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The retiring type

The retiring type

The curious story of the man behind the London Underground’s signature font

The curious story of the man behind the London Underground’s signature font

Catherine Nixey | May/June 2015

If you had been in London on a Monday afternoon in the 1920s, you might have spotted a dark-haired man with an Elgar moustache and a “remote, lost look in his eyes” standing near a bus stop. The man was Edward Johnston and his dreamy look, combined with his tweed coat and cherrywood walking stick, led people to take him for a hapless countryman, lost in the city. As his daughter said later, “The bus stop, he was told kindly, was further on; it was no use waiting there.”

It is one of those family tales that are cherished partly for their whiff of irony. Johnston not only knew where to stand for a bus and where it was going; he was the man who ensured that the rest of London did too. It was he who created the London Underground font, and honed its roundel, the circle with a line through it that appears on London buses, taxis, souvenir mugs and T-shirts. The font is now a symbol for London itself.

And it is more than that. As Sydney Cockerell, William Morris’s secretary, said, Johnston’s influence “extended over the whole of the Western world”. To see for yourself, if you’re reading this on a computer, click on the font menu. You see Gill Sans? It was designed by Eric Gill, a pupil of Johnston’s, and was directly inspired by—detractors would say stolen from—the font that bears Johnston’s name. Gill is world-famous, but Johnston, like his great creation, remains largely underground.

Not that he minded. “As to myself,” he once wrote to his wife, “it’s better to be a foundation stone than ‘a success’.” He was an unlikely creator of a work that would be seen as a modernist triumph. His main inspiration for the Underground font came from some lettering that was 1,700 years old, while the best-known photograph of him shows him, upright and earnest, sitting at a raised desk, writing with a quill.

Johnston never set out to be a calligrapher, largely because calligraphy as a discipline (as opposed to people doing swirly writing) barely existed when he was young. Born in 1872, he spent his early childhood shuttling between England and Uruguay, where his father, a Scots émigré, had a ranch. He spent no time at all at school, which gave him time to indulge his passion for drawing, but also left him with a lifelong intellectual insecurity. Once, when a daughter interrupted him mid-exposition to say that she already knew the fact he was explaining, he replied, wounded, “Well, I never know what you do know. Do you know that a red-hot poker is larger than a cold one?”

It wasn’t until he was in his 20s that Johnston had any formal education. Encouraged by his family, he put aside his childhood enthusiasm for lettering and began studying medicine. But eventually, as his daughter writes in her biography of him—entitled, with sans-serif simplicity, “Edward Johnston”—“he was dissecting human bodies and he could no longer disguise from himself that he hated it”.

Back in London, and at a loose end, he had a chance introduction to William Lethaby, a friend of William Morris and principal of the then-new Central School of Arts and Crafts (now Central Saint Martin’s). Johnston showed him some of his work. Lethaby said that he was thinking of setting up an “illuminating class” at the school. Johnston hoped to be one of its first pupils. “I shall put you in charge of it,” said Leth­aby. Johnston was alarmed and delighted. The modern art of calligraphy had begun in Britain.

As Johnston was wrestling with quills, the Under­ground Railway (as it was then known) started to wrestle with a more modern problem. The tube was growing fast—the Central London Railway (later the Central line) opened in 1900; the Hampstead Tube (Northern line) arrived in 1907—but its custom wasn’t growing fast enough. With its shoelace-tangle maps and walls plastered with adverts, the Underground was not only unfamiliar but confusing. Getting rid of the adverts wasn’t an option as the Underground, then a private company, needed the revenue. But something had to be done. The Underground’s commercial manager was Frank Pick. Now largely forgotten, this energetic Yorkshireman was described by Nikolaus Pevsner as the “greatest patron of the arts whom this century [the 20th] has so far produced in England, and indeed the ideal patron of our age.” His work was admired overseas: later, as an adviser on the bombastic Moscow Metro, he received a medal from Stalin.

