Eric Gill: A Famous Graphic Design Essay

Eric Gill was and is a famous type designer with an interesting back story. While many are aware of him for his typefaces; Gill Sans and Perpetua being two of his most famous, he also had questionable morals. Although he was very Catholic and many of his designs and sculptures were religious in content, Eric Gill was accused of many incestuous and paraphiliac behavior. Eric Gill has sexual relations with his sister, daughters and dog, which was revealed in a biography in 1989 by Fiona MacCarthy. A previous biography by Robert Speaight did not cover these acts.

In his autobiography, which was published posthumously, Gill explained his life by saying “nothing very particular has happened to me – except inside my head” and that his autobiography was more of an “auto-psychography” (Gill). This shows a clear example of his interesting past and questionable morals. He was known for his strange attire, usually something that would reveal his genitals (Figure 1).

Eric Gill was born in 1882 in England and studied at the Chichester Technical and Art School. His mother was a retired, famous singer and his father was assistant minister. He was not raised Catholic but he would convert later in his life. He was the second child of thirteen. It was at the Chichester Technical and Art School that Gill became appreciative of church music and architecture.

After school he began studying as an architect, but became frustrated by the work and took night classes in masonry and calligraphy. It was there that Eric Gill became inspired by Edward Johnston, the creator of the London Underground typeface. A few years later, Eric Gill gave up trying to become an architect and decided to focus on a more artistic approach with calligraphy, masonry and letter carving. In 1901 Gill began to receive inscriptional and tombstone work (Gill).

In 1903, Gill met Ethel Moore and they became engaged. She was also from a religious background. It was then that Gill officially left the architecture’s office and became a professional stone cutter. Gill began specializing in sculptures and letter forms. He worked on commissions for the army and nobles usually with inscriptions. He died in 1940, at 58 years old from lung cancer. His grave was written by him and carved by his assistant (Figure 2) where he was laid next to his wife.

In 1925 he designed the Perpetua typeface (figure 2), with the uppercase based upon monumental Roman inscriptions. A famous example of Gill’s of Perpetua typeface can be found in the Poling church in West Sussex, on a wall plaque commemorating the life of Sir Harry Johnston. Most recently it was used in Barack Obama’s logo for the election (Figure 3). This typeface featured contrasting strokes and high serifs. With the design of Perpetua he designed Felicity, which was the italic form of Perpetua.

Getting Eric Gill to design this font was difficult, as designer Stanley Morrison found out. Morrison designed typefaces such as Bembo, Garamond, Baskerville and Fournier for machine composition. He wanted a fresh design, and knew Gill would be an excellent candidate for assisting in his work. However, “Gill’s open disdain for mechanical devices (like the Monotype typesetter)” proved difficult for Morrison to get Eric Gill on the team (fonts.com). At the time, Gill had just begun to work with a printing press and just began to get involved with bookmaking. Since bookmaking and typography were very similar, Morrison decided to take action slowly in an attempt to get Gill to work with him. After meeting a few times, Gill decided to help Morrison with creating a new font. It was after a few years that Gill created Perpetua and Felicity.

With Perpetua and Felicity beginning to go through the design process, Gill was met face to face with the monotype typesetter he was not enthralled about. Once receiving the results, Gill stated:

“I think a very nice fount can be made from these letters, but agree with you in thinking that several details must be altered before it can be passed, and certainly before I should like to see my name attached to it. Not that I think it unworthy of me, but simply that it makes me shy at present,” (Mosley).

Gill’s designs were rejected often, mainly because he was not a type designer; he was a letter cutter with skills in drawing letters. However, due to his unorthodox way of creating designs, his were fresh and unique. Morrison was able to flourish off the uniqueness of Perpetua, and its companion Felicity and Eric Gill became known for not only his letter workings and sculptures, but also his strong touch of excellence for type designing and letter forms.

However, Gill was asked to create a new typeface during the trial periods of Perpetua. Perpetua was put on hold and he began work on Gill Sans. Morrison believed it was more necessary to create a new serif rather than a book face. Gill continued to work on both, though concentrating mostly on Gill Sans for Morrison. Finally, Eric Gill was able to finish Perpetua in 1932, more than seven years since Morrison asked him to create the typeface, and then Gill Sans following.

During the Perpetua design, the Gill Sans typeface was designed in 1927, and was based on the sans serif lettering originally designed by his teacher Edward Johnston for London Underground. The appeal of Gill Sans was enormous, mainly because the font family itself was able to be extremely versatile. The lighter versions were able to be used in print, books and magazines while the heavier versions were excellent for packaging and advertising (Figure 4). The medium weight fonts were good for display work as well.

Gill Sans was and still is used often for many common sights in the media and in business. The BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation, used Gill Sans from 1997 to 2006 for all of their corporate typefaces. The typeface was quite common in England, which made sense as Eric Gill was born in England. Immediately after it’s unveiling, railroads and buildings began to incorporate Gill Sans into their designs for signs, advertisements and flyers. The typeface was common especially for railroads (figure 5), allowing the use to span from car labels, restaurant menus in the cars and printed timetables.

Interestingly enough Gill Sans features a smaller x-height than most. With most modern typefaces “a generous x-height is usually considered one of the prerequisites for a typeface to rank high on the legibility scale, but Gill Sans is an exception,” (monotype). Gill Sans is able to be so legible because it is mainly based on roman letterforms as opposed to geometric typefaces which were common of the time. Gill Sans also has stronger contrast with the strokes and the lines are more prominent, which allows readability to be easier, especially for a sans serif typeface. Today, Gill Sans has over 30 different derivatives of the typeface, though each member of the different family is able to hold its own. Gill Sans light is quite different from Gill Sans bold, which is also different from Gill Sans extra bold. The amount of differing detail in this font family creates a font that is able to surpass the ages and still be used often and professionally today.

Other typefaces Eric Gill created were Golden Cockerel Press Type in 1929, Solus in 1929, Joanna in 1930– 1931, Aries in 1932, Floriated Capitals in 1932, Bunyan in 1934, Pilgrim which was a recut version of Bunyan in 1953 and Jubilee which was also known as Cunard in 1934.

Joanna, a serif typeface named after one of his daughters was originally designed for Gill to use for his printing shop. It is considered similar to Perpetua in design with its simplicities and contrasting strokes. Although designed with the base of roman capitals, Gill used some calligraphic techniques to feature and create Joanna. Although it was designed as a book typeface, Joanna is most commonly used today for advertising. It can be seen as the wordmark for the Barack Obama logo.

Although Eric Gill had questionable morals and strange practices, his technique as a type designer is an accomplishment in itself. Instead of displaying his oddities and perversion, he has been recognized posthumously for his artwork rather than his perversions. Overall, Eric Gill was a fantastic type designer, artist, letter cutter and sculptor. His designs are seen and used today often, and his skills will live on through his artwork.

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