This is a detail from a ‘Design for a British Senate House’ (Sir John Soane’s Museum, London) that was drawn by John Soane when he was in Rome, and which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1779. It is the earliest known example of the monoline sanserif inscriptional letter of Republican Rome that was revived at this date and became widely used for signs and typography.
‘The Nymph and the Grot’ was the title of an article that I wrote in the journal Typographica (new series, 12, 1965). It explored the background to the appearance of geometrical, monoline sanserif lettering in Britain towards the end of the 18th century, at a time when all professionally drawn letters, including printing types, had a marked contrast between thick and strokes, and serifs too. (See the post on ‘English vernacular’ in this blog.) And it suggested that this letter was the origin of all the sanserifs of the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Caslon ‘Egyptian’ of (about) 1816 to Futura, Univers and their descendents.
These ‘sanserif’ letters, as I called them, following the spelling given in the Oxford English Dictionary (which was mistaken, as I will explain below), appeared in the drawings of English architects like John Soane, they began to be used by some sculptors too, and then they were taken up by signwriters. The title of the article was a reference to an inscription associated with the sleeping nymph in the grotto
(‘grot’ in poetical language of the 18th century) at Stourhead in Wiltshire, cut about 1748. The words are by Alexander Pope, rendering a Latin verse of the 15th century:
Nymph of the grot these sacred springs I keep
And to the murmur of these waters sleep
Ah spare my slumbers gently tread the cave
And drink in silence or in silence lave.
The lettering of the inscription at Stourhead was in capitals and lower case, with thick and thin strokes and no serifs, and I wondered if it might have been a deliberately primitive serifless style of lettering that had been chosen to match the primitive architecture of the grotto.
As for ‘grot’, that was also what British designers in the 1960s called the traditional ‘grotesque’ sanserif types, and Typographica was set in Monotype’s Grotesque Series 215, a type adapted from the Bauer typefoundry’s Venus-Grotesk and originally made in the 1920s for the German market. It was taken up in the 1960s by British designers who had no access to exciting new types like Helvetica (German and US Linotype matrices would not run on British machines) and who were tired of waiting for Monotype to finish cutting all the punches for Univers. Or maybe they did not want to use the rather bland Univers anyway.
I still think that the lettering at Stourhead may possibly have been intended to look primitive, but in fact it seems to be an isolated instance, and it clearly has nothing at all to do with the monoline sanserif lettering all in capitals that begins to appear in the 1780s, becomes quite common in the first decade of the 19th century, and is the ancestor of our sanserif types. So I should probably have dropped the reference to the Nymph, who was no longer part of the story, but I had become rather fond of her. (The design of the statue is derived from the antique ‘Sleeping Ariadne’ in the Vatican Museum, acquired by Pope Julius II in 1512.)
I had included some examples of the use of sanserif lettering by John Soane, since I had a hunch that he was among the early users. Just too late for my article in Typographica
I came across the drawings by Soane of the inscription of the little round temple at Tivoli near Rome (they were used for the cover of the book in 1999), and suddenly I thought I understood where he got his idea for a monoline letter. The Tempio della Sibilla dates from the first century BCE, which was still the Republican era of Rome, and what is left of the inscription has geometrical letters, monoline, with minimal serifs. (The serifs are hardly noticeable in fact.)
Its suitability for association with Soane’s own minimalist version of Roman architecture seemed obvious, and also with the basic geometrical forms that underlie the work of contemporary neo-classical architects from Boullée to Jefferson. The drawing is in fact a copy of one made in 1763 by George Dance, the architect to whom Soane had been apprenticed.
In about 1779, during his own stay in Italy, Soane had used sanserif capitals on a drawing for a ‘British Senate House’ that he was submitting to the Royal Academy in London in the hope of a prize. (See the image at the head of this post.) And he went on using them, not only on all his drawings, but also putting them into his designs, apparently intending to have them cut in the stone. They are in his designs for the Bank of England, but they never got cut. Perhaps the client resisted. And in his designs for a new House of Lords, but that never got built. However, other architects soon adopted the style for the lettering on their own drawings, and then, somehow, the style became a part of the repertoire of professional lettering artists and entered the wider world of signwriting and publicity.