Stalin might not have approved of the speed at which the tube font was produced. Having decided that the Underground needed its own typeface, one that would “belong unmistakably to the 20th century”, Pick met Johnston, and Gill (who had been one of his first pupils), in 1913. It would be another three years before Johnston delivered the final lettering—about as long as it took the Moscow Metro to build its first line.

Still, it was worth waiting for. Along the way Gill had dropped out, too busy sculpting the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral. Today Gill is perhaps more famous as a sculptor than as a typographer—and more infamous than either for his incestuous relationships with his daughters and sisters. There are hints, says Andrew Johnston, Edward’s grandson, that his grandmother “had a pretty good idea” what was going on. She banned Gill from the house, and “one reason for being very dubious about him was possibly having three nubile daughters on her hands.”

Gill’s absence left Johnston free to do just as he wished in creating this “20th century” font; and so he turned straight to the second century and to Trajan’s column in Rome. He used the capitals from the column for the proportions of his letters, while the dot of the i and the j came from medieval calligraphy, which, thanks to the blunt end of the quill pen, gave the font’s characteristic diamond shape. “The alphabet”, he said, “designed itself.”

It was a great success. “A breathtaking surprise to nearly all,” said a contemporary artist, Noel Rooke, “we can scarcely now understand how revolutionary a proceeding it seemed.” Johnston made a modified version of the font for the buses, which is why you might have found him standing in the street when he made his regular Monday trip to London from Ditchling in Sussex. His obsession was readability, so he was working out what was or wasn’t legible from a distance at speed. His fonts were updated in 1979—the legs of the W no longer cross—but the font you see now is still largely his. At some stations, like West Brompton, it is all his, as the old signs are still in place.

The collections store of the London Transport Museum, known as The Depot, is a vast warehouse in Acton Town, a down-at-heel corner of west London. Inside, the range of exhibits is comprehensive to the point of eccentric: a regulation litter bin stands next to a stationary Tube train, its destination board showing that it has paused here for eternity (an even longer one than usual for the Tube) on its way to King’s Cross. On a wall hang rows of Tube signs; in this deserted space their shouty capitals—BANK, HOLBORN, CHARING CROSS—have a forlorn air, like someone calling a friend who hasn’t noticed them. Below them stands a single wooden filing cabinet: the chest containing Johnston’s lettering, one of only a few ever made.

The Underground didn’t commission a font to look different from commercial ones simply to sell it straight back to the commercial world. But that world wanted the font nevertheless. And so Johnston’s pupil Eric Gill obliged, creating Gill Sans, which would go on to be used on everything from the classic Penguin Books design to the BBC logo (since 1997)—and, later, many a Word document.

There is some suggestion that even Gill, not a man to be easily abashed, may have felt uneasy about this. He sent Johnston a letter that manages to turn, in a moment, from humility to boastful defiance. “I hope you realise”, he wrote, “that I take every opportunity of proclaiming the fact that what the Monotype people call ‘Gill’ Sans owes all its goodness to your Underground letter. It is not altogether my fault that the exaggerated publicity value of my name makes the advertising world keen to call it by the name of Gill.”

Did Johnston mind? We don’t know exactly. “I don’t think there was bitterness,” says his grandson. Though there was no money, either. “He was so lacking in business sense, he never charged a going rate for his work and so couldn’t make ends meet.” For the Underground font, Johnston was paid 50 guineas—about £4,000 in today’s money (he handed 10% of it on to Gill). By the time he died in 1944, “the finances were in a terrible state,” Andrew Johnston adds. “There had been a fund started by calligraphers in America to help this destitute master craftsman.”

The man whose eye still guides millions of journeys every day has hardly done better in terms of recognition. But his name is there if you know where to look. On the chest in The Depot the paper labels in the brass plates read “12 Line Johnston bold caps” or “8 Line Johnston”, the creamy paper blackened by years of inky fingers. Open the drawers and there are lines of stammering wooden letters: PPPPP, NNNNN, DDDD, their backs beetle-black and glistening with printers’ ink. Soon, this chest will be roped into the Johnston centenary celebrations. For the moment, it stands here, by the trains and the bins, forgotten.

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