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Edward Johnston: London Underground unveils memorial for the iconic designer

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n Monday, the 24th of June 2019, Transport for London unveiled its memorial to Edward Johnston, the iconic type designer and calligrapher, at Farringdon Station, Elizabeth Line. Designed by Fraser Muggeridge, the artwork extends along an entire wall in the station, and is inspired by the type pieces used in a printing press. The memorial which stretches on the upper passageway leading to the Turnmill Street entrance of the station is made from reversed giant wooden letters Muggeridge produced in collaboration with Thomas Mayo & Co. Johnston's typeface, created for London's tube more than a century ago is still in use and per The Guardian it is “an overlooked triumph of modernist design.”

British craftsman Edward Johnston (1872 – 1944) is regarded, with Rudolf Koch, as the father of modern calligraphy, in the particular form of the broad edged pen as a writing tool. Most famous for designing the sans-serif Johnston typeface that was used throughout the London Underground system until it was redesigned in the 1980s, he also redesigned the famous roundel symbol used throughout the system.

“It seems ironic, if not mildly amusing, that one of the most urban of signifiers of all – the famous London Underground typeface – was dreamt up in a small Sussex village. And yet it was. That same lettering is celebrating its 100 anniversary this year, so in tribute, the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft is putting on a show” wrote Wallpaper’s Sam Rogers on the exhibition 'Underground: 100 years of Edward Johnston’s Lettering from London' back in 2016. 

The exhibition for the fontlover in all of us marked the centenary of Johnston’s world famous typeface for London Underground which has barely changed over 100 years -a testament to its success as station way finders. “Johnston’s remit was to unite the London Underground Group, the different companies all using the same rails and tunnels,” says Donna Steel, curator of a new exhibition about Edward Johnston and his influence on printing at the Ditchling Museum of Arts and Crafts in East Sussex to BBC.

“Nobody had such a lasting effect on the revival of contemporary writing as Edward Johnston” said Hermann Zapf. He paved the way for all lettering artists of the twentieth century and ultimately they owe their success to him” 


Cup final, Tom Eckersley and Eric Lombers

“All the advertising, all the signage was all completely different - there was this cacophony of letters. Johnston applied the proportions of Roman capital letters to his typeface, so it was rooted in history, rooted in traditional calligraphy. But it has an elegance and a simplicity that absolutely fitted the modern age” she continues.

Hand drawn by Johnston whilst living in Ditchling this alphabet is gloriously simple, but its design is rooted in much earlier lettering since it bears the proportions of Roman capitals. The design was initially proposed in 1913 by Frank Pick, commercial manager of London Underground Railway as a joint project for Edward Johnston and Eric Gill. Yet Gill was unable to proceed since he had agreed to a major commission of Stations of the Cross stone reliefs for Westminster Cathedral.

Just by reading Johnston’s instructions sent to London Transport’s printers, you feel his sensitivity towards the font


Original drawing for the London Underground roundel symbol Design: Edward Johnston © TfL/London’s Transport Museum

Johnston’s typeface is known variously as Underground, or Johnston Sans. It is also known as the basis on which Eric Gill, one of Johnston’s first pupils at Central School of Arts & Crafts, designed his typeface Gill Sans for the Monotype Corporation, released in 1928. With similar proportions to Johnston’s earlier typeface, it was initially criticised for being too similar but both Johnston Sans and Gill Sans have become modern classics. 

Just by reading Johnston’s instructions sent to London Transport’s printers, you feel his sensitivity towards the font: “In normal Block Letter Capitals (based on the approximately circular O) the limit of Weight is determined by one (or both) of two considerations.”


One inch monoline sans serif Underground, or Johnston Sans type designs by Edward Johnston, 1916

Born in Uruguay, Johnston was as a true man of letters, resurrecting and redefining calligraphy in the West, and designing an elegant typeface for London Underground. Highlights of the exhibition included Johnston’s calligraphy for W R Lethaby which secured his post as a teacher at Central School of Arts & Crafts; manuscripts showing his development as a calligrapher; rarely seen working drawings of the Underground typeface, and original drawings for Gill Sans.

An “authentic lettering of the 20th century” the typeface aimed for nothing more than consistency and clarity. “Ever the purist, Johnston went back to his calligraphy roots and simplified the Roman letters down to their very essence, distilling along the way a visual identity that endures today. The font was only updated once, and ever so slightly, in 1979” writes Rogers. For more than a century since its creation the iconic typeface feels as contemporary as London and this is British typography at it’s best.

An “authentic lettering of the 20th century” the typeface aimed for nothing more than consistency and clarity

“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” said Hermann Zapf of Johnston who “almost single-handedly revived the art of formal penmanship which had lain moribund for four centuries” notes the Edward Johnston Foundation.

“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.”

Bulls Eye, © Crafts Study Centre

“All the advertising, all the signage was all completely different - there was this cacophony of letters. Johnston applied the proportions of Roman capital letters to his typeface, so it was rooted in history, rooted in traditional calligraphy”


Defacing Posters, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London


Way Out sign at Brompton Road, 1916, © Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft


Pocket Underground Map, 1933


Edward Johnston at his desk

Slider images via Instagram @Fraser Muggeridge studio