Is that a chisel in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

October 17, 2009

I’m definitely going to this. I’ve long been a fan of Gaudier-Brzeska, initially coming to him through Pound and Wyndham Lewis. Likewise Epstein.

But most of all I’m looking forward to seeing Eric Gill’s designs and sculptures. There’s an article on him here. Whenever I walk past Broadcasting House, with Gill’s sculpture of Prospero and Ariel (see the photo accompanying the article) I’m reminded of the story, related by Simon Loxley in his Type: The Secret History of Letters:

The governors of the BBC, viewing the work from behind the tarpaulin, were startled by what they considered the extravagant dimensions of Ariel’s penis, and Gill was ordered to make a reduction.

I hadn’t realised, until I read the book, that Gill had been a pupil of Edward Johnston, the man who designed the London Underground typeface. Perhaps I should have done, the famous Gill Sans typeface closely resembles Johnston’s iconic creation.

Hey, it’s not all sans serif round here though – we are nothing if not bookish after all. David Kindersley was an apprentice to Eric Gill (to continue the genealogy) and in 1959, infuriated by the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation’s decision to go for a mixed case sans serif face for the signs on Britain’s expanding road system, produced his own MoT typeface.

[won’t let me link to the example of his road sign, sadly – you can see it on the link below]

The one on the right will be the familiar one, as it is the one that the Ministry of Transport eventually went with. There’s an article on the kerfuffle here, part of an excellent general history of road signs.

No, come back, seriously, I’m a wow at parties.

I would question the statement in that piece that it was Kindersley’s evidence that was found to be suspect though. According to Loxley it was the Ministry that had cited the (apparently non-existant) German evidence, and the dubious Californian evidence (the dodgy dossier of the late ’50s – Suez had nothing on it).  Kindersley’s typeface was more legible on smaller signs, and to my eye anyway, much more attractive. Difficult to see from the picture above, but it had been carefully designed for maximum utility –

Few of the letters are consistent with each other in the places where you would expect them to be. The top crossbar on the F ends with an upper serif and a slightly flared lower edge, whereas the corresponding section of the E has a double serif; on the E it is flared. the crossbar of the T is slightly flared, but has no serifs. The angled strokes of the Y are fatter, then taper, whereas the strokes of the V are of consistent width. The top of angle of the N has a small serif; those of the M have none. The bottom of the vertical stroke of the R has one small serif on the left edge, nothing on the right, whereas on the P there is a small serif on the left edge and a large on the on the right.
Kindersley had designed the alphabet this way to create maximum distinctiveness between the characters; he wanted there to be no confusion between them when view from a distance.

Few of the letters are consistent with each other in the places where you would expect them to be. The top crossbar on the F ends with an upper serif and a slightly flared lower edge, whereas the corresponding section of the E has a double serif; on the E it is flared. the crossbar of the T is slightly flared, but has no serifs. The angled strokes of the Y are fatter, then taper, whereas the strokes of the V are of consistent width. The top of angle of the N has a small serif; those of the M have none. The bottom of the vertical stroke of the R has one small serif on the left edge, nothing on the right, whereas on the P there is a small serif on the left edge and a large on the on the right.

Kindersley had designed the alphabet this way to create maximum distinctiveness between the characters; he wanted there to be no confusion between them when view from a distance.

It has a strongly British feel to it, weighty like old money, idiosyncratic and effective both in appearance and design, and would have reduced the size of the vast hoardings of directions that punctuate our roads. I wish they’d taken it up.

Kindersley married a very young wife late in his life, who survives him and carries on his work at the Cardozo-Kindersley workshop. They designed and executed the distinctive main gates at the British Library. Which, I think, brings us safely back to books, thankfully cocooned again from the world of fast cars and big willies.

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Take the ayre? Recreation? Greatly delighted? What the suck?

March 3, 2008

A while ago I was reading a translation of Lodovico Guicciardini’s account of his travels in the Low Countries, Descrittione di Lodovico Guicciardini patritio fiorentino di tutti i Paesi Bassi altrimenti detti Germania inferiore (1567)—published in English in 1597 as The Description of the Low Countreys. It’s an informal and appealing work, of pleasantly varied interest, but does contain this remarkable entry on the Isle of Schellinck (incidentally I have silently altered the use of the ‘long s’. It’s pretty funny in, say, early editions of Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici – ‘Di∫dain to ∫uck Divinity from the Flowers of Nature’ for instance – but all too confusing without a suitably tailored font and ligatures.)

This is an Ilande in which are some villages abounding with excellent good pastures, greate plentie of Cattell and excellent good fish, especialle Dog-fish, the taking wherof is verie strange and ridiculous, for you shall understand that the Ilande men disguise themselves like Beasts, and in that attire go to the Seaside at such times as they knowe that these fishes will come forth of the sea to take the ayre for their recreation upon the shore, then these diguised men fall and dauncing and leaping with the which sport the fishes being greatly delighted are by the means drawne far from the Sea, while in the meane time nets are pitched betweene the Sea and them, which being done, the dauncers throwe off there digsuised apparell and discovere themselves, wherewith the fishes being astonished, flee towards the Sea and are taken in the nets.

I find it difficult to adequately explain this passage, although three alternatives seem available –

1) He didn’t actually go to Schellinck, and despite sort of implying that he has seen this curious custom, was having his leg pulled (or he totally misunderstood what the person was saying – possible in an area with so many dialects. It is a pretty total misunderstanding though)

2) Something of the sort actually took place and, as it is clearly described as a custom, also worked.

3) He was on drugs.

Anyone who can enlighten me will, on application, be bought a pint.