‘Only superficial people do not judge by appearances’: type, design and the spirit of the age #1

Wandering round Hereford Cathedral last week during a welcome few days away from Propagandum Towers, I found a display case of fine ancient books. They weren’t hidden in any way, but it wasn’t obvious what these books do for the work of the cathedral except for – now I think about it – the generous gift of visual pleasure, and an unspoken but gently encouraging invitation to think about them …

One of these books – Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society (1667) – has this handsome title page:

Thomas Sprat, HIstory of the Royal Society, 1667. Nullius Verba (literally 'No ones's words') is the motto of the Society and suggests that knowledge comes from experimental verification rather than the handing down of words.

Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal-Society, title page, 1667. Note that the Royal Society is an English and regal institution: the allusion to the monarch’s coat of arms has been diplomatically modified to retain only the English quarter (the three lions) of the heraldic shield.

‘Only superficial people’, Oscar Wilde said, ‘do not judge by appearances’: I wanted to play, seriously, with the idea that the look of this title page is a reflection of its times – in every sense. I’m fascinated by the idea that small things, often from popular culture or even ephemera, can re-present, for example, a particular historical moment of a mind–body relation, or perhaps their choices of visual effects are expressive of specific metaphors of power and social organization.

Aesthetic preferences make a thing the way it is and not otherwise. Sometimes in the past these preferences are written down for us to read and think about; we agree or disagree but mostly I think we get a sense of people who rework their similarity to us in different ways. Sometimes their choices are just there but unexplained, in which case we risk projecting onto them our contemporary preoccupations. Unexplained choices, though – precisely because there is no attempt to rationalize or justify them – are all the more interesting because they are most deeply expressive of specific cultural values.

We read history and look at objects, then we make comparisons to try to understand both the past and – more importantly – ourselves and the present. If we have a language of comparative analysis across history, we can understand other people and other times; objects from the past will seem to us more expressive of their makers and users. Then, in the present, we will have a broader conception of choices to make our own different kinds of makings richer and fuller.

The typeface in my example here – a vigorous Dutch-influenced close forerunner of Caslon – offers a north-east European version of classicism where the potentially anti-human mechanistic uniformity and control implicit in rationalism is partly moderated by variation and idiosyncrasy. I don’t think ‘character’, ‘warmth’ and ‘robustness’ are just a matter of mechanical imperfection, although hand-cut punches and copying exemplars by eye and experience ipso facto bear the imprint of a specific era of the relation of human body to technology.

(In parenthesis I suggest that, for a hundred thousand years in the history of technology, human perception – not just materials – has been the limiting case for the things we make. But in comparatively very recent phase, modern media explore how to deceive our limited natural powers of perception, for example pixels/the halftone screen [dots for continuous tone], 24 still frames per second [for movies], RGB [for the full colour gamut], digital sampling [for analogue sound], and so on …)

For me, the variation in type design and layout on this title page enacts a broader-than-contemporary conception of human difference. The richly variable slopes and swashes of the italic, together with the variations in capitalization, letterspacing and sizes, reflect the human scale and visual warmth of handcraft. The roman combines the slashing scythe-like bowls of the lowercase c and e with the customary upright sobriety of the stems of the H, I, T and N caps, although note the widely splayed serifs on the T. The leg of the R sticks out in a pleasing double curve. 

 The diagonal stroke of the N is probably too assertive (by contemporary standards), a visual correlative for hierarchies of political power we nowadays find culturally uncomfortable to acknowledge – even if they continue to exist. Compared to the shocking political and military conflicts of the Civil War era and the execution of Charles I in 1648, the hyped-up UK political news in our own era is merely bland. Yes, it’s a strange journey from an over-emphasized diagonal in a letterform to political history, but we can see that tastes have changed – it’s fascinating to try to explain why.

Not subtle

Not exactly subtle: the dedication page (not cropped) of Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society, 1667. Image from http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=g30OAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

From our contemporary perspective the typographical decisions of the dedication page of Thomas Sprat’s book (right) look embarrassingly servile, but if we can imagine ourselves at that very different time, they at least make very good sense, don’t they? After the trauma of civil war – brought home, for us Brits, by Spielberg’s Lincoln – I think here we can feel the immensity of feelings of hope and the wish for healing. In the same way that the size of the figures in a child’s painting will always reflect their emotional importance to the child, KING in enormous caps means something important.

What about the book’s subject-matter? Looking at the history of social change, the potentially (and literally) earth-shattering impact of science in our contemporary world drives us to look for its origins: the Royal Society is a very early example of people coming together to peer-manage and compete in the making of what is clearly recognizable as the institution of modern science. I’ll be saying more about this in one of my next posts.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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One Response to ‘Only superficial people do not judge by appearances’: type, design and the spirit of the age #1

  1. Classic Propagandum.

    PS I rather like the heavy line in the N, though perhaps in a quaint way.

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