In 1999 when the St Bride Library needed publicity in order to raise funding to get it out of its current crisis, Justin Howes worked with me on an exhibition at the Soane Museum in London, called ‘Primitive types’, which was about sanserifs in Soane’s original drawings and the whole history of the early sanserif letter. To coincide with the exhibition we rushed out a slightly updated reprint of The Nymph and the Grot, which was very generously and beautifully printed without charge by the art printers BAS in order to help the library.
It was a pity that publication had to be so rushed, because it left no time to follow up all kinds of leads, and after it came out we both tried to update the story properly. Justin got down to serious work in the British Library and elsewhere and began to turn up some extraordinary things. In his Printing types D. B. Updike refers to a joke book printed in 1806 with a story about ‘Egyptian letters’ in which an Irishman remarks that the thin strokes are the same thickness as the thick ones. (Politically incorrect, I know – but in fact many ‘Irish’ jokes like this one seem to be politically subversive, based on faux-innocent remarks made by an acute Irishman to a dumb Anglo-Saxon.) Did the joke book really exist? Justin set out to find a copy, and did. The edition he found was dated 1805. That put him on the track of more discoveries. He had already found one reference to the new ‘Egyptian’ lettering in 1805 which we just managed to squeeze into the Nymph, but afterwards he located far more references, in magazines and newspapers. It became clear that in 1805 Egyptian letters were happening in the streets of London, being plastered over shops and on walls by signwriters, and they were astonishing the public, who had never seen letters like them and were not sure they wanted to. Like some of the other odd things that were happening then, it seemed that these weird letters were probably Egyptian. The European Magazine for August 1805 included an illustration to prove how odd the new letters were:
This, said the text, was the ‘old Roman letter’. It continued, ‘I find it convenient to no classes except the house painters, who must gain considerably by repainting so great a portion of the metropolis, and who can apply apprentices to so simple a letter, where abler and more expensive workmen were necessary heretofore,’ and concluded, ‘the warmest advocates of these letters cannot but allow, that they are clumsy in the extreme, and devoid of a single beauty to recommend them, or any thing whatever, except their antiquity’. So 1805 was the year of the Egyptian (or old Roman) letter. And of England beating France and Spain (Trafalgar). And Napoleon beating the world (Austerlitz). A rather hysterical year, if you look at the newspapers.
People had certainly been getting more and more interested in Egyptian things towards the end of the 18th century. One thinks of designs for Egyptian fireplaces by Piranesi and of the Mozart and Schikaneder Magic Flute (1791), with its hymn to Isis and Osiris. In 1798 Napoleon set off to conquer Egypt, for several reasons but chiefly to make life difficult for England by blocking the most convenient route to India. And the craze for anything Egyptian – ‘Egyptomania’ as it was called – got even more frantic. He took with him an army of scientists, botanists and linguists who wrote the massive volumes of the Description de l’Egypte that started appearing in 1809 and continued for 20 years. These, by the by, are all set in the romain du roi (the Grandjean type). There is no use of a slab-serif type anywhere in them.
Most people called the new letter by the popular name of ‘Egyptian’, even though nobody seems seriously to have thought that the letters were really modelled on Egyptian ones. ‘Old Roman’ was the – essentially correct – consensus. English sign painters and some other lettering artists went on using the name ‘Egyptian’ for sanserif until into the 20th century. In 1816, when the Ordnance Survey, the government map makers, wanted an appropriate style with which to pick out Roman roads and other Roman antiquities on the new ‘One inch’ maps, they chose what they called ‘Egyptian’ letters, which of course were sanserifs.
