An Essay on Typography, by Eric Gill, Sheed and Ward (1931)

{Ed. Note: This article is from Books and Vines contributor Neil.}

Eric Gill (1882-1940) was one of the greatest English artist-craftsmen of the twentieth century: a calligrapher, Illustrator, letter-cutter, mason, sculptor, stamp-designer, teacher, typographer, wood-engraver and writer. He was also a man of contradictions and reconciling the paradox of Gill the artist, Gill the deeply religious man who converted to Roman Catholicism with Gill the man can be difficult (for instance, see this).

Gill was born in Brighton, England.  He moved to London in 1900 and was apprenticed to an architect.  During his training he also attended evening classes in stonemasonry and calligraphy.  It was during his calligraphy classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts that he first met the creator of the London Underground typeface Edward Johnston, who was a major early influence culminating in Gill’s creation of the Gill Sans typeface.  In 1903, he gave up his apprenticeship to become a calligrapher, letter-cutter and monumental mason.

Following his marriage to Ethel Moore he moved with his family to Ditchling in Sussex in 1907.  Gill, with Desmond Chute and Hilary Pepler, founded The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic at Ditchling where one of his pupils was the artist, poet and writer David Jones. In 1924 Gill moved to Capel-y-ffin in Wales, setting up a new workshop.

Gill produced prints from his own wood-engravings, but they are more familiar from the many books he illustrated (frequently alongside his own typeface). The most famous being the books from the Golden Cockerel Press, particularly The Canterbury Tales and The Four Gospels. 1928 Gill moved to Pigotts in Buckinghamshire where he set up yet another workshop employing a number of apprentices including David Kindersley. Gill also ran a printing press with his son-in law Rene Hague (Hague & Gill).

The major sculptures of Eric Gill include The Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral, eight reliefs for the London Electric Railway, The Virgin and Child for Marlborough College, Prospero and Ariel for the BBC’s Broadcasting House and The Creation of Adam for the Palace of Nations in Geneva. His typefaces include Gill Sans, Perpetua, Golden Cockerel, Joanna and Aries. His writings include Sculpture, Art & Love, Art & Prudence, Art & Manufacture, Unemployment, Clothes: An Essay upon the Nature and Significance of the Natural and Artificial Integuments Worn by Men and Women, An Essay on Typography, Christianity and Art, Work and Property and Autobiography: Quod Ore Sumpsimus.

An Essay on Typography (1931)

This little gem of a book was first published in a limited edition in 1931 and has been reprinted many times since. The first edition has a dustjacket that, for once, actually matters! For those unfamiliar with Gill’s brand of Christian Socialism the jacket gives you a hint that the book is about more than typography. It still looks modern today and is boldly printed in Gill Sans in black and red. Underneath the heading Printing and Piety is the subtitle An Essay on life and works in the England of 1931, & particularly TYPOGRAPHY.

An Essay on Typography was the first substantial piece of Gill’s writing to be published. His previous works had been pamphlets, lectures and short essays. Although this is called an essay it runs to 120 pages and eight chapters and is the one book that he devoted to any practical aspect of his work with letters. Gill was the author, designer, type-designer, typographer and, with Rene Hague, the printer of this book. It is hand-set in Gill’s Joanna type – the first use of this typeface.

Gill writes that title pages are “a showing-off ground for the printers and publishers”. The design of the title page of this 1931 edition is a masterpiece of understatement, containing the title, the author’s name and the table of contents and nothing else. The contents are 1. Composition of Time & Place, 2. Lettering, 3. Typography, 4. Punch Cutting, 5. Paper & Ink, 6. The Procrustean Bed, 7. The Instrument, 8. The Book.

One can quibble with some of Gill’s ideas, but to my mind the design of this book is consistent with its contents and is a good example of form following function with readability determining its form. Gill emphasises the importance of close and even word spacing, using occasional contractions and when the text doesn’t fit he begins a word in one size and completes it in another. He writes about the “absurd” rules concerning the use of the ampersand(&) and uses it frequently in his own text. To evenly space his words the pages are left justified with the right ‘ragged’, but still achieves line lengths that are very close and look good on the page. He uses pilcrows to express paragraphs and changes of thought, and ascender height capitals for the start of a new paragraph and smaller caps for the start of a sentence within the paragraph (this contributes to an even appearance of the type on the page).

