least of the secrets of the appeal of his lettering at its best. The reader of this piece must decide if the suggestion that appears here is convincing. It originally appeared in the Monotype Recorder, new series, no. 8 (Autumn 1990), pp. 38-9. Most of that issue of the journal consisted of essays by other hands, leaving only two pages at the end for the words and images of what I called a ‘tailpiece’. That meant its wording had to be short, no bad thing in a blog from time to time, so I have left the original words more or less untouched. But I thought it might be useful to add something by way of amplification.
Irene Nichols (1862–1907) was for a time a bookbinder. She had travelled in Russia and Poland, and then in Italy. She learned bookbinding in Rome, and when she returned to England she took lessons privately from T. J. Cobden-Sanderson at his own workshop, but she never joined the Doves Bindery, and after the death of her mother in 1892 (did she perhaps inherit an income?) she largely gave up binding for ‘social work’. Her health, which had never been strong, became worse and she died in her forties from influenza. We know this much from a brief note published in her memory. Her monument, number 125 in Evan Gill’s list of his brother’s inscriptions, was set up at Ryde, Isle of Wight. Was her own evidently close association with Italy in any way responsible for this use by Gill in his lettering of an idiom that was new? There seems to be no way of discovering, but as we see, the effect of at least one detail seems to have been enduring.
As for the more general influence of the ‘Florentine’ style on ideas about lettering, which would continue to be seen in drawn and incised lettering, and also in types like the Florentine and Della Robbia of the American Type Founders Company, I imagine this to be a natural effect of the widespread study during the later 19th century of the Florentine sculpture with which the inscriptions are often associated. In the cast court of the South Kensington Museum there were casts of the Donatello Judith and Holofernes from the Piazza della Signoria, with his signature in a mature littera antiqua (for some reason it has just been moved next to the fragment of the façade of the late 16th-century London house of Sir Paul Pindar in the museum’s new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries in which the Spinetta Malaspina monument has been re-installed), and of the Cantoria, the singing gallery of Luca della Robbia (1431–8), intended for the cathedral, which is exhibited in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Its painted inscription is carefully reproduced on the museum’s cast. (The eastern cast court is closed at present. The image of a detail of the Cantoria shown here was made at a distance from a gallery that overlooks the court.)

When I mentioned the influence of the Florentine letter on William Morris, someone whose lack of enthusiasm for Italian models generally might make his choice of this one seem surprising, I was thinking of the pierced brass weather vane at his Red House at Bexleyheath. (Perhaps I should add that my image was made in the garden at Red House when the original drawing had been brought there by John Brandon Jones with some other items on the occasion of a visit organized by the William Morris Society.) But the design is by his friend Philip Webb, the architect of Red House, and not by Morris himself. The drawing, on a scale of half an inch to one foot, is now among the RIBA Drawings and Archives, [33], 5 (folder PB86/Webb), held at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It is signed and dated Nov. 1859, shows the initals W and J, for William and Jane, intertwined, height 140 mm (5½ in), and the date in a fascinating and extraordinary set of numerals. It is one of the earliest examples that I know of the revived Florentine letter. As for Johnston’s use in his Underground letter of the non-classical Florentine M with its high centre, the form is repeated in Gill Sans, and it is tempting to speculate whether this may have been was a part of the contribution to the project that it is known that Gill was paid for.
The essay by Beatrice Warde / Paul Beaujon that I cited in my original text was ‘Eric Gill, sculptor of letters’, in The Fleuron 7 (1930), pp. 27–60 (at p. 41). The examples of Eric Gill’s work are from the St Bride Library. My thanks to Paul Donoghue for some useful discussion of Red House.
Last edited 13 May 2010.