This year we celebrate the centenary of the lettering designed for the London underground by Edward Johnston, a letter without serifs made for fast reading on station signage. It’s one of the classic typefaces, still in use today in a modified form. It was developed further by Johnston’s pupil Eric Gill into the famous Gill Sans type, known to everyone from the old orange-back Penguin books (pictured).
Johnston’s influence is remarkable because he was a retiring man and notorious for his slowness. His courses at the Royal College of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts (now Central St Martins) took students through the letter forms so thoroughly that he didn’t get to the end of the alphabet. His influence went beyond calligraphy to everyday handwiting and he influenced other arts as well. The calligraphic approach to design can be applied to needlework and pottery too. Among his students were Louise Powell and Dora Billington, both of whom made important contributions to the decoration of ceramics – and both of whom were embroiderers as well.
|Decoration by Louise Powell for Wedgwood|
Louise Powell and her husband Alfred Powell brought the Arts and Crafts approach to pottery into the Wedgwood company, where they were firm advocates of freehand decorating rather than stenciling and stamping, which they thought demoralized the decorators. They supervised decorating in Wedgwood’s Stoke-on-Trent factory and had a studio in London as well, in Red Lion Square, where, with a couple of assistants, they decorated Wedgwood wares.
|Vase by Alan Caiger Smith|
Louise’s work shows the influence of Johnston’s calligraphy. Billington’s early work does too, and she continued to advocate a calligraphic approach to decorating into the 1960s, recommending the decisive application of designs with a long, flexible brush. One of Billington’s pupils was Alan Caiger Smith, whose work was decorated with a soft, chisel-shaped brush producing a surface design redolent of Arabic calligraphy. Alan Caiger Smith taught Judith Partridge and I worked in Judith’s studio in the 1970s. I like Johnston’s railway type and I’m pleased to have a link to him through one of my teachers
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