Black Art

Robin Kinross

  • Twentieth-Century Type Designers by Sebastian Carter
    Trefoil, 168 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 86294 076 1
  • Letters of Credit: A View of Type Design by Walter Tracy
    Gordon Fraser, 224 pp, £16.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 86092 085 2

More than five hundred years on from its first practice, some mystery still surrounds the ‘black art’ of printing. And now, when the secure identity of the printing trade is threatened by instant printers, desk-top publishers and women compositors, the mystery has been displaced and further confused. Typographers feel this every time they are asked what exactly it is that they do. ‘Oh, newspapers?’ someone will hazard. ‘No, books, leaflets, that sort of thing.’ ‘You print them?’ ‘No, design them,’ ‘You make the illustrations?’ Then one tries to explain the function of editorial and visual decision-taking that should intervene – or may happen by default-between the writing of a text and its composition and multiplication as printed pages. The other familiar conversation is of insiders talking together: the obsessive discussions of the visual forms of text matter, of line-lengths and letterspacing. Between these two worlds, of the reader and of the designer of text, the gap may sometimes feel impossibly wide, and yet each depends on the other.

This gap can be traced to the essential workings of printing. Although the labour of producing manuscript books may be, and was, divided up, writing is a unitary process. Printing, however, consists of two stages – composing the text and then multiplying it – and those performing these separate tasks may well know nothing of each other. The process of writing with a pen is easily comprehended and practised. The business of assembling the characters to generate printed letters belongs, however, to the realm of the machine, and has never been very easily accessible: this has been ensured by the barriers of cost, religious and political censorship, and the closed shop. Another twist to the mystery is added by the fact that these characters must be mirror images of the letters they engender.

The history of the typographer is a story of emergence. At first the function was performed by the master printer, who oversaw the workshop of compositors and press operators. But with the development of power-driven presses and (from around 1900) the mechanisation of composition, the designing or planning function fell out of the hands of the printer. This role began to be picked up by outsiders to the trade, who came to appropriate the old term of ‘typographer’. Coinciding with and confirming this shift came a reintroduction of the aesthetic element into printing, which was seen to have been squeezed out by the rise of mechanised processes and of merely economic calculation. William Morris’s Kelmscott Press represented this new impulse most forcefully. Its immediate legacy was the diversion (not at all wished for by Morris) of private press printing: unwanted texts, preciously dressed for the investor’s market. But the more important consequence of the Kelmscott books, for those who could get beyond imitation of their appearance, was a new understanding of typography. As against simple ‘printing’, typography now came to be a practice that infused elements of visual and tactile pleasure into the meaning-governed organisation of text. What form this aesthetic element took, and how inseparable and necessary was its place in the whole product, was the great question, to be argued out in the new journals of typography that began to appear alongside the printing-trade press (which was, and is, limited to merely instrumental considerations).

The material conditions determining the forms of printed letters or characters were fundamentally altered at this time. In 1885 a machine for cutting ‘punches’ (the product of the first stage in the process of making metal type) was patented by Linn Boyd Benton. With this device, the design of letters was removed from the hands of the punch-cutter, who had cut in metal at the size at which a letter would eventually be produced. Responsibility for the final form of letters now passed to a person (either the ‘designer’ or, more usually, an anonymous technical draughtsman) who made large-scale drawings that were then reduced, by pantography, to produce the necessary punches. The extraordinary and hard-won skills of the punch-cutter could then be bypassed, and the design of type was open to those who simply had an interest in letter-forms, and some drawing talent.

This new production method coincided with changes in the economy of printing. There were greater demands for novelty of form in letters, as printers responded to the pressures imposed by their customers, and especially those in the commercial sphere, outside the quiet preserves of book-production. So the image on the face of the type began to be treated as a commodity, and was sold separately from its material embodiment. Thus arose the greater differentiation of these types: where letters for printing had been rather loosely described in terms of their size and style (‘Pica Old Style’), there now began to appear ‘typefaces’, distinguished by trade-names: ‘Ringlet’, ‘Cheltenham’, ‘Mikado’, and so on. (A count made in 1974 found there to be 3,621 such named typefaces.) In the years of aestheticism and free-market capitalism, and up to the First World War, one sees a rather wild growth of new letterforms in Europe and the USA: chasing novelty and not restrained by any noticeable formal propriety. But in the Twenties a movement of historical revival got under way, in the USA and – where it was pursued with most enthusiasm – in Britain.

