Lettering: For Students and Craftspeople

Lettering: For Students and Craftspeople

by Graily Hewitt

Paperback(Dover ed)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486275185
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 05/16/2018
Series: Dover Books on Lettering, Graphic Arts, and Printing
Edition description: Dover ed
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Graily Hewitt (1864–1952) attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and trained as a lawyer. Classes at London's Central School of Arts and Crafts led to Hewitt's taking on a teaching position there and at the Camberwell School of Art. Hewitt was instrumental in the revival of gilding in calligraphy, and his work is kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum's collections.

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The object of writing is to be read; but its manner of gaining this end varies with occasion. The poem and the poster call for different manners. I have attempted an examination of 'legibility' later in this book. It might seem more reasonable to define the end first and examine the means afterwards; but it happens that the means have, in this matter, created and affected the end, and no theoretical assertions are applicable without attention to the tools, materials, and practices which have provided human eyes with the necessary elements of a code. Legibility is not an abstraction; but, as language depends upon our physical apparatus and conventional methods, so has writing been developed by apt tools and agreement over their productions; the means and the end acting and reacting through the centuries, with the means always a bit ahead.

For some years past serious endeavour has been directed towards the improvement of writing — our alphabet's technique. Our lives are littered with lettering, our walls plastered with it, our skies ablaze with it. We have imagined this more endurable if better done. But in considering the bettering of it we have taken certain standards too much for granted, without weighing their applicability to our modern purposes; and are now becoming aware that too often they are inadequate. We have presumed that the scholar and the artist, and now the scientist, are fit judges of the essentially legible. We have overlooked the advertiser. His legibility is not always theirs. If refinement may assist his purpose, which is to sell something, well. But that he catch your eye is the important point. Advertisement is competitive. Exceptionally a quiet sobriety may attract notice in a noisy crowd, but only so long as isolated by singularity. If all our lettering, crowded as it is, were 'in good taste,' it would fail commercially. For the essence of advertisement is to compel attention. The lettering must assist this — somehow. The classic style does not admit this premiss. How, then, can we improve our commercial lettering by reference to classic standards? The question must be answered by reference to other than these. It is being so answered.

Any student of the craft needs to examine the common delusion and find his own answer. For commerce has occasion yet for art and scholarship. But already our convention of legibility has been modified by abuse and puffery. Our letters are now fatter than of old. They are no longer marks upon a surface, but projections from it. They can be even meteoric. And if fitness for their purpose be the test of 'goodness' they are good. No other test is appropriate. So that 'purpose is all-important in considering their legibility. The craftsman needs to define his purpose and perform accordingly. He will recognise that while in isolation his refinement might be legible enough, the uproar and hurry amid which it has almost invariably to be read may render it quite insignificant and consequently unfit. It is futile to 'hope for the best' in applying his miscalculated delicacy upon any and every occasion. Rather will he convince himself, and what others he may, that it is our inconsiderate and disorderly use of lettering that needs bettering, and that we have not yet placed advertisement and its alphabets aright while we permit them to render civil speech publicly inaudible. As it is, when he would set a fine inscription upon a public building he must either make it 'tell' against the hubbub of the hoardings by adopting their competitive standards, or be content to know that it would beautifully assist the architecture it is adapted to adorn, supposing they were not there.

This is the difficulty. The competitive standard is the real hindrance to improvement. The analogy of speech is most apt. The student does not learn voice production in order to 'drown' his neighbours. And while I do not presume to deal with the difficulty, but only to state it, I am hoping this book may be useful to those who care to study the traditional methods of the craft as practised by a modern for modern purposes. I must warn others that it provides no dodges for 'capturing the public eye,' no short cuts for trouble-saving, but only a workmanlike method of pleasant performance to-day of the abiding conventions which have come down to us for civil intercourse.



Terminology connected with the craft is all too scanty and confused. We have used up many of its words for special purposes. An outstanding example is 'scripture,' which is now useless to the craft. A 'writer' means an author, though he may never use his pen except to sign his name. 'Scribe' and 'scrivener' are almost by-words; dated too. Driven to borrow, we allow our ideas to become clouded. There has latterly been some hand-written imitation of printed characters in our schools, which has been called 'printing' to differentiate it; a term the architects have long used, rather unfortunately, for the careful writing on their plans. Our printing is, however, the mechanical imitation or adaptation of the Italian fifteenth-century book-hand, the best writing of the early days of the press. Those now, therefore, who imitate print imitate an imitation of the original, instead of the original itself. To copy the original and call it writing would seem more sensibly preferable.

But this does not describe the sort sufficiently. And we meet the expression 'print-script,' or 'manuscript-writing,' or 'script writing,' vainly discriminative; as if there were other handwriting which is not. At the same time the terms do assist somewhat, since the reference is to classic examples which the sign MSS. somehow imports. Again, Mr. Edward Johnston, to whom as my first teacher I owe so much, found it necessary to call his book Writing, Illuminating, and Lettering (as if there might be lettering which is not writing, directly or derivatively), because writing is intelligible in such general sense as to leave one in doubt about the ground covered, and lettering is now commonly used to connote the sort of writing we may perform otherwise than with pen and ink, and mostly in capitals rather than 'small' letters.

