An Essay on Typography

NPG x12006; Eric Gill by Howard Coster


Eric Gill, born 1882, was a typographer, sculptor, printer and stonecutter, arguably most famous for Gill Sans, a san serif typeface released in 1928. Mr. Gill was seemingly well respected until a 1989 biography brought to life some salacious incongruities between his private behavior and his publicly held beliefs. His religious and social views are evident in this book, but he seldom proselytizes. On the occasions he does, it is for the causes of ink and paper. Mr. Gill is historically associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, and his opinions in this essay verify those sympathies.

Important Update: Recently more information has become available to me concerning Mr. Gill’s private behavior and the revelations are much more serious and reprehensible than hypocrisy. Despite now being personally uncomfortable with the review and horrified by the man, I have decided to keep the review here for the time being. The book still exists and the review is still valid. The question is whether you can separate a person’s work from their actions. I don’t have an easy answer, I tend to lean toward inseparability, but also am averse to erasing uncomfortable moments in history. The Guardian has an article on this specific dilemma here: Separating the Artist from the Abuser.


An Essay on Typography, is small book containing 140 pages. First published in 1931, it has a short contemporary introduction (1988) by Christopher Skeleton, which precedes a “Theme” written by the author for the 1936 reprint. What follows are 9 chapters whose titles describe most aspects of the printing craft during the 19th century; Composition of Time & Place, Lettering, Typography, Punch Cutting, Of Paper and Ink, The Procrustean Bed, The Instrument, The Book and But Why Lettering? The Procrustean Bed is a good example of the humor which can be found throughout the book. He uses the phrase as a synonym for a compositors stick. (a reference from greek mythology, where the bandit Procrustes maimed travelers so they might fit in his bed.)


This book is about accepting or resisting the changes brought by the industrial revolution.

“One after another the crafts, which were formerly the workman’s means to culture, are being mechanized more or less completely and now only such things as musical composition and painting pictures and giving lectures on the wireless demand the actual responsible skill of the human being who does them.”

Mr. Gill uses the first entries Theme and Composition of Time & Place to expound on the current state of industrialization, specifically as it concerns England. Mr. Gill believes that what once was one world, has been cleaved by industrialization and commercialization, in two; the humane world and the mechanized world. He repeatedly affirms he is not judging, that one state is not superior to the other, that they are simply “different” and have their own “goodness,” yet his prose is full of judgments both implied and direct. Gill is noticeably moved and perhaps even distraught by the turn of events and seems worse for it, despite his protestations to the contrary. He is clearly on the side of the craftsman, hand work and the virtues and artistry therein. Mr. Gill forwards the notion that a new technology (machine printing) should be its own thing and not imitate the technology it surpasses/replaces (hand printing).

In Lettering and Typography he lays out the history of letterforms, from stone inscription to machine-made letters, as well as the development and state of alphabets.

The remainder of the volume relies less on history and more on contrast. The contrast between the “two worlds” he introduced at the beginning of the book. The lens from which we see this contrast are the day to day concerns of printing craftsmen. The path of the craftsman is always more favorable, whether it be when discussing paper, ink or punch cutting. He repeats that machine work has its place, but is unconvincing and unenthusiastic when locating it.

Mr. Gill indulges in few tangents which stray from his central focus. By way of illustration, The Procrustean Bed lays out an attack on forced justification and champions the virtues of ragged right. “A book is a thing that is meant to be read…” and those who force justification are of the sort who “regard books as thing to be looked at rather than read.”

The final chapter is a treatise unto itself. In this chapter, added for the 1936 reprint, Mr. Gill advocates for a revolution, in his words “The only way to reform modern lettering is to abolish it.” Building from the notion that “letters are signs for sounds,” his reformation is of “lettering” or spelling. A revolution in which words more closely mimic the sounds they represent. Mr. Gills exemplar is the spelling of word “thought” and its lack of reasonable connection to the sounds made when it is uttered. He worries for the teachers and “the horrendous job of marring the budding minds of children by a set of irrational rules and capricious exceptions” that must participate in. Mr. Gill wants a lettering of “phonology”, phonetics might be the contemporary term. He makes a solid argument that after nearly a century, it seems moot, but one imagines he might find some hope or at least amusement in the effects of text messaging on “lettering.”


If you are interested in printing, typography or graphic design history, An Essay on Typography is a nice way to spend and hour. Besides general interest to designers, there are at least two specific aspects of this work that are compelling and relevant enough to make the effort worthwhile.

The first is that his concerns about change and the waning of craftsmanship were prophetic. Similar issues were raised with each typographic innovation, the linotype, phototypesetting, digital typesetting, the death of print, et al. Mr. Gills point of view provides valuable context for understanding those events as well as allowing the framing of technological changes to come.

Secondly, his definition of art and descriptions of the relationship between art and craft are also useful framing tools. He describes an artfulness in using ones’ hands and intellect to make purposeful things. He also finds art in the imperfections and modulations of handcraft, in the artifacts produced, a quality missing in machine made artifacts. These meditations can find relevance today. We are further away from the ‘humane’ than Mr. Gill could ever imagine, but at the same printed books and vinyl records, are enjoying a resurgence, while not always handcrafts, it is a nod in the direction of tactile and the visceral. It seems there is an appetite for the humane Mr. Gill championed still exists in some form, although his “two worlds” remain in conflict.


“[We live in] a world where no man makes the whole of anything, wherein the product is standardized and the man is simply a tool, a tooth on a wheel.”

“Industrialism has released the artist from the necessity of making anything useful”

“…a good clear training in the making of normal letters will enable a man to indulge more efficiently in fancy and impudence…workmen are deprived, not by cruel masters, but by the necessary conditions of machine production, of the ability to exercise any fancy or impudence at all”

“Machine printing would have its own goodness if it were studiously plain and starkly efficient””A sheet of paper is in a certain way venerable; it is natural to fold it; to cut it unnecessarily is shameful.”

“A sheet of paper is in a certain way venerable; it is natural to fold it; to cut it unnecessarily is shameful.”

“Machine-made paper is perfectly good so long as it is not made to imitate the appearance of the handmade.””The printer cannot make his own press or his own paper…but a hand-press printer should make his own ink, as the painter makes his own paints.”

“The printer cannot make his own press or his own paper…but a hand-press printer should make his own ink, as the painter makes his own paints.”


Eric Gill was a printer, typographer and sculptor. He was bummed out by the advent of industrialization and its deleterious effects on craftsmen. Read it if you interests include typography, graphic design history or the immplications of technology.