The recurring issue for this movement was that raised by the composing machine: could good work be done with it? William Morris had not engaged with the problem, though by implication had answered ‘no’. The first generation of typographers, several of whom had been seduced by the astonishing sight and touch of the Kelmscott books, now began to enter into the worlds of publishing and print-design. In several cases also these typographers professed a Morrisian socialism, but without Morris’s sense of the human damage wrought by machine production.

In Britain, the most important and certainly the most vociferous figure here was Stanley Morison, who, in his role as consultant to the Monotype Corporation, was able to agitate for or instigate a number of new interpretations of pre-industrial types for that company’s composing-machines. So, for example, the Monotype-owning printer could purchase a type called ‘Garamond’, derived circuitously from the style of letter defined in the work of the 16th-century French punch-cutter Claude Garamont. With a fast-talking blend of scholarship and salesmanship, Morison, assisted by Beatrice Warde (in charge of publicity at Monotype), raised the typographic consciousness of the English-speaking printing world. In a few golden years of desperate activity, historical research in the libraries of Europe and the USA went hand in hand with business deals: persuading type manufacturers to issue these re-creations, printers to buy them, publishers to issue the discussions and reproductions of old (‘fine’) printing and also of the work that was then being done in a spirit of ‘new traditionalism’. In Britain there grew up the network of publications, institutions and enlightened businesses which came to constitute a culture of typography: the Monotype Recorder and Newsletter, the Curwen Press, the Fleuron, the Double Crown Club, the Nonesuch Press.

The books by Sebastian Carter and Walter Tracy are products of this culture in its present mutation, after the revolution of offset lithography and photocomposition, and in the middle of the diffusion of computer-assisted and digital typesetting. The travails of Fleet Street have dramatised this change of process and the degradation of the compositor’s work that is entailed by the application of computer technology. Less widely noticed have been the visual changes allowed by the new machines, especially in their cruder and earlier versions. Standards in the forms and spacing of letters, which had been ensured by the very material of characters (lead, with carefully admitted additional elements), were lost in the new, unbounded technology of light. One might draw an analogy with change in the material of a simple hand-tool, when wood is replaced by a synthetic substance: it may do the job as well, but one misses the incidental sensual pleasures of a slightly idiosyncratic, slightly malleable material. This is not to argue any special case for the items that now trickle from the hand-presses of California and New England: though one might do well to take more notice of the letter-press printing that is still common in Eastern Europe and the Third World.

Tracy’s book is an attempt to explain what one might mean by quality in the forms of letters for text composition: why some characters or sets of characters are of greater ‘credit’ than others. It is written out of the author’s long experience of typeface development for the British branch of the Linotype company, and has the benefits of internal knowledge of production processes, clearly expounded in lucid prose and appropriate illustrations. This writer has managed to escape from the usual pattern for such books, which is that of a short history of Western (roman) letterforms. Instead he considers basic elements of type design and production (measurement, spacing, variants of style, and so on), with historical perspectives drawn where necessary. This is followed by five essays on typeface designers, which contain a good deal of practical criticism of letters.

Carter’s Twentieth-Century Type Designers might seem to duplicate this part of Letters of Credit, though the two books are largely complementary in their treatments. Tracy is drier and more interested in the letters than in their designers. Carter reproduces drawings or photographs of his subjects, and is attentive to the men (as they all are, with one minor exception) behind the letters. As in any process of industrial production, these designers worked within contexts shaped by a complex of factors: the policy of the commissioning company and its economic fortunes, the constraints and opportunities offered by their machines, the skills of the technical staff. The last factor was particularly important in the Monotype Corporation’s re-cutting of historical types, the forms of which owe more to the skills of their draughtsmen and workshop overseer than to their initiating consultant (Morison), distanced from ‘the works’ by a train journey and with several other irons in his typographic fire.

