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  • Way Out, Brompton road, 1916. Image courtesy of the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

The man of letters

As Johnston Sans celebrates its centenary, Alan Powers recognises its significance 

On the whole, 1916 is not a year of cheerful centenaries, but Edward Johnston’s Underground lettering has long been recognised as a significant achievement, not only on the part of its creator, but also as an act of patronage by Frank Pick, the commercial manager of the London Underground Railway (who went on to greater things in his commissions for posters and station buildings). If we are looking for a piece of authentic British Modernism in the late Edwardian mist, Johnston Sans stands out with particular clarity.

Johnston’s alphabet is still in current use on the London Transport network in a modified form, produced by Eiichi Kono for Banks & Miles in 1980, as New Johnston. The effect of the revisions was to remove some of Johnston’s quirkier forms and to introduce a greater use of lower case for the sake of legibility.

Johnston’s design hardly needs describing but it still deserves a more detailed look. Although apparently mechanical in form (as a monoline sans-serif), Johnston’s design bears obvious traces of the hand-held pen rather than the ruler and compass, and was informed by nearly 20 years of practice in the physical art of writing, during which this shy and retiring man reinvented lettering from its foundations upwards, and had an international impact through his teaching and his handbook, Writing & Illuminating & Lettering (1917).

Design for an alphabet, Edward Johnston, 1916. Image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert museum

In 1912 Johnston followed his pupil Eric Gill and went to live in Ditchling, where the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft is celebrating the Johnston Sans centenary with two concurrent exhibitions. Gill and Johnston both fell into the category ‘Mediaeval Modernist’, which was a term used at the time but resurrected and redefined in Michael T. Saler’s 1999 book, The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground. This group can be defined by its partial acceptance of modernity and, in a limited way, of Modernism not as an aesthetic so much as an ethical representation of Gemeinschaft, or community.

The mediaeval part in Johnston was strong, and as Brian Keeble explains in an essay in his recent book, Daily Bread: Art and Work in the Reign of Quantity, lettering for Johnston was a way to ‘search out and live the truth’, and, in his terms, the search for perfection in his particular art was a valid route to achieving this and a form of religious mission. Keeble quotes from Johnston’s account of teaching a class (the activity which supported him and through which his message spread), ‘of how he was able to give [the students] the feeling that it really was worth doing and a little of his vision, also, the spirit of it, over and above the technical side’.

Both Johnston and Gill were Neo-platonists, seeing letterforms as a way of striving after perfect ‘ideal form’, a belief that they shared with more mainstream Modernists of the 1930s. However, there is no better way to get to know Johnston as a personality than to read his daughter Priscilla Johnston’s biography, readily obtainable online in its 1976 reprint.

She describes her father as almost bipolar in his alternation between long periods of inactivity and sudden bursts of work, testing deadlines to their limit. The opening chapter, describing Johnston in old age, in a house crowded with old newspapers and Heath Robinson gadgets, is a portrait many craftspeople may recognise in themselves.

In terms of the conventional narrative of Modernism, Johnston’s most famous achievement did not mean abandoning craft in favour of industrial design, for he continued working entirely by hand as a calligrapher. His almost accidental act of Modernism can, however, be seen as a gateway into his wider, older world and, by extension, the whole potential of lettering as a vehicle for revelation of a certain kind of truth.

The second exhibition, about local lettering, is a nice way of expanding the theme. William Lethaby, who spotted Johnston’s potential when he first came for an interview at the Central School, believed that local vernacular crafts, although at risk from corruption by fashion, showed innate understanding of quality and appropriateness. For both of them, the struggle was to re-establish unconscious standards rather than to impose uniformity.

Underground: 100 Years of Edward Johnston’s Lettering for London and Signs of Ditchling: A Tradition of Lettering from 1800 to the Present Day are both at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, East Sussex, 12 March to 11 September


Edward Johnston at his desk.