One of the more unusual commissions I had recently was to copy out two thirteenth-century charters on to vellum panels, and write the translations underneath.
The charters granted the rights to a weekly market and an annual two-day fair to the district of Brentwood (Bois Arsus, Brendewode, and Burntwood); one was dated 1227 and the other 1252.
This may seem straightforward – until you see the actual charters, as one of them on the right. The earlier one of 1227 had a great many contractions, and I was most grateful to Tessa Webber at Cambridge University for very kindly transcribing it for me, so at least I was able to try to decipher whether a Latin word started with ‘min…’ or ‘uni…’ or ‘niu…’ etc! The later charter of 1252 was slightly clearer, but it still meant that I had to resort to my scant knowledge of mediæval Latin on occasion.
The width of the panels was determined by the charters themselves, and I felt that there should be a consistency between the two panels in terms of size, shape and layout, even though this may mean larger gaps between the copied Latin and the English translation (as in the first panel above). I was able to get some wonderfully marked skin from Cowleys and cut pieces to size before stretching them. The excess was ideal to use for determining how much preparation was required for each skin.
Then it was time to rule the lines with a 4H pencil and the sliding rule of my sloping board. Distances between the lines were marked with dividers.
I started with the translations. The two charters were in totally different hands, albeit being only twenty-five years apart, but I thought it important that the translations should be in the same writing style, trying to marry together the hands on the two charters rather than choosing any particular calligraphic style. Also, the writing needed to be legible for those who wished to know what the Latin in the charter meant.
This is a close-up of my first efforts. I thought the final effect too heavy and dominant and so chose a smaller nib which seemed to balance the writing in the charters better.
The writing in that period of time was Gothic, but Gothic Black Letter majuscules are so difficult to read, so again I devised a style, this time based on Gothic Black Letter and Gothic Cursive. I used a five-diamond cross to separate the title from the date, as this looked more in keeping than the simple dash. The titles were written in vermilion.
The third panel, on paper the same size as the stretched vellum, explained about the charters, what they were written on and the pen and ink used originally. The cost of the charters was met entirely by sponsors who commissioned the panels (The Brentwood Borough Renaissance Group, Brentwood Chamber of Commerce and the Essex Farmers’ Markets Ltd) and Clive Othen, Chair of the Brentwood Chamber of Commerce and the Brentwood Borough Renaissance Group, was the driving force behind this project. Dr Jennifer Ward translated them. Clive and Elaine Richardson from the Borough were some of the best clients I have worked with and I hope the panels prove interesting to those who live in Brentwood and others who visit.
This new book by Simon Loxley ‘Type is Beautiful’ brings together fifty different fonts from Gutenberg (used from around 1454) to Zulia (designed in 2013) and many in between. It starts with a chapter explaining about type design, why we need more than one style, how letter designs are translated into type, the development of different designs for headings and titles, and how type is designed and used today. Simon Loxley’s selected fifty types are not ‘the best of’ but ones that have a significance, and, more often than not, a story.
The type used by Gutenberg for the first printing presses in Europe, in Mainz in Germany, was based on Gothic Black Letter manuscripts. It was a Frenchman, Nicolas Jenson, working in Italy, who produced a Roman type (based on the work of others) that, from the 1470s, lead the way for many years. It was not only the type design that was important, but also the type-setting. Unlike modern newspapers, magazines and books the impression on the page on the right is one of clarity and evenness; even though there are right and left justified margins, no lines are denser as the letters have been packed in, nor any lighter as the letters have been stretched out.
John Baskerville was an English type designer, who created the letter-forms in ‘Baskerville’ which first appeared in 1754. It is a design of great elegance and style, with a roundness of form. Baskerville was concerned not only with type but also the ink and paper used in the printing process. His eponymous typeface was described as ‘letting in the light’, and the page on the right shows ‘the art of concealing care and the sense of balance which has taken infinite pains to obtain the right interlinear spacing and letterspacing, the right gradations of size.’
William Morris was a polymath who, it is said by his biographer, typically spent five years on something achieving a very high standard, and then moved on to something new. When setting up the Kelmscott Press Morris knew that he wanted ‘letters pure in form; severe, without needing excrescences; solid, without the thickening and thinning of the line’. An example of the ‘Golden Type’, designed by Morris and Emery Walker, and first seen in 1891, is in the first book printed at the Kelmscott Press – ‘The Glittering Plain’.
‘Neuland’, first seen in 1923, is a completely different typeface from those that have gone before. Rudolf Koch from Germany was a great calligrapher as well as type designer, and it was said that ‘All his founts are derived from written hands. They spring into life quite freely’. For Neuland, Koch cut the letters directly on to the punches which is remarkable. It is chunky and has great charm.
We may pass them every day but road and motorway signs use typefaces and they have to be designed. ‘Transport’ is the one used in the UK. It first appeared in 1958 and was designed by Jock Kinneir from Britain and Margaret Calvert from South Africa. The design for such signs needed to be clear and easy-to-read particularly from a distance. When travelling at speed confusion between letter-forms can be dangerous!
We are used to brand recognition by company logos, but NatWest bank went one further by commissioning British type-designers Freda Sack and David Quay to create a typeface especially for them. Initially asked to design a one-weight headline for the bank, it was then used for more than that. ‘Natwest’ was said to be one of the first identities that was type-led, and although literature from most banks may not be easily recognisable, because of this typeface, that of NatWest is.
This is a fascinating book giving the background to fifty different type designs from the classic to the fun, and it even includes Comic Sans – the Marmite of typefaces!
*NB The illustrations used here are not necessarily the ones in the book, as these weren’t available at the time of writing this blog.