Eric Gill (1882–1940) did not think of himself primarily as a type designer. In his autobiography he wrote that in the field of drawing letters, he would never ‘be anything but an amateur.’ On his gravestone, which he devised himself, Gill described himself as a ‘stone carver’. He was, of course, many more things as well: a book designer and book illustrator; an artist who made elegant woodcuts and sensual drawings; a sharp and witty writer. Yet his typefaces – modern classics like Joanna, Perpetua, and Gill Sans – are the one aspect of his heritage that is still relevant in today’s visual culture. As this book evidences, Gill Sans especially has become an ubiquitous design tool of the digital age.
Gill Sans is more than just a typeface: it is a meeting of cultures, a amalgam of influences as far apart as Roman stonecarving and English signpainting, renaissance calligraphy and Arts & Crafts book design. It would not have coming into being without the impulses from two men that played such essential roles in Gill’s life and career: Edward Johnston and Stanley Morrison.
Gill’s love of lettering can be traced back to his schoolboy days, when he loved making drawings of railroads – of locomotives, signals and bridges – which naturally lead to (crudely) drawing type. As Gill wrote, ‘locomotives have names, and these are painted on them with great care and artistry. If you’re keen on engines, you collect engine names (at our school it was as popular a hobby as “stamps”) and if you draw engines you cannot leave out their names.’ Some years later, as a student at Chichester Technical and Art School, Gill became quite proficient in the art of lettering in the decorative style of the moment: Art Nouveau. Having moved to London at 18, he soon came to reject his earlier student work after joining the writing and lettering class given at the Central School of Arts and Crafts by Edward Johnston.
Gill and Johnston
Meeting Johnston altered the course of Gill’s life; Johnston’s insights gave his work a direction and a purpose. It helped him shake off ‘the art nonsense’ of his Chichester days, and find an approach to calligraphy and lettering that was more direct, more honest and more precise.
Edward Johnston was largely self-taught in what was at the time considered a dead art: formal writing with a self-cut goose quill pen. He would soon become an undisputed writing master, influencing generations of calligraphers and typographers with his 1906 book Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering. Gill, when watching him write for the first time, felt as if struck by lightning. ‘I did not know such beauty could exist. … It was as though a secret of heaven were being revealed.’ But Johnston’s interest in letterforms was broader than the mediaeval and renaissance writing he revived with such conviction. When walking home one evening with Eric Gill, Johnston pointed at the simple, straightforward lettering on tradesmen’s carts – capital letters done in a straightforward sans-serif style, rather bold and geometric, which Johnston and his contemporaries called ‘Block-letter’. Johnston admired the clarity and simple craftsmanship of those alphabets; they would become a primary source of inspiration when, a decade later, he received the assignment that would result in one of the most revolutionary typefaces of the early 20th century, and the blueprint of what was to become Gill Sans.
In 1913 Johnston was approached by Frank Pick of the London Electric Railway Company (which would become London Transport in 1933). Pick wanted a new typeface for the public transport system: modern and functional, each of its letters ‘a strong and unmistakable symbol’ that would clearly stand out from the surrounding advertising. In response to his specifications, Johnston submitted a sans-serif, geometrically constructed alphabet whose proportions were based on those of Roman monumental lettering such as the alphabet found on the famous Trajan Column. Johnston designed upper- and lowercase alphabets as well as a condensed version to be used on buses (1922); the typeface is still in use today, with the necessary modifications to guide it through the many changes in printing and typesetting technology.
Perpetua, his first printing typeface
While Johnston was involved in the complex process of developing the Underground typeface for a variety of uses, his former student Eric Gill was gaining a firm reputation as a lettering artist, stonemason, sculptor and illustrator. When in 1924 he was approached by Stanley Morison of the Monotype company to design a printing face to be produced for the Monotype system, he politely refused, saying: ‘Typography is not my line of country’. It took Morison some years of gentle persuasion to convince Gill to produce drawings for a typeface based on his stonecarving alphabet — the typeface that would become Perpetua. A strikingly contemporary roman text face, Perpetua was produced with the help of the Frenchman Charles Malin, one of the last artisan punchcutters. Morison especially admired its titling capitals, writing: ‘The capitals that he did, I think, will be immortal. They’ll be used as long as the Roman alphabet is ever used anywhere.’
The first publications printed with Perpetua as a text face were published in 1928–1929, one of them being a book by Eric Gill himself. Gill’s interest in type design was now aroused.
The making of Gill Sans
Stanley Morison soon approached Gill with a new proposal. Morison had realised that what Monotype needed to bring its type library up to date was a legible sans-serif face. German type foundries were releasing a string of geometric sans-serifs: Erbar by Jakob Erbar in 1926, Kabel by Rudolf Koch in 1927, and the most successful of all, Paul Renner’s Futura in 1928. Monotype wanted to come up with a British answer to Futura – soon. And Morison believed Gill was the man for the job. One reason was that he was a letter cutter, which according to Morison made his lettering work extremely powerful: ‘A cut line is very different from a drawn line … When he was cutting, he cut. He committed himself. He wasn’t afraid of committing himself.’ The other reason was more specific: Morison was impressed by a set of capitals that Gill had designed for a mutual friend, the bookseller Douglas Cleverdon. In 1926 Gill had sketched a few alphabets – both oldstyle romans and sans-serifs – for Cleverdon as suggestions for lettering for labels and placard in his new Bristol. When Cleverdon then asked Gill to paint the facia of his shop, Gill chose the ‘Block-letter‘. As soon as Morison saw the result, he realised the answer to Monotype’s quest for a sans might lie in these capital letters. Another reason for wanting new typefaces suitable for both text and display was the launch of a new Monotype machine that was able to produce type sizes up to 72pt, the Super Caster.
