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Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 4

Fashions in Typography

page 118

Fashions in Typography.

Only two names occur to us, in the whole community of English typographers, whose utterances on the subject of forms and fashions of type would be received with general respect. The two who, from long study and wide knowledge, can thus speak with authority, are Mr Theodore DeVinne of New York, and Mr Talbot Baines Reed, of the English typefounding firm of Sir Charles Reed and Sons. Mr DeVinne's little book on Historic Printing Types we have already reviewed, and also Mr Reed's History of the Old English Letter Foundries—a work which admirably fills a hitherto vacant place in the literature of the Craft. On the 16th April last, Mr Reed read before the Society of Arts a paper on « Old and New Fashions in Typography. » The paper occupies nine pages of the Journal of the Society, and the brief report of the debate that followed fills three more, and the whole discussion is of the most interesting and instructive character. The purpose of the paper, as defined by Mr Reed, was « to take a brief historical survey of the changes through which the Roman letter has passed in the hands of various artists, and of those forms of it which at different times have competed for the distinction of realizing the perfect model. »

Fancy types were excluded, as outside of the scope of his paper, though incidentally he expressed some very pronounced views on the subject. « Till the beginning of the present century such a thing as ornamental type was unknown. Who was the delinquent to whom first occurred the idea of decorating the ordinary form of the alphabet it would be hard to say. » From the tentative and horribly ugly attempts of the early designers of fancy types Mr Reed passed on to those of the present day. « Herod is out-heroded every week in some new fancy which calls itself a letter, and which, in response to a voracious demand, pours in to our market either from native foundries or from the more versatile and supple contortionists of America and Germany. I do not deny that many of our modern fancy letters are graceful, that some are in good taste, that some have a certain beauty; nor am I bold enough to suggest that at this time of day they can be dispensed with. But I admit to some misgivings at the length to which the craze is carrying us, and the almost total abandonment of traditional models which it involves. »

Regarding the plain or standard faces, he says: « The perfect model of a letter is altogether imaginary and arbitrary…. The man who sets himself to make an alphabet has no copy but that left him by former artists…. His eye must furnish the criterion. If the work of those that have gone before satisfies that criterion, he copies it. If it comes short, he corrects it. What, then, is this criterion? It consists, I venture to think, primarily in the legibility of the character, and secondly in its beauty. »

On the important subject of legibility, Mr Reed mentioned the numerous speculations and theories on the subject. He referred to Geoffry Tory's system of proportioning the letters to measurements of the human body and visage. In one of our earlier numbers we wrote of a German printer's scheme of displaying title-pages on a similar plan, and expressed our opinion that there was a good groundwork of common-sense in the idea. Mr Reed bears similar testimony. « Fantastic as the theory was, » he says, « Tory's rules, in the master-hands of his disciple Garamond, produced one of the finest models of type in all Europe. »

Mr Reed does not go so far into the primitive forms as we should have liked. He certainly refers to the typical I as a perpendicular, and the O as a circle; but for illustration of typical forms, he threw upon the screen the old-style roman letters forming the word Manly The forms of letters can only be properly compared and studied by going back to the elementary or sanserif type. There we find, that with all the excrescent developments that disguise the typical forms, there has all through been a wonderful conservatism. It is an astonishing fact, that the European alphabets to-day contain some of the identical forms, in some cases representing the same sound and occupying the same position in the alphabet, as the characters on the Moabite Stone, 2,800 years old—the most ancient alphabetical inscription known. We may instance the A, which differs only from our own in being laid sidewise instead of upright—and even in the primitive form it survives, somewhat disguised, in our a.

Mr Reed deals at some length with the views of Dr Javal, a French oculist, who has laid down a scheme of rules as regards the legibility of type. Mr Reed at once puts his finger on the weak point of the learned doctor's theories. « Dealing with each letter separately, he practically destroys the harmony which at the present time—to lay minds at least—is a main element in the legibility of type, and corrects the alphabet into a form which would try the eyes and temper of readers as much, if not more, than it does in its present unregenerate state. » Exactly the same criticism applies to the alphabet devised by M. Motteroz—a French printer who has decided views as to what the ideal type should be, and has had founts cut accordingly. To the ordinary eye, they are distorted and repellant. The consideration that legibility is determined by grouping and not by individual forms, is commonly overlooked, and its neglect has led to endless mistakes. Mr Reed deserves all credit for giving it its due prominence. Legibility is so little a matter of the letters individually considered, that, with identical characters, one language may be far less legible than another. We have noticed this in Maori. Set with ordinary lowercase, it is more legible than English; but we have found lines of capitals much more difficult to read. The absence of certain curved letters—B, C, D, G, and S—causes a monotony of form, and a word like kihikihi is not readily legible, though the individual letters are plain enough. So with the Russian, which, though the alphabet was devised by learned men, and consists chiefly of familiar Roman and Greek forms—some reversed—is far less legible than the much-abused German character. In fact, notwithstanding the too great similarity of certain Gothic forms, the German is nearly as easy to read as the Roman, for the difficulty applies chiefly to the letters taken singly, not as grouped in actual use. Russian, on the other hand, runs on perpendicular forms, often to the exclusion of round and sloping lines, and one meets with long words where all the strokes are as much alike as the pickets of a fence, and it becomes necessary to spell out letter by letter.

