Sunday, January 6, 2013


Letter set (4)

To complete my short series about letters on buildings, here's an example of a fourth kind of lettering, the sort known generally and unflatteringly as the grotesque. These letters are distinguished by their total lack of serifs, the little end strokes that adorn Egyptian, Clarendon, classical and "English" letters† and in the world of print and type this class of letter is known simply as "sans serif".

At first glance you could almost believe that some gigantic stamping device has been at work to create this example beneath the pediment of the former Northamptonshire Union Bank in Northampton, but this is stone not concrete and it must have taken a lot of chiselling to incise the these large grotesque capitals. Their unadorned, businesslike quality contrasts with the more delicate carving of the composite capitals below them and the phoenix, with its flames and logs, above. In this context (classical architecture, classical mythology) one might have expected more classical or "English" letterforms, like the ones on Roman inscriptions perhaps, but these plainer ones certainly get the message across. Alan Bartram, whose short book, Street Name Lettering in the British Isles (1978)§, has been a useful guide for me, describes the grotesque letter as "in reality, an Egyptian without serifs", going on to remark that it's an adaptable form that can be used at a wide range of different weights.

These Northampton examples are nicely proportioned letters, although the P is rather high-waisted, making its bowl somewhat small and confined. On a modern inscription the letter would probably have a much fuller bowl. But this bank was built in 1841 and in those days that was often how they made, to adapt Shakespeare's phrase, their great Ps.

* * *

† Readers who would like to see examples of these other classes of lettering can see my other posts on Egyptians in Stroud, Clarendons in Devizes, and "English" letters in Leicester.

§ The companion volumes, Fascia Lettering in the British Isles and Tombstone Lettering in the British Isles are also both worth seeking out via ABE or used book stores.


Stephen Barker said...

Philip, there was an interesting exhibition at the Sir John Soane Museum a few years ago on the use of Sans Serif Letters in Soane's and contemporaries work. I cannot remember if there was a catalogue for the exhibition.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Stephen: I didn't see that exhibition, so thanks for the info. The Soane often produce catalogues, so I will look out for one.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Oh, I see that there was an accompanying book, called, somewhat waggishly, The Nymph and the Grot.