Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book Arts Tuesday-Edward Johnston

I have just reread Priscilla Johnston's biography of her father Edward Johnston who is often called the "father of modern calligraphy." The first time I read it, over thirty years ago, I was moved by his dedication to creative discovery and what he called "formal penmanship", charmed by his eccentricities, and with no question felt I had spent time getting to know a genius. At this second reading, I added another observation: his wife was a saint.

I was led to reread the book by two reminders of Edward Johnston: the description of Johnston's groundbreaking typeface for the London Underground in 1916 in the new book Just My Type by Simon Garfield and seeing a photo of a book made by Johnston posted on Georgia Angelopoulos' facebook page.

The above image shows the incredible life of his letters. He is quoted in his daughter's biography:

"... Freedom is an essential quality of all work. Thank heaven I have known the joy of it sometimes, when the heart is warm and the Pen, Surface, and Ink and Hand are all doing their best, and then, indeed, nothing can go wrong."

Here is an appreciation of his legacy from the Edward Johnston Foundation website:

Edward Johnston (1872-1944) by his teaching and practice almost single-handedly revived the art of formal penmanship which had lain moribund for four centuries. His major work Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering, first published in 1906 and in print continuously ever since, created a new interest in calligraphy and a new school of excellent scribes. The life he breathed into this ancient craft and its continuing tradition even in today’s hi-tech world can be ascribed to his re-discovery of the influence of tools, materials and methods. His researches were carried out with the understanding of the artist-craftsman, the scientist and the philosopher and this three-fold approach resulted in a profound insight - he fully grasped the root of formal writing and saw how all the branches grew from that root.

The epoch-making sans-serif alphabet he designed for the London Underground Railways changed the face of typography in the twentieth century whilst two of the most popular types of our day ‘Perpetua’ and ‘Gill Sans’ were by his great pupil Eric Gill (1882-1940).

Johnston’s influence has been world-wide. As early as 1910 his pupil Anna Simons translated Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering into German and a tremendous interest was sparked off in that country. So much so that Sir William Rothenstein remarked on a visit to art schools on the continent, ‘in Germany in particular the name of Edward Johnston was known and honoured above that of any artist’.
The other great revival has been in the United States particularly since the 1970s where there has been a veritable explosion of interest both on a professional and amateur level. The annual lettering conferences held in important centres throughout the country are testimony to this rebirth. But, lest we forget Johnston’s pioneering work, we ought perhaps to remind ourselves of what Hermann Zapf has said recently of him,

Nobody had such a lasting effect on the revival of contemporary writing as Edward Johnston. He paved the way for all lettering artists of the twentieth century and ultimately they owe their success to him.

Here are some resources on the web to learn more:

The Edward Johnston Foundation

Johnston's Railway Type
And history of Johnston and his type and its redesign by Eiichi Kono in 1979.

Images of his work at the Visual Arts Data Service, an amazing online portfolio of visual art collections comprising over 100,000 images that are freely available and copyright cleared for use in learning, teaching and research in the UK. He was famous for his blackboard demonstrations.


Gemma Black said...

Thank you for your insight Susan. I am going to reread Pricilla's book too.

Linda Lanza, Scribe said...

So interesting, Susan. Thank you. Linda

Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord said...

Gemma I think you'll enjoy rereading it. Thanks Linda. You might want to read the next post which is also about Johnston by Tom Costello.

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