Eric Gill packs a lot into a small package and writes clearly avoiding jargon and pretentiousness. Whilst An Essay on Typography is a practical handbook it also reflects his attitude towards work and society. Gill rarely misses an opportunity to use a practical point to draw a social or religious moral. The best way to give a flavour of the text and Gill’s thoughts and ideas is to provide a selection of excerpts from the book.

On ‘The Theme’ (Preface)

“But tho’ Industrialism has now won an almost complete victory, the handicrafts are not killed, & they cannot be quite killed because they meet an inherent, indestructible, permanent need in human nature. (even if a man’s whole day be spent as a servant of an industrial concern, in his spare time he will make something, if only a window box flower garden.)”

“The application of these principles [i.e. the industrial and the ‘humane’] to the making of letters and the making of books is the special business of this book.”

 Composition of Time & Place:

“The abnormality of our time, that which makes it contrary to nature, is its deliberate and stated determination to make the working life of men & the product of their working hours mechanically perfect, and to relegate all the humanities, all that is of its nature humane, to their spare time, to the time when they are not at work.”

“The world is not yet clothed in garments that befit it; in architecture, furniture, clothes, we are still using and wearing things which have no real relation to the spirit which moves our life.”

“Now the chief and, though we betray our personal predilection by saying so, the most monstrous characteristic of our time is that the methods of manufacture which we employ and of which we are proud are such as make it impossible for the ordinary workman to be an artist, that is to say a responsible workman, a man responsible not merely for doing what he is told but reponsible also for the intellectual quality of what his deeds effect.”

“Of beauty there need be no lack, for the beautiful is that which pleases being seen, and those things are pleasing when seen which are as nearly perfect as may be in their adapatation to function. Such is the beauty of bones, of beetles, of well-built railway arches, of factory chimneys (when they have the sense to leave out the ornamental frills at the top), of the new concrete bridge across the Rhine at Cologne, of plain brick walls.”

“…the ordinary workman has been reduced to the level of a mere tool used by someone else.”

 “…our business is now to design things which are suitable for machines to make.”

“…how far are we yet from a complete expression of our belief in mechanical perfection and its functional beauty.”

“There is nothing ugly about an operating-theatre strictly designed for its purpose, and a house or flat designed on the same lines need be neither ugly nor uncomfortable.”

“…and plain lettering, when properly chosen and rationally proportioned, has all the nobility of plain words.”

Lettering

“The mind is the arbiter in letter forms, not the tool or the material.”

“The point that chiefly concerns me is that, with whatever tools or materials or economic circumstances (that is hurry & expense) the artist, the letter-maker, has always thought of himself as making existing forms, & not inventing new ones.”

“Letters are letters. A is A, and B is B. The letter-maker of the twentieth century has not got to be an inventor of letter forms but simply a man of intelligence & good will.”

“One of the commonest forms of unsatisfactoriness is due to the unnecessary and therefore unreasonable mixing of many different sorts of letters on the same page or in the same book. It is a safe rule not to mix different styles of letters on the same page, or different faces of type in the same book. A book printed in an inferior type will be better if that inferior type be strictly kept to than if other and even better types be mixed with it.”

“.. a good clear training in the making of normal letters will enable a man to indulge more efficiently in fancy and impudence.”

“…in considering what forms constitute this or that letter the mind, not the tool, is the arbiter; and the mind, as regards lettering, is informed by the printed page.”

Typography

“The slope of italics and their cursivness has been much overdone.”

“A serious book is one which is good in itself according to standards of goodness set by infallible authority, and a wide appeal is one made to intelligent people of all times and nations.”

“A print is properly a dent made by pressing; the history of letterpress printing has been the history of the abolition of that dent.”

“..it is instructive to note that in the early days of printing, when humane exuberance had full scope, printing was characterized by simplicity and decency.”

