Louis John Pouchée alphabets
Described as the most ambitious and most beautiful types created in wood in any period, these alphabets were once presumed lost in a fire in 1940 at Monotype’s London office.
Designed for eye-catching headlines or for highlighting a word in printed posters, some of these fat face and slab serif letters look as if they could have been designed in the 1920s, or even the 1950s, judging from their patterns. They were actually designed in the early 1820s, even earlier than the more familiar Victorian ornamented type.
The astonishingly intricate letter designs feature a variety of ornamental motifs; plant forms, agricultural, musical and even masonic symbols. The level of detail in these, once innovative engravings, is incredible.
The above images are from Ornamented types: twenty-three Alphabets, from the Foundry of Louis John Pouchée. It’s a limited edition boxed set of large, unbound, deckled edged, printed sheets available to view at the St. Bride Library, which also holds the original wood blocks used to print the edition.
Printing from the blocks in the mid-90s was a collaboration between James Mosley, the former Librarian at St. Brides, and Ian Mortimer, of I.M. Imprimit, who designed and printed the limited edition.
When printing started, the provenance of the blocks was still a mystery. James Mosley had shown a few printed examples of individual letters in the ‘60s, suggesting that they might be from Pouchée’s foundry. However it wasn’t until Ian and his team were two-thirds through printing the cryptic alphabets that their identity was confirmed. Mosley matched them to a specimen; Specimens of stereotype casting, from the foundry of L. I. Pouchée 1, which even quotes the prices charged for the types.
The printing of this historic record was an extraordinary feat. The blocks were originally designed to be stereo-typed—used as patterns for casting metal type—and were never intended for printing. Therefore the blocks were never squared-up or made type high. This, together with the fact that their surfaces had warped slightly over time, meant that no automation for inking or printing could be used.
Painstaking techniques were used for making ready and inking the blocks. Each had to be packed and adjusted on the press to achieve a good impression. To ensure that both the engraved detail reproduced crisply and that the solid areas remained fully opaque, different sized rollers were often used on the same block to apply different densities of ink. A large roller with a fine film of ink was used for the detail and a small roller with thicker coverage was used for black areas. The few splits and marks, which eventually helped confirm the identity of the blocks, have been left. The edition took almost four years to complete.
Describing the design and typography of the printed edition, Ian told me that it had been agreed with Mosley that the letters should be allowed to speak for themselves with no clever layout or fancy typography to distract from them. The edition has a self-effacing layout with no secondary colour. The display type, Caslon’s two-line English Egyptian, was especially cast from surviving matrices. Two hundred and ten box sets were printed and it was agreed that the original blocks should not to be printed from again for fifty years.
Four of Pouchée’s printed letters were later used under license for the Pulp album cover, We Love Life, by Peter Saville in 2001.
I’ve chosen just a small section here. I was especially taken with the masonic alphabet. The ‘Z’, shown above, I’m told features authentic symbols that mark Pouchée out as a serious mason. Note the incredible printed detail achieved on the book in the centre and also the ‘G’ referring to God at the top. (Some of the other masonic letters show the eye of God). It was a privilege to be able to browse through it.
1The specimen title, shows founder’s name with an ‘I’.
The original Pouchée alphabets are © St Bride Foundation and I.M. Imprimit and are used with permission and my thanks.
Thanks also to Bob Richardson of the St. Bride Library—who first showed me the alphabets—and Ian Mortimer of I.M. Imprimit for their time in answering questions and reviewing this post.
Vivid Red Ampersands
I printed these bright red ampersands for friends and family a while ago from woodblocks dating back over 100 years. I really liked the four different styles; a very musical character (which formed the basis for a family wedding invite that I helped create), a super fat face version, a smaller almost ’70s shape and a narrow western-style ampersand.
The blocks were found at the St. Bride typographic library in London, where I printed them using a Vandercook onto thick, textured, off-white stock.
