The Eric Gill Series was launched yesterday at an event at London’s Old Truman Brewery. Gill Sans Nova, designed by George Ryan, is a remastered version of Gill Sans with 25 new fonts, alternative characters, new weights originally commissioned as custom fonts and decorative styles from specimen books that weren’t previously available digitally. It also features new display fonts including Gill Sans Deco, a design that had previously been withdrawn from Monotype‘s library.
“There’s been a lot of interest over the years in returning to Gill Sans because it was used by so many people in so many different ways,” says type director Dan Rhatigan. “Different designers have come up with ideas, but with Gill Sans there’s always a pressure in meddling with a design that has such a heritage and has been so widely used.”
Rhatigan says an update of Gill Sans had been “bubbling along” as designers checked the existing family to make sure it was accurate, and prepared to re-hint fonts, “which is a process of making sure they look as good on screen as possible,” he says. Microsoft had also expressed an interest in commissioning an update of Gill Sans, and Gill Sans Nova appears a system font in the new Windows 10. “In looking at what had been available over the years, this eccentric array of weights and styles, the real work became filling in the gaps and building around the existing family,” adds Rhatigan.
Type designer Terrance Weinzeirl, meanwhile, had pitched ideas for a sans version of Joanna – Gill’s take on an Egyptian serif, designed for letterpress printing – to Monotype’s creative type director Steve Matteson. The company decided to invest in releasing a Joanna Sans family when Barnes & Noble expressed an interest in using it for their new e-Reader, says Rhatigan.
“That’s the core of how a lot of things happen at Monotype – a lot of typefaces come out of the partnerships we have with companies who commission designs, and we have the opportunity to draw from our existing library and add things to it through those commissions,” adds Rhatigan.
With Weinzierl working on Joanna Sans, Ben Jones was called in to work on an update of Joanna. The Joanna Nova family includes 18 new fonts and new small caps in upright and italic versions, and Jones has redrawn each glyph.
“We had these three objects percolating and we looked at them and thought, these show different aspects of what [Monotype] is today…so it became really natural to say let’s nudge them all together and let them showcase what we can do,” explains Rhatigan. “They’re the result of research, tapping in to Monotype’s ability to work with this historical library and heritage, and the result of technical and design analysis, creative thinking and working with technologically sophisticated partners who know what typefaces need to do. These are some of the most inventive and technically robust fonts that we have now,” he adds.
In updating both Gill Sans and Joanna, Rhatigan says the aim was to produce extended families better suited to modern uses while capturing the eccentricities of Gill’s designs. “You don’t want to fall in to the trap of cleaning something up to be new and getting rid of that something special that made people respond to it so much over the years. That’s the real achievement – hanging on to the interesting core of these designs while making them more relevant to what people do with them today,” he says.
To celebrate the collection’s launch, Monotype is hosting an exhibition of Gill’s work at the Truman Brewery until November 10, which features material from Monotype’s archive as well as items from the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft and the Letterform Archive in San Francisco. There are ink drawings for Gill Sans Titling Caps (the first Gill Sans style), 10-inch production drawings used by Monotype to analyse and refine Gill’s drawings and a 1928 issue of Monotype’s Recorder magazine showing the first example of Gill Sans type.
Ryan, Weinzierl and Jones worked closely with archive material, as well as existing digitised versions of Gill’s work, to remaster Joanna and Gill Sans and design new weights and styles. “With Joanna Nova and Joanna Sans Nova, Ben and Terrence were able to look at Gill’s original drawings to extrapolate where he may have gone with these other styles that had never existed. It wasn’t a guess, but more an analysis or informed invention,” says Rhatigan. Gill’s notes on drawings and proofs also provided some useful guidance.
“You look at his notes on proofs and you see him responding to a deep understanding of how letterpress printing worked, and how people read and set type for books,” says Rhatigan. “With Joanna Sans Nova or Joanna Nova, we’re looking very deeply at media that never existed for Gill, but we can see how he was interpreting and using type for those, so it’s about how we interpret the way people are using typefaces today. There are all these variants that were available decades ago that didn’t make it forward, but we had all the references of what customers had been asking for 80 years, and we have the technical ability now to pull them into the fonts.”
Gill Sans in particular is engrained in Britain’s visual culture: it is used by some of our best-known brands and institutions, from Penguin to the BBC, John Lewis, the Royal Society of Arts, the Church of England and Network Rail. It is also used by United Colours of Benetton, Net-a-Porter and Tommy Hilfiger. As Rhatigan notes, its versatility, warmth and legibility has an enduring appeal, and the exhibition is a reminder of both Gill’s eye for detail and his great skill as a lettering artist and calligrapher.
But for some, this latest celebration of his work will re-ignite a debate that has surrounded Gill’s creative output since the publication of Fiona McCarthy’s biography in 1989, which revealed that he sexually abused two of his daughters as well as the family dog. In a 2006 piece for the Guardian, McCarthy addressed the difficulties of separating Gill’s life from his art (his sculpture in particular) and the need to address his reprehensible actions rather than glossing over them: “The knowing affects the viewing. How can it not? But Gill is too good an artist, too ferocious and intrepid a controversialist, to be protected and glossed over. We need to see him whole.”
Digital Arts editor Neil Bennet wrote in 2011 that he could not look at Gill’s typefaces without feeling “revulsion” and there have been sporadic calls to remove his sculptural work ever since – from Prospero and Ariel outside the BBC’s Broadcasting House to his devotional art in Westminster Cathedral. But the fact remains that Gill was an incredibly talented and influential artist, both in sculpture and lettering – and his typefaces, which are undeniably brilliant pieces of design, remain hugely important.