“Our argument here is not that industrialism has made things worse, but that it has inevitably made them different; and that whereas before industrialism there was one world, now there are two.

“The beauty that industrialism properly produces is the beauty of bones; the beauty that radiates from the work of men is the beauty of the living face.”

Of Paper and Ink

“Machine-made paper is perfectly good material so long as it is not made to imitate the appearance of the hand-made.”

“To be patient is to suffer. By their fruits men know one another, but by their sufferings they are what they are.”

“There is possibly only one sort of paper, one fount of type and, as he [i.e. the craftsman] makes his ink himself, there is only one sort of ink & two or three different colours. And, paradoxical though it may seem, his legitimate personal fancy has therefore even greater scope than is the case with those who are surrounded to the point of bewilderment by a complicated variety of possible choices.”

“The good man is a reasonable man, and the good work is a reasonable work. In typography the use of colour is a reasonable and not a fancy matter, & as every extra colour involves an extra printing, the expense alone places a curb upon the exuberance of the craftsman.”

The Procrustean Bed

“…even spacing is of more importance typographically than equal length.”

“A book is primarily a thing to be read, and the merely neat appearance of a page of type of which all the lines are equal in length is a thing of no very great value in itself; it partakes too much of the ideas of those who regard books as things to be looked at rather than read.”

The Instrument

“It is most important that the workman should not have to watch his instrument, that his whole attention should be given to his work.”

“…industrialism demands different men and produces different things.”

“The industrialist makes no claim to produce works of art; he does so nevertheless – when he is not imitating the art works of the past. The artist makes no claim to serve his fellow men; nevertheless he does so – when he is not wholly led astray by the notion that art is self-expression or the expression of emotion.”

“Those are in error, accordingly, who suppose that when the craftsman strives after technical excellence he is emulating the machine standard. And those are even more grievously mistaken who suppose that if the craftsman neglect his responsibility to exercise good judgment and skill in the actual performance of his work, the consequent lack of uniformity (in the colour of his pages or the weight of his impression) will give to his work the vitality or liveliness which is characteristic of hand work.”

The Book

“Good book-making, good living – that is to say not what you or I fancy, but what the nature of books and the nature of life really demand.”

“A book is a thing to be read – we will start with that – and we will assume that the reader is a sensitive as well as a sensible person.”

“In planning a book the first questions are: who is going to read this, and under what circumstances.”

“We may say then that the general rule should be: a narrow inner margin, a slightly wider top margin, an outer margin at least double the inner, and a bottom slightly wider than the others; the exact proportions being left to the judgment of the printer.”

“Books have got to be handled as well as read, and they have got to stand on shelves.”

“…for the more the human race is degraded by industrialism, the larger is the market for inferior articles; in order to reach a larger & still larger number of buyers you produce a lower and still lower quality of goods.”

“…and the printer whose first concern is quality is not a man of business.”

“For the present we hold simply to the conviction that the two principles and the two worlds can exist side by side, industrialism becoming more strictly and nobly utilitarian as it recognizes its inherent limitations, and the world of human labour, ceasing any longer to compete with it, becoming more strictly and soberly humane.”

There have been changes in production and format to the various editions that have been published since its first appearance in 1931. Whilst they do not have the charm of the first edition the contents are still timeless and absorbing and make this one of the classic texts on typography. The final words go to Martin Hunter and Jerry Kelly who included the 1931 edition in their A Century for the Century:

At first glance, Eric Gill’s (1882-1940) ‘Essay on Typography’ appears to be a predictable, workmanlike production, primarily interesting only for its text. Perhaps this impression is due to its size – much like Jan Tschichold’s book, ‘Typographische Gestaltung’. The work has typographic ideas aplenty, such as the very modern looking book jacket that pronounces (see above). On further inspection, however, the book, printed by Gill and his son-in-law, turns out to be a little masterpiece in 120 superb printed pages.