Carter does show some awareness of the multi-determined complexity of any design process, and prefaces his essays on individuals with discussion of the conditioning factors, as well as with basic information about the making and assembly of type. The predominant mode of the book, however, is that of appreciation, conducted in the rather fruity tones of a Double Crown Club discussion. Beatrice Warde founded her theory of typography on an analogy with a ‘crystal goblet’: she wanted a transparent but just noticeable container that lent refinement to the meaning of a text. The same ethos of good food informs Twentieth-Century Type Designers: ‘In many ways types are like wines: one can learn to discriminate between the varieties of Garamond as produced by Monotype, Linotype, ATF or Stempel, just as the wine taster can detect the Chardonnay grape, whatever vineyard it comes from.’

Among Sebastian Carter’s subjects are Eric Gill and Jan Tschichold: outsiders who posed awkward questions, though the posthumous reputations of both have been shaped to as to allow assimilation into the old boy’s club of British typography. Both gave addresses to the Double Crown Club. In the course of his, in 1926 (a few weeks before the General Strike), Gill remarked that he felt ‘like a miner before a court of mandarins’. This was the time of his first engagement with the activity of designing types for machine composition, and the involvement led him to think out the problems.[*] Although the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement had been formative for him, Gill was critical of its later mutations, and his position came to be an amalgam of Catholic-anarchist-pacifist beliefs, expressed in a fluent (sometimes logorrhetic) discourse that bears some comparison with that of D.H. Lawrence. (Lawrence’s last piece of writing was a review of Gill’s Art Nonsense: it sorts out the one ‘great truth’ from the pub-bore element in Gill.) ‘The machine’ and ‘industrialism’, for Gill – as for Ruskin and Morris – were the devils to be wrestled with. But, by this time, the battle was over. Gill could only point to the loss, and to the evasions and lies involved in designing as if mechanisation had not happened: ‘what I ask of machine-made books is that they shall look machine-made.’ Gill Sans, the typeface designed, under Stanley Morison’s prompting, for the Monotype Corporation, was Gill’s best expression of this belief: though, in the subtlety with which its characters were drawn, and in their avoidance of simple geometry, it was far from the elemental machine-age typeface that the zeitgeist might seem to have demanded.

At that time, on the Continent, Jan Tschichold was the most articulate practitioner of the ‘new typography’: the typographic counterpart to the new architecture. In Tschichold’s work, especially of the early to mid-Thirties, this approach to the design of text surpassed in visual subtlety and responsiveness to meaning the more celebrated typography that was practised at the Dessau Bauhaus. By the time Tschichold came to talk at a Double Crown Club dinner, in 1937, he was living in exile in Switzerland and was on the point of renouncing his Modernism for a return to a traditional manner (quite strongly inflected by the British ‘new traditionalism’). The depth of ignorance of modern typography that he would have encountered then in Britain is well indicated by the menu designed for that dinner: an anthology of misunderstandings. Fifty years later, Sebastian Carter writes appreciatively of Tschichold in both the ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ phases of his career. But the old difference is not so easily smoothed over, and a sour remark about the title-page of Typographische Gestaltung (1935) – the clearest and most beautiful statement of Tschichold’s modern typography – betrays the distance that still persists between the clubbable English manner and the hard, elegant rationality of Continental Modernism.

In 1947, Tschichold was called to work in Britain, to supervise an overhaul of the typography of Penguin Books. He had by this time condemned Modernism, as a passed phase (if perhaps a necessary purgative of 19th-century ornamental dross). He argued, very doubtfully, that in its ordering zeal it had shared in the spirit that informed National Socialism. At Penguin, in the face of the post-war lassitude of the British printing trade, his ordering zeal did not diminish, though it was now directed towards more reader-friendly traditional configurations. The books from this reform, which was continued by another Continental import, Hans Schmoller, are now to be found yellowed and tattered, but the intelligence and assurance of their typography remains unsurpassed. Their success lay in the achievement of high standards of typographic detail, applied to a large list of titles. Faced with the hyped-up but typographically dismal outpourings of the Anglo-American publishing industry, one is inclined to protest that really what we need to do is learn again the lessons of those books.

[*] An Essay on Typography was published in a first, small edition in 1931. A second edition appeared in 1936, a reprint of which is due from Lund Humphries this year (ISBN 0 85331 509 4).