Laying out the letter of the lore

Eric Gill - The Visible Word
June 23, 1995

Books on lettering often give the impression that they are written for members of an exclusive club. One wonders if an invitation to tea with someone who has specialist knowledge about leading and colophons is required before one dare even touch the book jacket. David Peace's catalogue of lettering work Eric Gill: The Inscriptions rises above this tendency and provides an excellent, accessible reference book. Building on Evan R. Gill's 1964 edition of The Inscriptional Work of Eric Gill which Peace helped to compile, he has gone on to track down previously unacknowledged examples of Eric Gill's lettering. Nearly 1,000 lettering jobs carried out between 1901 and 1940 are accounted for in this catalogue.

The entries are accompanied by Peace's avuncular commentary. He ties in remarks from Gill's diaries on works in hand, chronicles Gill's gift for selecting appropriate quotations and reminds the reader that inscriptional work was not an occasion for artistic abandonment. Economic considerations consistently played a part in Gill's designs he was after all paid by the letter. This descriptive element of the catalogue does not aim to please the exacting minds of bibliophiles who enjoy catalogues for catalogues' sake. Peace is keen to inspire the reader to go out and look at the real inscriptions, to appreciate both the design and the actual materials used.

Gill's creative work as a sculptor, wood engraver and typographer has been well credited with books and exhibitions. The great variety of his lettering work has not been so thoroughly investigated before. One of the most exciting aspects of this book is the coverage of his earliest inscriptions. These were produced when he was working alone, before he himself had taken up sculpture. This lettering from the first decade of the 20th century received the full focus of his creative powers. You can feel Gill's excitement in pushing his letter forms to their limits. The illustrations show letters stretched like pizza dough. These early experiments may have paved the way for the elegant narrowly cut letters which became Gill's trademark. Yet a comparison of the evidence of Peace's catalogue and Gill's own theoretical writings on the "right" way to work lead one to suspect that Gill became a victim of his own mania for simplicity.

The layout of Peace's catalogue is immaculately organised and includes clearly written appendices on designs for heraldry, war memorials and postage stamps. The catalogue list itself receives generous margins which tempt one to scribble further observations when visiting the sites of the listed works. This is definitely a book that should be kept in the glove compartment of the car so that inscriptions can be visited when you find yourself in the appropriate area.

When such catalogues appear in print there follows a pedantic fascination for accuracy and a desire to catch out the compiler. There is dispute in the lettering world about who actually cut what, almost on a par with art historians' obsessions as to whether something is a Rembrandt or from the "school of Rembrandt". Peace refers to works being "reasonably attributable to" and does not try to conceal the areas of his catalogue which are not yet fully developed tracing works in the United States and Scotland for instance. His advancing years have precluded extensive travel but he invites those with new Gill discoveries to contact the publisher.

Inscriptions are notoriously difficult to photograph, especially when weathered and ill-lit, but the sophisticated 1990s audience of design enthusiasts whose interest this book deserves to capture may be put off by some of the more subdued "Box Brownie" illustrations. There is however a good variety of images reproduced and the use of line drawings throughout the text helps clarify designs admirably. I would love to have seen a good photograph of lettering grace the cover of this book. The very familiar Eric Gill self-portrait as a dust jacket illustration is, I think, an inappropriate choice. For this is not a book about this man's much-discussed egoism and vanity, but about the very thing that made those flaws forgivable his work.

The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-23 is a very refined study in the tradition of shrewd, fast-talking American scholarship. The critical history of experimental typography has not been seriously tackled, according to the author, Joanna Drucker. While modernism led artists to aspire to work beyond verbal interpretation, typography presented an uncomfortable overlap between image and language. Meanwhile literary criticism's search for an accurate if constantly debatable impression of the author's intent meant that experimental typography was seen as a total distraction. As a result typo-graphy fell into a gap between the camps of visual and verbal criticism. There it stayed, largely ignored by critics for most of the 20th century.

The aim of this book is to establish a legitimate theoretical basis for typographical experiment. The 19th-century craving for scientific credibility in all fields of study led linguists to concentrate on phonetics and dismiss the visual significance of lettering. Drucker accuses the linguists of imposing a notion of immateriality on lettering, such that the form of lettering was considered to contribute nothing of linguistic value. She seeks to re-establish the materiality of experimental typography, following what she sees as the conscious message of avant-garde letter designers and poets. She subjects their work, concentrating on Filippo Marinetti, Guillaume Apollinaire, Ilia Zdan-evich and Tristan Tzara, to a semiological appraisal; a choice determined by the historical contemporaneity of the development of semiology and the avant garde. She finds that semiologists followed linguists in their reticence to discuss the experimental lettering around them and concludes that typography by its very nature shows up the limits of semiotic interpretation, rendering apparent the relative rather than the absolute value of symbolic systems.

Once the structure of the critical theories on which we have come to depend are shown by Drucker to limit our understanding of the visual manipulation of language the reader can almost sense the writer relaxing as she poses numerous questions which knock at our complacent expectations of what typography is supposed to provide. She queries for instance why there has been so little cross-fertilisation between what is considered acceptable lettering for advertising and book design.

The broad summary of the final chapter "Critical history: the demise of typographical experiment" helps secure a cultural context for the sharp focus of Drucker's arguments. Here she points to the political fears about the subversive aspect of lettering experiment, as well as discussing the rise of graphic design as an accepted educational discipline and the technological developments that promoted a corporate image far smoother than the "slapdash nurturing" of Futurist and Cubist typographical design. Drucker's language is most colourful and relaxed when she is condemning linguists' indifference to the word on the page or bemoaning the literary stranglehold on book design, such that typographers are expected to produce something as neutral and seamless as possible. One wonders if Drucker herself was forced to comply with the conventional dictates of the layout of an academic book. Although elegantly typeset with a section of Zdanevich experimental typography swirling across the dust jacket, the general feel of the book's design suggests a polite concession to a learned audience who are happy to read about experiments at a safe distance of 80 years.

The fact that Drucker is a practitioner of letter-press design and printing as well as a historian of typography secures a thorough and flexible grasp of her subject but it can sometimes also make the reader feel that she is standing too close to lettering. She assures us that her field of study has been more widely explored in the past decade than ever before but there is still a sense that not enough has yet been written about the criticism of lettering for this book to take on a balanced argument. Until a wider range of books on lettering comes into print, and a clearer dialogue is established it is hard to escape a slight defensive tone, suggesting that Joanna Drucker really does see linguists, without exception, as bogeymen hiding under the bed. Lottie Hoare is an authority on the early work of David Kindersley.

Eric Gill: The Inscriptions: A Descriptive Catalogue

Author - David Peace
ISBN - 1 871569 66 4
Publisher - The Herbert Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 208

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