Kern Your Enthusiasm (6)

By: Mark Kingwell
August 6, 2014


One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite (and least favorite) typefaces.


It is possible that Gill Sans is not the most beautiful typeface to sprout from the fertile mind of Eric Gill (1882–1940), towering genius of letterform, also unrepentant adulterer and devotee of both incest and bestiality. I came across Gill’s serif work first, in a modern reproduction of his Essay on Typography, which Gill had originally hand-set in the arguably prettier Joanna, a face inspired by the work of Robert Granjon (1513–89) and named for Gill’s perhaps too-beloved daughter.

The Essay, a combination of practical primer, polemic, and tendentious lifestyle manifesto, was written while Gill was recuperating in hospital from a bout of nervous exhaustion (Joanna was about to get married). The book ends with a ‘utopian’ scheme to rid the world of the very art that made its author’s career possible: “Lettering has had its day. Spelling, philology, and all such pedantries have no place in our world. The only way to reform modern lettering is to abolish it.”

Joanna is not really a suitable typeface for large blocks of text: especially if closely kerned, its stern right-angle serifs grow punishing. The slight Italic, just three degrees off vertical, conveys an almost accusatory mien, as if leaning away from full assent to the words. Gill Sans was born as a display face: Gill cut the first forms in 1926 to decorate the facade of friend Douglas Cleverdon’s Bristol bookshop. He later developed it for Stanley Morison of the Monotype Corporation, and the design enjoyed a breakout success when used, during the 1930s, as the signature typeface for the London and Northern England Railway’s series of gorgeous tourism posters. From the first, there had been an association with rail travel: Gill’s design was derivative of Edward Johnston’s London Underground typeface (officially known as Johnston), and the influence of both can be seen in, among others, the Toronto Subway Font.

Gill Sans has since thrived as a reliable humanist sans serif type for both text and display. Its debts to Caslon and Baskerville are obvious without being patronizing, and the deep soil of the Carolingian script supports the roots of its elegant lower-case elements. It can be bolded to excellent effect, growing fat without risking distortion, as in the logo of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Penguin Books and British Rail used it, though the latter eventually succumbed to Univers and the ubiquitous Helvetica. The adoption of Gill Sans by both the Church of England and the British Government render Gill Sans, in effect, the national typeface of England.

Several years ago, I was accepted as a ‘word’ in artist Shelley Jackson’s Skin project, a diachronic novel written entirely in tattoos on the bodies of willing volunteers, who are known as Words. My own delivered word was ‘page.’, complete with the full stop. I had it done in Gill Sans bold, on my right shoulder, and now that round full stop takes its place in a little constellation of moles. Page, period.

gill sans


2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.


2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.

2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins

2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker