Can You Read the Writing on the Wall? the Decline and Fall of the Roman Alphabet in Modern Britain

By Glancey, Jonathan | New Statesman (1996), April 18, 1997 | Go to article overview

Can You Read the Writing on the Wall? the Decline and Fall of the Roman Alphabet in Modern Britain


Glancey, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)


Whenever we have had a message that we needed to print clearly in Britain, we have always resorted, directly or indirectly, to that epitome of clarity which is Roman lettering.

This typography, almost exactly 2,000 years old, is the greatest legacy of the Roman emperor Trajan. Trajan had a passion for adventurous architecture, pioneering bridges and gigantic monuments, the most remarkable of which is the vast marble column that bears his name in Rome. The immediate purpose of Trajan's Column was to communicate the emperor's conquest of Dacia; the result was the finest lettering of the classical world.

Each incised capital is a work of art, the austere, clean verticals tipped with serifs, those small flamboyant strokes that distinguish the face. Together, they read superbly well. Small wonder that they became the basis for all the great typefaces that followed, as the craft of printing spread across the globe. The masthead of today's Times is the lettering on Trajan's column reproduced in ink and printed on paper.

Superlatives are needed to describe this lettering because although it has often been imitated, it has never been surpassed. Calligraphers, typographers, art editors, graphic designers and printers have relied upon it ever since Trajan's Column was rediscovered during the Renaissance among the classical ruins of Rome.

It was the expressive character of 18th-century Britain, as towns and cities were built to resemble Roman prototypes. It reached its pinnacle here in the 20th century. Yet in the last decade of the millennium it is facing sudden death, lost in a blizzard of deregulated type. This, surely, is a sign of the times.

In 1916 the celebrated calligrapher Edward Johnston was commissioned by Frank Pick, managing director of the Underground, to design a new display face for station signs and nameboards. "Johnston" was a revelation, like the Underground itself: modern, elegant, fashionable, accessible to all. Its designer had taken Trajan's alphabet and shorn away some of the serifs. "Johnston" spawned "Gill Sans", completely sans-serif and designed for machine printing by the sculptor Eric Gill.

"Johnston" is also father to "Garamond" and "Bembo", typeface of the vast majority of books printed in Britain.

Public messages, particularly the official ones - the railway timetable, the departure board, the destination display on the front or back of a bus, signs for streets and Post Offices and telephone kiosks - always pay homage to the lucid simplicity of Roman lettering.

This is why London Transport adopted Edward Johnston's lettering for its buses as well as its tube trains for the best part of 75 years. It is why many transport companies and public authorities chose "Gill Sans" (the nationalised British Railways in 1948, for example) or its rivals and successors such as the icy, rational "Helvetica" (the new-look British Rail from 1964-97).

But the lineage is about to end: Roman lettering is on its way out. In the privatised, deregulated nineties it is regarded as a form of restrictive practice rather than an aid to legibility and understanding. It is unfashionably patrician and smacks, to Tory eyes at least, of pre-war public enterprise and civic spirit (dread words).

Privatised bus services up and down the country are largely deregulated and decked out in lurid new liveries in their attempts to stand out from one another. The illegible forms of lettering daubed across their sides look as though they have been designed by primary school children let loose with leaky felt-tipped pens. Anyone, after all, can have a go at running a bus service; why not have anyone's idiosyncratic script express that fact writ large?

The idea behind this visual stress is clear: each privatised service must scream its separate identity. In a world of thinly spread, lowest-common-denominator schlock (the world of the public sector in the hands of booty-seeking privateers), the more garish the lettering, the more chance there is of being noticed and the farther away one appears to be from those bad old days of public service. …

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