Digital Arts editor Neil Bennett discusses why we're avoiding an exhibition about the creator of some of the world's most beautiful type.
Yesterday, Monotype opened an exhibition in east London about the type work of typographer and sculptor Eric Gill. Timed to conicide with the launch of its 'remastered' editions of three fonts designed by Gill – Gill Sans Nova, Joanna Nova and Joanna Sans Nova, featuring more weights and international characters – the exhibition features a historical archive of Gill's materials that show how the typefaces were designed.
Normally, I'd be there in a shot to see such things. But, in fact, we're avoiding it in the same way you'd likely give an exhibition of Rolf Harris paintings a pass. To explain why, we're republishing an opinion piece I wrote back in 2011.
The beauty and horror of Eric Gill
I’ve been re-reading Simon Garfield’s Just My Type after it was sent to us by its appropriately titled American publisher Gotham Books. This is its first edition in the US*, and it’s bound to be as popular in the creative community there as it has been in the UK (American designers – be prepared to get a least three copies for Christmas).
An easily accessible tome for anyone with a passing interest in design – the typographical equivalent of Freakonomics, if you like – Just My Type is frequently funny, not shy on details and most-of-all celebratory of the beauty of letterforms without being all-out nerdish.
Just My Type also gives brief insights into the personal lives of the great typographers from John Baskerville to Matthew Carter.
And then there’s Eric Gill. Creator of beautiful, truly innovative fonts including Perpetua and Joanna – and Gill Sans, one of the best fonts ever hewn. He was always known to be an eccentric character, but his 1989 biography by Fiona McCarty exposed him as having molested his own children and dog – an issue Garfield skirts around by calling it "outrageous outré meanderings". We shouldn’t hold back in our language in this way. The man was not a practitioner of "scandalous and ceaseless sexual experimentation" – another of Garfield’s mealy mouthed phrases – he was a rapist.
To me, that makes the use of Gill’s typefaces problematic, to say the least. My thoughts are underpinned by the recent birth of my second child, Alice, but also Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author – a persuasive essay drilled into me at university saying you should judge all art forms (and type design is an art as much as painting) on their own merits, separate from the biographical details of the author.
Barthes essay isn’t about judging works based on the moral character (or lack of) of the creator, it’s more concerned with warning us against interpreting the meaning of works based on biographical details that may or may not have in an author's mind when they wrote a piece. At its core is a philosophy that our interpretation of works based on our own experiences is more important than what we think the creator meant. Our response is paramount – and my response to Gill’s work is one of revulsion.
I’m not going to be getting up on my high horse and demanding that Microsoft remove Gill Sans from installations of Office, Apple from Mac OS X, Adobe from Creative Suite and Monotype from their site. This is my choice – your experience may vary – and from now on we'll be avoiding using Gill-designed fonts** in circumstance where its use it purely aesthetic (though of course we might used them for commentary, as in this column). We can’t erase him from the history of typography – his artistic influence can be seen in too many faces – but I cannot celebrate his work directly.
* Despite being an American edition, none of the wording has changed for its new audience. An IBM Selectric ball is still the same size as a £2 coin, not a half dollar – and there’s no handy description of where Surrey is.
** At least in anything we create. Gill’s fonts may appear in projects we feature from the creative community.