Gill readily supplied complete alphabets of the upper- and lowercase and agreed, somewhat surprised by Morison’s suggestion, to call the new face Gill Sans. The design owed much to Johnston’s Underground alphabet, although there were many differences as well. Gill corrected many of the Underground typeface’s more quirky elements – the strict Roman proportions of the capitals, its somewhat rigid monolinear character (i.e. all strokes having the same thickness), the square dots. Gill’s own comments on the Johnston typeface and his departure from it are interesting, also for his strikingly modern use of the word ‘fool-proof’: ‘The first notable attempt to work out the norm for plain letters,’ wrote Gill, ‘was made by Edward Johnston when he designed the sans-serif letter for the London Underground Railways. Some of these letters are not entirely satisfactory, especially when it is remembered that, for such a purpose, an alphabet should be as near as possible to “fool-proof”, i.e. the forms should be measurable — nothing should be left to the imagination of the sign-writer or the enamel-plate maker. In this quality of “fool-proofness”, my Monotype sans-serif face is perhaps an improvement: the letters are more strictly normal.’
Nevertheless, Gill Sans has some quirky elements as well. While the capitals are beautifully balanced, working well both as initials and in all-caps settings, the lowercase forms are plenty of surprises. The two-story ‘g’, with its geometric structure based on a circle and an oval, is strikingly unorthodox, as its the ‘t’ with it triangular top; the bowl of the ‘a’ has a stronger thick-thin contrast than the rest of the letters seem to justify. Like its serif counterpart, Perpetua, Gill Sans comes with a hybrid italic, somewhere halfway between a calligraphic ‘real‘ italic and a sloped roman. In the context of this rather business-like italic alphabet, a detail such as the spur on the ‘p‘ stands out. Some typographers regard it as a flaw: too conspicuous for comfort. But of course, without these details, Gill Sans wouldn’t be Gill Sans. It is these and other characteristics that lend the typeface its unique charm.
The proof of a typeface in in the reading; and in that department, despite its rather unorthodox construction principles, Gill Sans does not disappoint. During its first decades, Gill Sans was recommended for advertising and display use only. But as readers got used to reading sans-serif, Gill Sans turned out to work well for body text in magazines as well as books. Britain remained characteristically conservative, preferring a seriffed roman under almost all circumstances; but in the Netherlands, for instances, Gill Sans became a popular text face for text books and magazines. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom were among the countries that adopted Gill Sans for many administrative documents – notably those used by the British Post Office and the Dutch PTT. A special version called Gill Sans Schoolbook became very popular to set books for young children; in the Schoolbook version, Gill Sans’ clarity of construction has been further enhanced by replacing the more complex shapes of the lowercase ‘a’ and ‘g’ by simplified single-storey variants.
When Gill Sans proved successful, Monotype capitalised on its usability for headlines by producing a vast number of derivates for display sizes – light, bold, condensed and heavy varieties; Shadowline, Inline, Cameo and Cameo Ruled versions; and the most extreme of all, Gill Sans Ultra Bold, also know as Kayo. These display versions were usually not drawn by Gill, but by anonymous workers in the Monotype Drawing Office. Surprisingly enough, in his capacity as a consultant to Monotype, Gill collaborated in the production of these rather exorbitant versions of his brainchild – typographic eccentricities one would not imagine to be compatible with Gill’s rather strict typographic principles. But as Simon Loxley wrote, ‘in the land of Gill, expect the unexpected.’ Humour, too, is something that could be expected from Gill, witness the witty pet name he came up with for the overweight Kayo: Gill Sans Elephans.
One assignment in the last decade of his life must have pleased Gill immensely: to design the lettering of the Flying Scotsman, a locomotive of the LNER railway company, which had adopted Gill Sans as its corporate typeface. Having once admired the lettering on trains, he now created the kind of letters which, as a boy, he had merely copied.
Letters are things
It is this kind of job that brings to mind Gill’s most famous dictum: ‘Letters are things, not pictures of things.’ The phrase is often misunderstood, and should be read in its context. Gill was not so much referring to letters as physical shapes, or objects, as too their autonomy – the fact that a letter is, first and foremost, itself; that as a shape, it is not referring to anything but itself. Precision is crucial: there is no such thing as an impressionist letter. Here’s the complete paragraph: ‘The shapes of letters do not derive their beauty from any sensual or sentimental reminiscence. No one can say that the ‘O’’s roundness appeals to us only because it is like that of an apple or of a girl’s breast or of the full moon. We like the circle because such liking is connatural to the human mind. And no one can say lettering is not a useful trade by which you can honestly serve your fellow men and earn an honest living. Of what other trade or art are these things so palpably true? Moreover it is a precise art. You don’t draw an ‘A’ and then stand back and say: “there, that gives you a good idea of an ‘A’ as seen through an autumn mist”, or: “that’s not a real ‘A’ but gives you a good effect of one.” Letters are things, not pictures of things.’
Letters are things made for reading, and that is what Gill designed them for. This ultimately makes Eric Gill a functionalist; and GIll Sans, his most popular design, a very functional typeface indeed.
• Eric Gill, An essay on typography. J.M. Dent & Sons, London 1931
• Eric Gill, Autobiography. Jonathan Cape, London 1940
• Simon Loxley, Type. The Secret History of Letters, I.B.Taurus, London/New York 2004
• Fiona McCarthy, Eric GIll. Faber and Faber, London/Boston 1989
• James Moran, Stanley Morison. His typographic achievement. Lund Humpries, London 1971
• Stanley Morison, A Tally of Types, Cambridge University Press, 1973