September 21

On the evening of September 21, 1899, Edward Johnston stood up and faced the seven students who represented his first class in writing and lettering at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. At that point Johnston placed himself among those who were solidly responsible for the revival of interest in fine printing in the early years of the 20th century.

A teacher’s effectiveness can best be measured by the inspired direction he uses to motivate his students. In this respect Johnston was a resounding success. Eric Gill, Grailey Hewitt, Anna Simons, Percy Smith, and Harold Curwen were all to look back to Johnston’s classes as the beginning of outstanding careers. Perhaps Gill paid his former instructor the most eloquent tribute when he wrote in his Autobiography:

“It was through Edward Johnston that I threw off the art nonsense of the Chichester art-school. . . . I won’t say that I owe everything that I know about lettering to him . . . but I owe everything to the foundation which he laid. And his influence was much more than that of a teacher of lettering. He profoundly altered the whole course of my life and all my ways of thinking. And as a writer with the pen, a calligrapher—it will have to be sufficient if I say that the fast time I saw him writing, and saw the writing that came as he wrote, I had that thrill and tremble of the heart which otherwise I can only remember having had . . . when I first heard the plain-chant of the Church (as they sang it at Louvain in the Abbey of Mont Cèsar) or when I fast entered the church of San Clemente in Rome, or first saw the North Transept of Chartres from the little alley between the houses. . . . But these more sudden enlightenments are rare events, never forgotten, never overlaid. On that evening I was thus rapt.”

From his lectures Johnston published in 1906 Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering, a text which had far-reaching influence in the study of letterforms and which has subsequently gone through many editions. During his career Johnston illuminated and drew initials for many of the great private presses, such as Doves, Ashendene, and Cranach. His most important public commission came in 1919 with the sans serif lettering for the London Underground. It was this style of letter which had a marked influence in the revival of sans serif types just a few years later in the program of the Bauhaus movement in Germany.

Johnston died at the age of 72 in 1944. Four years later there appeared the privately printed Tributes to Edward Johnston in which James Wardrop wrote: “Better than anyone else since the days of Charlemagne, he understood, and learned to manipulate that infinitely complex, but universal and elementary thing we call the alphabet.”

Leave a Reply