Due to the woodblocks natural ageing and past use there are little marks and dings which I didn’t try to cover up—it just adds to the charm.
There are a few unframed ones available to buy on the Type Worship Shop. I thoguht they may make a nice, alternative, valentine’s gift
These might be the ugliest, creepiest letters I’ve ever seen. I almost hesitate to post them here, however I’m feeling a little bit scarred by them so I had to share.
The Human Type, letters spell out the name of the French studio that made them; Kerozen. Based on photos of the studio members, the images were mapped onto the letters and adjusted in Photoshop.
‘Thanks’ to sarahschloo for showing them to me.I’m going to stop looking at them now.
You know how I love huge 3D type, well I spotted one of these sculptures over on the fab TwentySixTypes. It’s the award winning identity for the IV Brazilian Design Biennial last year by Geco Design.
The Biennial theme was ‘Brazilian Diversity’ so the ‘D’ forming the top section of the overall ‘B’ was designed with multiple styles to represent this.
A friend of mine was telling me about these ceramic tiles in Liberty’s department store in London. A gun toting octopus, a smoking fish and a Dodo in a bowler hat, these mischievous, anthropomorphic animals that accompanying these decorative letters seem like something from an adult version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The eccentric images have been taken from Rory Dobner’s intricate ink drawings. A continual drawer and doodler, he has a library of old sketchbooks built up over the years. Rory has been commissioned by a long list of individuals (Kate Moss, Robert Downey Jr, are listed), and companies including several fashion houses.
Thanks to Massimo Martinetti for the photo and introducing me to them.
Playing wth type
These caught my eye—simple compositions showing-off typefaces designed by the Copenhagen based design agency, e-Types.
The shop, PlayType, is an extension of the agency, and was the first physical shop in the world, selling typefaces and type related products in 2011.
As the name suggests, the shop is an entity where the in-house team can play with the letters they’ve designed and create products for design conscious shoppers. They also collaborate with other designers, artists or photographers, sometimes hosting exhibitions.
Simone Øster, the Store Manager told me a little about the shop’s origins:
“When we opened the store, the intention was that it should be a temporary pop-up shop, lasting for one year only—but, after great interest from around the world (including a 6 page spread in renowned magazine, Monocle) we decided to keep the store.
So, what we just thought would be a cool gimmick and way of promoting the type foundry, turned out to be its very own business. Playtype Concept Store has a different, and much wider audience than the type foundry itself.
We have expanded our product list, so not only are we selling posters and mugs, as we did at first, but also: clothing, iPhone covers, skateboards, bags, books and more. By engaging in collaborations with Danish brands like Soulland and Mismo we have also expanded our customer base and made the Playtype brand known globally.”
The best selling products are the posters shown above, with ‘g’, ‘C’, ‘N?’ and ‘A7’ being some of the most popular. Right, I’m off to book my trip to Denmark…
When handwriting matters
I attended a lecture by Ewan Clayton last week. A calligrapher who’s been on a fascinating journey; growing-up in a community of craftspeople originally founded by Eric Gill, studying calligraphy then living as a Benedictine monk for a number of years. After leaving the Monastery he began long term consultancy relationship with Xerox, (having never operated a computer before) to help them navigate their new strategic direction as a “document company” in Palo Alto. He was recently awarded an MBE.
Ewan argued that writing will always have key role in communicating and notemaking. At a time when some schools have stopped teaching joined-up or cursive writing, in favour of typing skills, the point was made that regardless of evolving tools and technology, be it moveable type in the 16th Century or iPad keyboards today, handwriting will always remain as an instant medium to compose our thoughts and to augment other forms of mark making communication. There is no choice to be made between these mediums: we can have it all.
Above is a selection of Ewan’s outstanding calligraphy work from A Book of Hours for the Vernal Equinox, the Crafts Study Centre and Practising Contentment exhibition.
