That modern calligraphy ever rose like a phoenix from the ashes of a forgotten craft was largely due to Edward Johnston. It is to his perception of fundamentals that formal penmanship owes its life and continuing tradition today. Heather Child
Edward Johnston (1872-1944) by his teaching and practice almost single-handedly revived the art of formal penmanship which had lain moribund for four centuries. His major work Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering, first published in 1906 and in print continuously ever since, created a new interest in calligraphy and a new school of excellent scribes. The life he breathed into this ancient craft and its continuing tradition even in today’s hi-tech world can be ascribed to his re-discovery of the influence of tools, materials and methods. His researches were carried out with the understanding of the artist-craftsman, the scientist and the philosopher and this three-fold approach resulted in a profound insight - he fully grasped the root of formal writing and saw how all the branches grew from that root.
The epoch-making sans-serif alphabet he designed for the London Underground Railways changed the face of typography in the twentieth century whilst two of the most popular types of our day ‘Perpetua’ and ‘Gill Sans’ were by his great pupil Eric Gill (1882-1940).
Johnston’s influence has been world-wide. As early as 1910 his pupil Anna Simons translated Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering into German and a tremendous interest was sparked off in that country. So much so that Sir William Rothenstein remarked on a visit to art schools on the continent, ‘in Germany in particular the name of Edward Johnston was known and honoured above that of any artist’.
The other great revival has been in the United States particularly since the 1970s where there has been a veritable explosion of interest both on a professional and amateur level. The annual lettering conferences held in important centres throughout the country are testimony to this rebirth. But, lest we forget Johnston’s pioneering work, we ought perhaps to remind ourselves of what Hermann Zapf has said recently of him,
Nobody had such a lasting effect on the revival of contemporary writing as Edward Johnston. He paved the way for all lettering artists of the twentieth century and ultimately they owe their success to him