In about 1817 the Figgins foundry in London made a type with square or slab-serifs which it called ‘Antique’, and that name was adopted by most of the British and US typefounders. Except the typefounder Thorne, who confused things by marketing his Antique under the name ‘Egyptian’. In France it became Egyptienne, and to add worse confusion they called the sanserif Antique (as they still do – Antique Olive, for example). That was why the term ‘slab-serif’ was invented, not very long ago, so that historians could try to reduce at least some of the confusion. Nicolete Gray used it in an article in 1981. (Maybe someone knows who was first?) As for the earliest use that has yet been discovered of the ‘slab-serif’ letter form, it turns out that it was not in type, but in a wood block used on a handbill of 1810 for a London lottery. Justin (of course) found it in the British Library:
Justin told his friends about some of his discoveries and talked about them in lectures, but he had not got round to publishing them when he died very suddenly in February 2005. So it is up to his friends to tell people about his work, and that is one reason for this update.
The Caslon ‘Egyptian’ type of 1816, or perhaps a bit earlier, which was certainly the first sanserif printing type to be sold commercially, was not as isolated or as novel as people sometimes make out. By that date Egyptians, or sanserifs, were everywhere, in books and engravings and lithographs, and on buildings and sculpture, and as I’ve said, even on maps. The reading public must have been getting quite used to them. Here is one of my favourite examples, which I showed in the first version of The Nymph and the Grot, a project which alas was never realized: it was a proposal for a monument to Nelson and to the military commander Stuart (victor at the battle in Calabria in 1806 that is commemorated by Maida Vale in London), published in 1808 by one William Wood. The structure would have been a vast pyramid on the downs to the north of Portsmouth, with lettering in what Wood called ‘the earliest Roman character’, that is, a sanserif, of which the simple design was recommended among other reason because it was the ‘least susceptible to decay’.
I have been keeping a list of other dated examples of early sanserifs which I’ll publish in some form (contributions welcome). In fact the typefounders were the only professional makers of letters who refused to have anything to do with them, and they held out for another ten years or so. It seems quite possible that they dismissed the style as a bizarre and amateurish whim that was clearly not going to last. That is why I think that the Caslon Egyptian – which is shown halfway down a page in the Caslon specimen and is given no special emphasis – may possibly have been ordered by a client rather than originated by the foundry, and that the foundry just suppressed its principles, took the money and made the type. Eventually, but not until the later 1820s, the typefounders did give in and started following the trend, with the ‘Sans-Serif’ type from Figgins, and the ‘Grotesque’ from Thorowgood. In the 1830s the Blake, Garnett foundry (later Blake & Stephenson, and later still Stephenson, Blake) in Sheffield, who had bought the matrices of the Caslon Egyptian, relaunched the original type with the substitution of some bad wrong fount characters – but that is another story. It would be nice if we could find a contemporary example of the Caslon Egyptian used in a real book, not just a type book, since that might give a clue to the identity of the possible client – if there was one.
I said above that ‘sanserif’ was a mistake on the part of the OED. The headword ‘Sanserif’ in the entry in the original dictionary (shown above) was quoted from a Figgins type specimen dated 1830, the only known copy of which just happened to be in the library at the University Press in Oxford, the printer of the dictionary. But when I checked the name in the specimen (which is now in the Bodleian library) I found it was SANS-SERIF, and the size was given as 8 LINE PICA (not ‘Lines’). In the dictionary the quotation from the heading in the Figgins specimen has ‘San-’ at the end of one line and ‘Serif’ at the beginning the next, the ‘s’ of ‘Sans’ having been lost. When they wrote the headword did the editors perhaps read the hyphen as a word-break (notwithstanding the capital letter in ‘Serif’) and delete it?
So the original authority for the term ‘sanserif’ in OED appears to have been based on an error of transcription, and the word should not have existed. Except that, curiously, it did. The OED has some other quotations showing this spelling, used long before the ‘S’ volume of the dictionary was published in the 20th century. One example from an authoritative source is ‘Sanserifs or grotesques, which have no serifs’, from the 1888 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. By using it myself I suppose I have added a bit of legitimacy.
Some of the points discussed above were raised by contributors to Typophile Forum, in a thread headed Egyptian slab-serif
. It was suggested that the answers were in The Nymph and the Grot
. Some of them are, and there are still copies available from the St Bride Library, which gets the money from sales of the book. But I thought that it might be helpful to publish this summary, and to add a note on the additional information that has come to light since 1999, some of which was turned up by the researches of Justin Howes.