I was taught art at school not only before the internet but also before Letraset, the transfer lettering widely used in the 1970s and 1980s. My teacher, Connie Passfield, a sweet, Slade-educated lady, insisted that for poster and book design we had to be able to draw our own letters, and the letter forms she taught us were based on Trajan Roman and Gill Sans. Gill Sans, designed by Eric Gill, was one of the ubiquitous letter forms of the 20th century. The others were Times New Roman, designed by Stanley Morrison, Univers, designed by Adrian Frutiger, and Helvetica, designed by Max Meidinger. When I was a graphic designer, I preferred the modern Univers and Helvetica and was irritated when small printers, not quite up to date, thoughtlessly substituted Gill. But Gill is a classic letter and has had a revival. It’s talked about a lot now because the type on which it’s based, Johnston’s Railway type, has its centenary this year.
Yesterday I went to look at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Crafts in the village where Gill set up an artistic colony in the 1920s. Converted from a waggon store, the museum has adapted a piece of vernacular architecture to modern use and recently added a fine extension. It’s an Arts and Crafts gem, focusing on the Roman Catholic artists who were attracted to Gill, on the wider artistic circle in the village, including the weaver Ethel Mairet, and on vernacular lettering from the area.
Gill Sans was, of course, used by Penguin Books for decades. It’s also used by the John Lewis Partnership, who have made it look more modern by using lower case and altering some of the letters. It’s used in many other places too.
Personally, I’ve never been much interested in Gill. He was a Catholic convert of a weird kind and doesn’t seem to have submitted to Church discipline. His art was erotic, he was a pacifist and a Distributist, he had silly ideas about dress and didn’t believe in trousers (see picture). I gave up reading his autobiography, all about his ideas and feelings with not much about events. Then Fiona MacCarthy’s biography, making full use of his diaries for the first time, revealed that his ideas about sex were not merely odd, but that he used them to justify his repeated rape of his daughters. We can forgive Frans Hals his alcoholism, we can even forget the murder Caravaggio committed, but can we overlook Gill’s conduct? I wonder if Mrs Passfield would have stuck to Trajan Roman if she’d known more about Gill?
If he was alive, it would make sense to ostracise him, just as Gary Glitter is ostracised. If his work was insignificant, his evil would drive us to other artists, just as no-one would want Hitler’s paintings on their wall. If there was a connection between his sexual abuse and his art, we would drop it, and we might think twice about his erotic art now; but the typeface has no connection at all. Nevertheless, although I like Gill Sans, it’s preferable sans Gill.