The Lost Art of Lettering (aka fonts)

I have always been fascinated with the way people created art long before production line paints and photoshop compositions.

I was thinking today about fonts and how we take them for granted these days.

In my Pops days as a signwriter in the 1930’s artists would refer to Alphabet books which show them all types of lettering and also tell them the history and practical application.

I have all my grandfathers books. The book I am looking at today was written in 1902 and called “Alphabets a Manual of lettering for the use of students with historical and practical descriptions” by Edward F. Strange. According to the stained bookplate inside the cover it was awarded to someone called Archibald McDougall (not my Pop and not sure how he got it – maybe it was his teachers book?) for first prize as a signwriting senior apprentice at The Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College.

In the first pages it talks of the oldest form of Latin lettering in the fifth and sixth century called Unical (see pictures). Not all 26 letters are there.

The way the author describes the people behind the lettering styles over the centuries is wonderful. For example he talks of the book called “Magnum in parvo of The Pens of Perfection” which was “invented, written and engraved in silver by Edward Cocker in 1672”. The author describes Cockers penmanship as “ meritorious and by no means lacking in character.“ It makes me think ‘what fonts do I think have character?’  Do we select a font for pure readability online these days or do fonts mean more to us than we know. Do they make us attribute strength or weakness to the author? Do they make us trust an author more? What if the most trustworthy font is the least friendly online? Oh no compliance teams around the world would start implementing a user experience designers worst nightmare!

According to the author Cocker also wrote the most exquisite account of how to make a pen that he had ever read (see pictures).

My favourite lesson from this book is how to hold a pen in verse:

Incline your right hand from you; strait extend

Two fingers ; and your thumbs joynt outward bend

Which the author then remarks is absolutely and finally the wrong way to hold a pen although he does describe the right way shortly thereafter.

If the well presented illustrations, excruciatingly detailed descriptions and practical uses are not enough the author certainly puts together a courageous list of references he used to create this book. The author categorises his reference list into Paleography, Manuscripts, Illuminations, Printing, Writing books and Modern collections of alphabets. The oldest reference is a book from 1524 by Tagliente called “La vera arte dello eccellento scrivero” which translates to “The true art of excellent writing”. He references however at least 100 books dating from 1524 through to his ‘modern books’ of 1887.

I wonder where Edward Cockers book “Magnum in parvo of The Pens of Perfection” is now?

Part-1-cover-and-contents Part-2-pages-within From-Magnum-in-Parvo How-to-make-a-pen