Mr Reed is enthusiastic in his admiration of the Caslon types. We can endorse all that can be said as to the genius of the man, who with such models as he had—and, compared with the refined appliances of our own day, such imperfect tools—produced more perfect, symmetrical, and harmonious forms than had before been seen. Caslon was probably the greatest artist in type that the world has known. He must have possessed a precision of hand and eye that has never been surpassed. We grant that the founts of the transition period, when the modern Roman first supplanted the old, were coarse, inartistic, and far inferior—but we hold that neither the Caslon letter, nor any recent « old-style, » is a fitting character for the books of to-day. It certainly has a characteristic style of its own, which in an age when sham archaisms are the fashion, gives it a place in the job-department among the fancy founts. As much may be said for the lately-revived « Caxton. » The old-style italic, though ugly, has a freedom and piquancy of its own, which places it in a position intermediate between the script and the modern italic, and suits it page 119better for certain kinds of work than either; but we maintain that the modern roman, as cut by the best artists of the day, is the most beautiful letter ever devised, and quite as legible as the old-style. We do not wish to be invidious—any English founder's book will furnish an example—but we might instance Caslon's long-primer No. 23, brought out in 1882, and Miller & Richard's long-primer No. 17, an earlier style, as combining the maximum both of beauty and legibility. We use the term English specimen books advisedly, for neither continental nor American founders equal the English houses in regard to body-letter. In this branch Great Britain maintains the supremacy against all rivals. One of the faces we name we have used in bookwork for nearly twenty years, with ever-increasing appreciation—the other we know only in the specimen book.

We may yet return to Mr Reed's valuable paper, and may have something to say on the discussion that followed. There are many more interesting points than we can discuss in one article. In conclusion, Mr Reed said: « I take it as a hopeful sign that the æsthetics of typography are at the present time being studied by men of artistic taste and authority. The result cannot fail to be of benefit. » If Mr Reed means the professional artists, we join issue with him. Look at the « letters » on the covers of the popular American magazines! They outrage every canon of harmony and proportion. In high-class bank-note and stamp engraving, in which the Americans are acknowledged to lead, the « artist » never does the lettering. There is, as a rule, no man who writes so execrable a « fist, » or so cruelly caricatures the familiar letters of the alphabet. If he can disentomb some particularly cramped penmanship from a fourteenth-century manuscript, he is in his glory. It is to the « æsthete » that we owe the « craze » and « the abandonment of traditional models » deplored by Mr Reed in the opening portion of his paper. When Caslon was bringing out his long primer No. 23, he did not submit the proofs to Mr Whistler or to Mr Walter Crane, in which case we might perhaps have had something nearly as wild as the American « Mikado. » The gentlemen he consulted were Mr John Bellows and the late Mr William Blades. The result was a type unsurpassed in beauty and symmetry—a thing of beauty and a joy—if not for ever, so long as our present alphabet holds its ground.

We have had placed in our hands a long and interesting paper on the « Classification of Workmen and Apprentices, » written by Mr Chatwin, sen. (of Lyon & Blair, Wellington), a practical printer of many years' experience, for the Wellington Branch of the N.Z.T.A., and which has been under the consideration of that body. We intend to publish it in full at an early date, that the Craft as a whole may have the benefit of the suggestions it contains; and we hope it will give rise to much discussion. We shall be happy to afford reasonable space for the consideration of the subject, which is of the highest importance. Everything points to the probability of a reorganization of the Typographical Association on new lines; and possibly practical effect may be then given to a scheme something in the nature of that suggested by Mr Chatwin.

We are preparing an extra-size issue for December, to close our fourth volume, and ask the support and assistance of our friends to greatly extend our subscription-list for 1891. Our roll of subscribers in New Zealand could easily be doubled or trebled, and in Australia could be multiplied tenfold. While the regular technical articles and news items will appear in the December number, the literary portion will be extended. « The Quoin Drawer » will be again opened, and suitable contributions are invited. There will also be an original story: « The Confessions of a Book-Fiend. »