The learned have given us a few extra words, such as palaeography for ancient writing, ideogram for the graphic representation of an idea, phonogram for that of a sound or syllable, epigraphy for the writing on stone or bronze, and so on. But in general we are at a loss for words, and confuse the few we have by stretching them into various misapplication rather than seek modifying or explanatory epithets.

And with regard to the very letters we make, we are at a loss to describe an element of persistent form in the individuals which seems independent of the particular tool making them or material receiving them, an element conceivably independent of any technique. For this we have no name at all. Mr. Johnston calls it 'essential form,' perhaps begging the question (for no form seems so stable, no convention so permanent, as the epithet implies). 'Skeleton form' might also serve, implying a structural or organic necessity, but rather overstating the case. Yet we all recognise that our capitals IO VL AH MW have these 'essential characteristics, I and O of one 'stroke,' V and L of two, A and H of three, and M and W of four; and in these positions generally, quite independently of any technique of thick and thin or finish at the ends we may give them.

Even the word 'stroke' is inadequate. It implies but one direction. The Italians have the word tratto to imply all that the hand draws without pause or leaving the paper, in which case M and W, and of course V and L, might be drawn with one tratto, while we would hardly describe this as one stroke. The schoolboy might, however, happily say 'one go.'

And yet again we have for popular use no words to differentiate conveniently between capitals and 'small' letters unless we adopt, with some humiliation, the printer's 'upper-' and 'lower-case' for our purpose. For small may refer to size as well as sort. In this book I venture to use the terms majuscule and minuscule, which, despite their stilts, serve admirably and correctly to distinguish the sorts, of whatever size and however made; retaining, however, the word capitals as alternative for majuscule where insistence on the other might seem too portentous.

Our confusions have arisen from the application of writing in the many crafts it so well assists, other than that in which it is directly concerned, and the various techniques these crafts involve in the representation of the traditional (or essential) forms; until paternity is lost sight of, obliterated by the immediate concern. The stone-cutter, wood-carver, engraver, printer, embroideress, and now also the advertiser (a most determined Gallio) are all making letters, derivatively pen-letters, with too little heed of the traditions outside their own business; and involving the consideration of the matter in a maze of 'practical convenience,' 'new departure,' or frank irresponsibility. And the very handwriting we are teaching our children, since we have become discontent with the degraded 'secretary' hand we were taught, is too often but the dodge or makeshift of an ingenuity, which on looking into the business recognises that a serious review of it would take a great deal more time and trouble than other educational demands seem to allow, or the possession of typewriters perhaps to justify.

This general confusion may, however, be turned to account. It may incline teachers, craftsmen, and students the more favourably and readily to consider the suggestion this book would make for clearing the air and ordering the whole matter into some pretence of unity and system. For every expression of words by means of tools and materials may be referred to one or two ancestral methods, and relationships re-established. It but needs we compare our particular performance with others, bear with the restatement of some things forgotten or disregarded, and admit in practice what we so readily admit in theory, the reasonable effect of history. Writing has been a growth like language. We cannot use language independently of tradition. We do not expect to be impressive, or even intelligible, with sudden and ingenious mispronunciations, or 'jabberwocky' originalities — except in fun. But we too often endeavour to be 'original' in the rendering of our written words, achieving our 'characteristic' illegibilities with self-satisfaction, or maybe contempt.

And the history of writing, for us, is not too complicated or laborious for effective, even if short, study. The hindrance lies rather in this admission of the need for our several performances. It is hard for the sign-writer to admit that his brush has had nothing whatever, for the stone-carver to admit how little his venerable chisel has had to do with the technical development of the Roman alphabet; for the printer to discover that, except perhaps for his title-page, his machine has evolved nothing, and has achieved nothing original or successful, which has not been a close imitation of fifteenth-century penmanship; and this despite just upon five hundred years of opportunity and endeavour.

Indeed, the story of writing, for us whose sole concern may be said to be the Roman alphabet, resolves itself into the story of but one tool, the Pen. And when one turns to the modern copy-book, to the ultimate achievement of this tool (in point of time), one may well appreciate the attitude of craftsmen in general towards a seemingly intolerable impertinence, their reluctance to acknowledge dependence upon a craft which could 'come to this.'

Yet here again is a misconception. The pen which produced and preserved the Roman alphabet was not the sort of pen we put into the hands of children to learn with to-day — or at least until yesterday. We give them a pliable-pointed thing and bid them press upon it. The classic pen was not a point, it was an edge; and a stiffish one too, and was not pressed upon appreciably, not intentionally as a rule.

