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Gill Sans - St. Bride UK

AUGUST 14, 2014
This past March, while in London, I visited a wonderful place called St. Bride Library + Foundation. My colleague Elizabeth Resnick and myself brought students to London and Dublin for a course trip. We saw and visited so many studios and museums from the Victoria & Albert Museum to the offices of Pentagram UK. I am not going into detail about the 17 days we had there - that could be pages and pages - but I wanted to focus on St. Bride and one artifact that was amazing to see and touch.

I think most people who have done any design work, at some point, has used or have fallen in love with Gill Sans. While at St. Bride, I had the fortune to see some of the original work that went into creating the typeface.

I wanted to share this amazing find with you so I made sure I wrote them to get some comprehensive information about what we're looking at. Most of which they told me on the spot but I was too busy dragging my jaw around the place.

I know there are many instructors that would love to use these images for their courses - I've already been asked by a few. Please feel free to use these images for your lectures.
What you see above and just below is a wood type specimen printed to show the lower case characters in the Johnston Railway Alphabet. This particular copy was the personal property of Edward Johnston, designer of the typeface. Wood type was generally made in sizes greater than 72 point (one inch) and a reference chart such as this might well have been used as an aid to signwriters. Eric Gill was a pupil of Johnston and the railway alphabet is an obvious influence on the Gill Sans design.
The photo above and the two below are early versions of Eric Gill’s upper case Gill Sans typeface. It is lettered in black indian ink on tracing paper and shows some signs of the geometric construction of the letters. The sketch is identified as a “Titling” face, an extra-large version which filled the full height of the metal body of the typeface, with no space for lower case descenders. The drawing was signed and dated by Gill himself on 6 June 1927. An additional note adds that the characters are for Series 262 (Monotype Gill Sans).
The image above and the two below are lower case drawings for Gill Sans, signed and dated 20 July 1928 – the year that the face was issued by Monotype. The final digit of the date (written in pencil) is very hard to read – it may be a “7” (in which case this might be the earliest drawing) or possibly an “8”, in which case it may not be. Some of the letterforms in this drawing were modified for the final version of the face (the tail of the “p” and “q” are angled in the drawing, but not in the completed face) which suggests that this may be a very early incarnation and the date may be 1927.
As a bonus to this post, I wanted to show you only a couple of photos of their print shop they have on site which is basically a museum of presses and different forms of type faces.

The kind gentlemen giving us the lecture went through all the tools from wood to metal, showed us how they were made and used then showed us examples of various printing techniques.
Rubbing talcum powder on the surface to see the etching.
We were also fortunate enough to work on a Columbian using a 100+ year old woodcut - if I remember that correctly. It is a monster of a press but the action was so incredibly fluid and easy.
Then, in the book room, we were treated with some incrediby rare books to view. This one blew my mind - The Works of Geoffery Chaucer...the original printing and binding.
There were a couple of other books they brought out - one being the oldest printed book that was in English...1400's as I remember.

I hope this post gave you a taste of how brilliant St. Bride is and if you are ever in London, I highly recommend visiting. If you want the sort of access I had, you're going to have to call ahead for an appointment and there is a charge for it.

** It is completely worth it.  **

On future personal and course trips, this will certainly be a place I will continue to visit.
© 2023 Scott Bakal