Lettering/ The Type Archive Exhibition

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From the catalogue: an introduction

Lettering occupies a secure place among the decorative arts. It stands alongside other worthy callings: weaving, stained glass, ingenious pottery perhaps.

It brightens our lives on soap wrappers and bisquit boxes; its decorative value is beyond dispute. But can it be judged on its own merits?

Fine art generally has no function other than to be seen. Sometimes this can apply to matters alphabetical. But demands for an upgrade in the cultural ranks have so far neither excited informed opinion nor popular imagination. Still, letters delight as one minority pursuit among many: an interest in Chinese bronzes, Easter Island statuary, Dead Sea scrolls.


This collection brings together the features of three tasks: calligraphy, lettering and printmaking.

Calligraphy strives for impromptu writing of the artistic kind. Very little retouching is allowed. Guidelines are usually erased upon completion. In some languages the word simply means penmanship. Many examples, historical and modern, are handsome. Some are very beautiful. Numerous practitioners claim it reduces stress and anxiety. It has been used to treat autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Lettering is calligraphy with cheating. Everything is subject to cutting and patching, erasure, second thoughts. Only the end result matters. Before picking up a chisel and mallet, sensible stonecarvers work out every detail of their inscriptions. And spending an extra day making a week’s work look as if it had been knocked up in twenty minutes is often time very well spent.

Printmaking creates its images with a machine, a mechanical pen substitute that can weigh half a ton. Tools and processes that lead to ink on paper, such as an engraver’s burin, the etching needle, gouges for woodcarving, have their own possibilities and limitations. There are many choices.

Novelties were added to traditional methods in the late eighteenth century. Silk screen printing, first used in China during the Song dynasty, reached Europe. Senefelder’s lithography came along in 1796. And in 1867 Lord Kelvin patented the inkjet. Output from such a device is also known as giclée printing (from French: squirt). Never mind; the art world is full of harmless conceits. It was used for this collection, with extensive use of editing software in the prepress stage.

No content

Words for display texts must be chosen with care: they tend to get in the way. The prints that follow manage without any message whatever. In addition to an alphabet they use a famous nonsense filler for longer text samples.

‘Lorem ipsum ...’ is commonly employed to show letterforms and composition without the distraction of content. It is a scrambled version of sections 1.10.32–3 in Cicero’s De finibus bonorum.

Playing with letters is a joy. Every style has a mood of its own, its own tone of voice. The work is held together by traditions that go back centuries, and is pulled apart by conflicting rules of scribal practice and typographic convention. One of them tends to uniformity: moderation, standard solutions and fine points of spacing. The other aims at stretching exit strokes well beyond common sense.

There are no answers. And new temptations come along every day. .

The Type Archive, London

Three decades ago most foundries in the Western world began selling their machinery as scrap metal. In time, software largely replaced both lead typesetting and photocomposition. When Monotype was ready to give up, Susan Shaw said no.


She leased buildings that had served as a veterinary hospital for horses in 1895. Lorries were rented to fetch tons of equipment and supplies. The Type Archive was founded to provide a future for the Monotype treasure she rescued.

It is now a proud part of the Science Museum, and a working enterprise as well, with every tool needed to make hot-metal type. Apprentices learn the art and mystery of the process. The operation can supply lead type for 300 languages.

Much has been added. Business archives. One of the world’s best collections of type specimen books. Punches, matrices and moulds from the principal eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British type foundries.

Susan Shaw still delights in making impossible dreams come true, and is looking for volunteers and ambassadors.

Tipoteca Italiana

In 1995 the Antiga brothers established Tipoteca Italiana, a private foundation, to preserve and foster the arts of letterpress printing and handset typography. Its mission is to highlight the rich history and significant contributions of Italian type designers from the earliest days of printing, through the Industrial Revolution, to the present.

Tipoteca houses not only an extraordinary collection of metal and wood typefaces, but also maintains an archive, a printing museum, a functioning print studio, and an extensive library—all in one efficiently designed, multipurpose building.

Tipoteca is located in Italy, in Cornuda, a small city north of Treviso, in the heart of the Veneto Region.