The fact of this edge we recognise, unconsciously maybe, every time we think of our letters. For in spite of what has just been said about essential form we do not think of the word hope so (see Fig. 1), but as in Fig. 2, however roughly performed; and this in spite of the typewriter and the advertiser perpetrating their 'block' letters daily. This instinctive standard of contrast (of thick and thin) is the result of some two thousand years of penmanship in their expression. It need not have been so. No artistic perception ordered it to start being so. It came about naturally and conveniently, and our admission of it is now set and involuntary. It is one of the characteristics of the craft, and its successor, the press, which may pass — which is indeed threatened. How often are we not already required to put our names, etc., into 'block capitals'? The question arises and may not be too far off to need serious decision, whether we can permit the typewriter, the advertiser, and other influences to affect this fine and venerable convention; the beauty of which, and its natural propriety, it is the aim of this book to uphold. At present it is sufficient to say that the convention is generally admitted and stable enough for all literary and dignified purposes. The classic pen is the cause.

Moreover, the admission of this matter of contrast and gradation in our conception of letter forms is not the admission of its presence only, but of relative position also. So that hope, as in Fig. 3, outrages convention at once. Our perpendiculars, in fact, tend to be thick and our horizontals thin. Not only are we agreed that our letters are theoretically the performance of an edge, but an edge working fairly parallel with the horizontal. This is the natural effect of such a pen held comfortably to progress from left to right. In writing from right to left, as in Arabic, the perpendicular tends to be the thinner stroke, a change more probably dependent upon the fact that what are pulled strokes with us become for such writers pushed strokes, than upon any aesthetic consideration.

It is in such matters as these that improvement is concerned, the natural primitive things too often overlooked or taken for granted without regard for their inevitable effects upon legibility. The multifarious details of the styles seem to me comparatively unimportant. An appreciation rather of the principles affecting the elements belonging to them all alike is needed for the establishment of any clear theory of legibility or the improvement of our writing of every sort. At the beginning hardly too much stress can be set upon the fact that with whatever tool, upon whatever material a writing may be produced, our recognition of its agreeable readableness is dependent upon its deference to the standard set and preserved by this ancient edged tool, the classic pen.

This tool was certainly established by the third century B.C., and was most usually made of reed (though metal pens of Roman make have been found), or of quill, the first mention of which, however, does not occur till the fifth or sixth century A.D. The reed was no doubt Maunde Thompson; seventh century, Isaac Taylor. preferred for its softness and ease in writing upon the current material, papyrus. As soon as parchment, in quantity, became available the quill, with its greater durability and finer texture, superseded it in general use.

The cutting of the reed to an edge seems to have been a deliberate, if gradual, choice. Previously it was cut to a point and frayed to the likeness of a small brush. But this was discarded by the time our standard of writing may be said to have arisen.

Preceding either was no doubt a tool for scratching or cutting stone or bone, which became that chisel with which the magnificent Greek and Roman inscriptions were executed. But the influence of this upon our writing has concerned the forms rather than the doing of our letters. In only one detail of their draughtsmanship is the chisel's effect now evident, in what we call the serifs, or little finishing touches to heads and feet. This detail of 'finish' is the only one in which the pen, recognising the extra beauty such accessories give, has adopted for its help the suggestion of another craft; and permanently since the time of Augustus. In all the rest of the expression of chisel-cut letters pen character is plainly observed though frequently reduced in amount. There was no occasion for the chisel to make strokes thin and thick except to conform to the standard set by the pen; and, indeed, we see that in the earlier Greek inscriptions, before this standard was acknowledged, the strokes are not so, but fairly uniform in thickness.


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Copyright © 2018 Graily Hewitt.
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Table of Contents

I. Introductory, 17,
II. The Pen's Standard, 20,
III. Historical, 30,
IV. Method, 50,
V. Cursive Minuscule, 60,
VI. Semiformal Minuscule, 71,
VII. Example of Formal Alphabet (Minuscule), 76,
VIII. Formal and Cursive Majuscules, 86,
IX. Flat Pen, Minuscule and Majuscule, 96,
X. Numerals, 104,
XI. The Double Stroke, 110,
XII. Compound Capitals (Gothic Manner), 119,
XIII. Compound Roman Capitals (Renaissance Manner), 129,
XIV. Roman Capitals. Proportions, 135,
XV. Roman Capitals. Details of Construction, 142,
XVI. Arrangement. (General), 158,
XVII. Arrangement (of Books), 171,
XVIII. Some Other 'Arrangements', 183,
XIX. Decorative Arrangement, 194,
XX. Theory of Letters, 204,
XXI. Of Legibility, 219,
XXII. Legibility. Clearness, 228,
XXIII. Legibility. Speed, 233,
XXIV. Legibility. Beauty, 242,
XXV. Materials. Pens and Ink, 251,
XXVI. Materials. Paper and Parchment, 260,
XXVII. Materials. Pounce, etc., Pigments, 270,
XXVIII. Of materials. The Asiso for Gilding, 279,
XXIX. Gilding The Asiso, 291,
XXX. Written Books, 303,
Appendix, 315,
Index, 329,

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