Eric Gill – An Essay on Typography

‘The world has now caught up with Gill’ suggests Penguin, with the reissue of his 1931 treatise An Essay on Typography.

Gill Sans
Gill Sans

Well, to an extent. Re-reading the text, it’s clear that Gill is still as didactic, playful, iconoclastic and forward-thinking as he must have seemed in the 1930s.

In the final section of his essay, Gill advocates ‘the abolition of lettering as we know it altogether’. Schoolchildren would, instead of the alphabet, be taught a series of ‘phonographic’ symbols.

All it would take, Gill says, is ‘some enterprising Minister of Education… [and] some enterprising type-founder who will commission me to design a fount of phonographic symbols.’

In the preceding chapters, Gill sets the context for his manifesto, portraying an era in which Modernism was not yet a prevailing force, ‘the world is not yet clad in garments which befit it’ and in which increasing industrialisation was threatening the position of the craftsman.

This tension between between handcrafts and automated manufacture is a recurring theme for Gill. The situation, he says, ‘makes it impossible for the ordinary workman to be an artist’.

Other highlights in the text are a rigorous yet readable rundown of the history and development of lettering, and Gill’s opinions on Johnston (‘not entirely satisfactory’) and Monotype’s sans-serif face (‘perhaps an improvement’).

Several passages, meanwhile, are pure Gill.

‘It seems clear that as a firm and hearty belief in Christian marriage enables one not only to make the best jokes about it but even to break the rules with greater assurance… so a good clear training in the making of normal letters will enable a man to indulge more efficiently in fancy and impudence.’

An Essay on Typography, by Eric Gill, is published by Penguin Classics on 14 November, priced at £7.99.

Latest articles