Divisive passion

Lettering / Divisive passion

Under water

The Doves Press was a milestone of fine printing in Britain. The type it used was based on Nicholas Jenson’s 15th century roman. It was cut in a single size and one weight, and only used for sixteen years. It now rests on the bottom of the Thames.

One disturbed bookbinder

It isn’t easy to explain what attracts some people to letterforms with great joy and fury. Most people can’t tell typing from printing, and the latest figures on illiteracy suggest that we should be grateful, while we can, that they can read at all.

Small particulars of the alphabet can easily become an obsession. I often think of Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, a remarkable man and a bookbinder of distinction, as he stood on Hammersmith Bridge in the dark, throwing the printing type of the Doves Press into the Thames. This was a crime of passion and has a comical side that the decades often give to such things. But I can see him, heart pounding, full of earnest purpose, as he puts his beloved type to rest. He was not about to wonder, as the song wonders about the lady, who might be kissing her now.

Why and wherefore

I could name a few things that I’d like to throw into the Thames myself in the shadow of night. My reasons wouldn’t be as pure as his. My motive wouldn’t be love.

Assorted flavors

Letters have many functions. They can be bold or expressive, or the outcome of reflection and analysis. They are shaped by circumstances

Function or feeling or both?

People who like lettering disagree over everything. They argue about the very purpose of the alphabet, which is as good a point for a fight as any.

Some say that letters exist to be read and therefore the things that interfere with legibility should be discouraged. (This is a bit like saying that the purpose of liquor is to get you drunk. If it were right, people would swig metal polish, and the farmers of Cognac, Burgundy, and Champagne grow potatoes.)

The alphabet, the argument goes, should be a well-mannered servant who quietly carries messages from author to reader. This is sometimes true: it is just what we need in the telephone directory. Fortunately, the world still has other uses for letters as well. We celebrate the alphabet for other reasons than legibility. We enjoy all the passion and the fury and could hardly have more fun without breaking the furniture.

Good choice

You want to sell mittens and galoshes? Distinguished tradition isn’t much use. When possible, give people what they want. A headline with snow may help.

Styles for any occasion

The alphabet has a style for every need. For dignity, the style of Roman inscriptions is unsurpassed. To attempt the limits of human skill, people have decorated letters almost beyond recognition in some of the world’s greatest manuscript books.

More than a code for text, the alphabet has developed through the centuries into a splendid medium of expression. Even the greeting card with pink pigs from your friend Henry had a printed message that was made to look silly expressly to match his sense of humour. I think it’s marvellous, and doubt any permanent damage was done to our heritage.

Seasonal changes

A few colleagues of mine have been driven to despair over some lovely letters with snow on top that are used in winter advertising. These things did not come about by accident. No designer consciously decided to forfeit his reputation and go down in history wearing a fool’s cap. They were made because people wanted them, and it is because people still do that they are used every year as the weather gets cold.

Befitting approach?

People who have never given a thought to letterforms still use them for ornament.

Sentimental legacy

The alphabet is as much an element of human civilization as our cathedrals and railway lines. It is a part of our lives, like the clothes we wear and the songs we sing. We make letters that express moods; we have given them a tone of voice. Like painting, they involve color and composition. Like music, they have a range of emotions. To some of us, they are our songs.


Even if we agree that expression is a part of the alphabet, and agree again that is sometimes comes before legibility, we still have many things to disagree over. One that divides people is approach.

One view is that the only legitimate way is to imitate medieval methods. This means that you should write with a feather. You should work on vellum if you can afford it, on hand-made paper if not (even if it only differs from a comparable machine-made paper in the direction of the fibers). You should approach the job with reverence, and possibly make your own ink. All this is said to be justified by regarding writing, illuminating, and lettering as medieval crafts.

Giovambattista Palatino’s inkwell

It probably held boiled oak gall tannin and soot. Given a choice, would the great man have insisted on home-made supplies?

Stretched tradition

Most of the reasoning about the traditions of lettering also applies to plumbing, which has work practices that go back many centuries. The traditional methods of elbow soldering may have been abandoned and some plumbing amateurs probably deplore this. But we still get the water in and the sewage out. It works. What matters in a piece of lettering, too, is whether it works. For romantic reasons, it may be crucial that the egg in the tempera was laid by a free-range hen. More important, however, is what the thing looks like.

There is great joy in the perfect spacing of an apostrophe. Through the centuries, most of the problems in fitting lettershapes together have been solved by printers and typographers, often gracefully. Their work is available for all to see, but not often put to work in lettering. Instead, schisms come about over technique.

To outsiders, this looks hilarious. But making fun of earnest people is not fair, They see a noble tradition defenseless in an unchartered, treacherous world. They want to protect what they love. If they are a bit vague about parts of it, then so are we all, I suppose, on some subjects. Some of my friends allow their tempers to rise over an irresponsible serif, and that is their privilege.

Who we are

As obsessions go, lettering is wonderful. Anybody with a pen and an idea can have a go.

Tools of the trade

The art of the alphabet makes few demands. It offers many approaches to excellence, both simple and complex. These are matters of taste.

Pleasant compulsion

Despite all claims to the contrary, I believe there’s hope for the world yet. I have two reasons. One is the survival quality of the alphabet. In the long run, neither individual not institutional silliness seems to have made serious mischief. The other reason is that it never seems to stop fascinating people.

We make letters that have already been made through the ages in unthinkable numbers. Not only do we work on a style. Much of our delight is in modifying and redefining it so it reflects who we are.

I have trust in people and believe that in the long haul, good sense will prevail, Until it does, watching the fights is no end of fun.

A longer version of these notes first appeared in Sixty Alphabets, published by Thames and Hudson, London 1986.

For real dirt on Cobden-Sanderson, see John R Nash: Mr Cobden-Sanderson’s Two-Handed Engine, The Book Collector, Volume 25 No 4, London 1976, pp 491–506.