There are twenty-five examples of letterforms in the text, four of which are printed from wood engravings, ranging from Janson to Baskerville to Gill’s own Joanna slab-serif type. The text is printed on specially hand-made paper of a handsome stone color, bearing Gill’s and Hague’s initials in the watermark. This was the fourth of their books to be printed on the hand press at Pigotts.

About the Edition 

  • An Essay on Typography by Eric Gill
  • Published in 1931 by Sheed and Ward
  • Printed by Eric Gill & Rene Hague
  • The fourth book to be produced by Hague & Gill
  • Printed in hand-set Joanna type on Hague & Gill watermarked hand-made paper on a hand press
  • 125 pp, 202mm x 130mm
  • Signed by Gill & Hague
  • 500 copies

Pictures

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An Essay on Typography, Sheed and Ward, Dust Jacket Cover
An Essay on Typography, Sheed and Ward, Dust Jacket Cover
An Essay on Typography, Sheed and Ward, Spine and Cover
An Essay on Typography, Sheed and Ward, Title/Contents
An Essay on Typography, Sheed and Ward, Macro of Title/Contents
An Essay on Typography, Sheed and Ward, Sample Text #1
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An Essay on Typography, Sheed and Ward, Sample Text #3
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An Essay on Typography, Sheed and Ward, Colophon

2 thoughts on “An Essay on Typography, by Eric Gill, Sheed and Ward (1931)

  1. What I like best is “A book is primarily a thing to be read, and the merely neat appearance of a page of type of which all the lines are equal in length is a thing of no very great value in itself; it partakes too much of the ideas of those who regard books as things to be looked at rather than read.his comment .” A book is meant to be read, in my opinion, that should be its first objective. Design that deviates from that may be cutting edge, but it is not heading towards the ideal, but towards the antithesis of that ideal. He further makes this point with “A book is a thing to be read – we will start with that – and we will assume that the reader is a sensitive as well as a sensible person” and “In planning a book the first questions are: who is going to read this, and under what circumstances.” What a great question to start with when designing a book, what else should be asked?

    Also, I find this interesting: “…and the printer whose first concern is quality is not a man of business.” Probably true, and makes one of the point of my article from the other day — yet, thank God fine press producers often set this aside and focus on creations from their soul, business be damned! None-the-less, an occasional middle course is the ideal as, like it or not, money must be made, or these works would never see the light of day!

  2. This is a fascinating book, far more so than one would have suspected from the generic title “An Essay on Typography” that is nearly always used to identify this work. Frankly, prior to Neil’s well written and informative article I had no idea that this work was equal parts philosophy and typography.

    From the quotations included by Neil in this article, it appears as If Eric Gill is the last gasp of the British Arts & Crafts movement begun in the 1860’s by William Morris and Charles Voysey. There is a sense of resignation when Gill states that “Industrialism has now won an almost complete victory.” However, his despair over the triumph of machine over man has a pragmatic element and he grudgingly admits that objects of beauty can be created by Industrialism, even as the labor of the individual cog in the industrial machine is demeaned:

    “Of beauty there need be no lack, for the beautiful is that which pleases being seen and those things are pleasing when seen which are nearly perfect as may be in their adaptation to function. Such is the beauty of bones, of beetles, of well-built railway arches, of factory chimneys, of the new concrete bridge across the Rhine at Cologne…”

    This should hardly have been a surprise to Eric Gill because the peculiar beauty of Industrialism already had a strong precedent, especially in architecture, dating back to the last quarter of the 19th century. One need look no further than two iconic European landmarks, the Galleria Vittoria Emmanuelle II in Milan (1878) and, of course, the Eiffel Tower (1889). Contemporary with Gill’s life and career, the architecture of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus, spawned by the liberalism and artistic experimentation of the Weimar Republic, should have reinforced this notion, culminating in the groundbreaking work of Mies van der Rohe in the final days of the Bauhaus.

    However, this book is first and foremost a rare opportunity to peer inside the mind of a singular artist, to understand what it is that makes a book beautiful and eminently readable. Few books provide private press book collectors and students of fine typography this opportunity, with the Arion Press edition of Rudolf Koch’s “The Type- foundry in Silhouette” (1982) immediately coming to mind.

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