Decorated Alphabet selection
While spending some time at St.Brides Library last week I took some photos of some historic decorative types. Seeing so many styles together, filled with such elaborate detail, it’s easy to glance over their characteristics. Here’s a few of the details I love most about them:
A: The decreasing sized As, alternately filled, provide a nice sense of depth yet the whole composition remains light. (From a sheet of beautiful 17th Century; initials)
S. This one has wings! (19th Century; American)
L: This inhabited initial not only appears to contain St. George and the Dragon, we’ve also got a plethora of small animals; goose, snail, squirrel, rabbit…The the top right terminal ends with a face. The devil maybe? (15th Century; French)
E: Almost psychedelic (17th Century; French)
M: There’s a strange creature gnawing at the bottom of this letter! (16th Century; Printed in Rouen by Martin Morin)
A: The one is drawn with pen and ink as a study aid. Beautifully composed out of the most complex interlocking shapes. (16th Century, Dutch, Aert van Meldert from ABC pour la jeunesse - “ABC for the youth”)
P: From a whole alphabet of vicious animals fighting each other. Who’s biting who? (Silvestre, 17th Century; French)
N: There are so many swirls to this inhabited ‘n’ the characters are off to play hide and seek. (17th Century; Italian; Alphabet by Vespasiano; Library of St. Mark’s, Venice)
R: Ultra Gothic: I’m not sure if the dragon is breathing out, spewing up, or eating this wonderful architectural monstrosity. (Calligrapher, Jean Midolle, 18th Century, Swiss)
Alphabet: Another by Midolle. As the name suggests they are supposed to look like jewels. (Jean Midolle, Monster Lapidary Alphabet, 19th Century, Swiss)
You can see more over on my Instagram page
Carol Belanger Grafton (Editor). Historic Alphabets & Initials, Woodcut & Ornamental,1977.
Midolle, Silvestre and others. Florid and Unusual alphabets,109 complete alphabets, 1976.
These striking letters make up a large typographic artwork produced in celebration of Peckham, an area of Southeast London. The linocut alphabet has been created by Menna Jenkins, a graduate of Camberwell College of Art’s Printmaking MA.
The reduction linocuts1 were hand-printed with oil–based inks, using a platen press. Only a limited edition of 10 of each letter were made.
The urban landscape and typography of Peckham (which has been undergoing a slow regeneration since the 1990s) provides an unusual source of inspiration for the letters which reference the people, cultures, and architecture of the area, mixed with a warm sense of humor.
“The signage of Peckham is not subtle, and nor are my letters. I have used celebratory carnival colours and patterns, which include the familiar reds and yellow of burger and fried chicken shops.”
Menna has produced some follow-on prints from her alphabet, including ‘You is well fit’ which won a graduate prize and has subsequently been accepted into the V&A permanent print collection.
The alphabet is available to any Peckham business that would like to use the typeface as signage.
1. Essentially, using the same piece of linoleum and progressively cutting more of the design away before each printing
I spotted these gorgeous pieces of artwork over the weekend by the neon man, Chris Bracey.
They feature as part of a joint exhibition called “Telling Tales” organised by the gallery, Scream, (located by Oxford Circus in London) on until the 15th February.
- Once Upon A Time,2013, Reclaimed wood, acrylic paint and neon 60 x 120 cm
- Love and Laughter,2012, Painted aluminium, neon and light bulbs 40 x 130 cm
If you like this you’ll love these posts: God’s own Junkyard & Neon Man
Letters at Large
For her Master of Fine Arts thesis, Audra Hubbell projected these huge letters from various typefaces around Chicago. Visualising the characters free of the restraints of page or screen, Audra’s aim was to observe the effects of space and the environment on the letters and the letters on the space. The interesting distortions lead her to explore the harmony between each letter and specific location.
In 2007 Tobias Battenberg created similar images projecting the typeface Akzidenz Grotesk around the city of Cologne, which is worth seeing here.