1. The Serif-Less Letters of John Soane
Pen, print and communication in the eighteenth century.
Editors: Archer-Parré, C. and Dick, M.
Published by Liverpool university Press
Published in September 2020, with a Book Launch webinar of short talks from contributors on 19 November 2020:
With the Webinar of short talks published on YouTube:
Book Chapter 14
The Serif-Less Letters of John Soane
At the end of the long eighteenth century a new style of typeface made its inaugural appearance. Cast as printers' 'Two Lines English' for titles in around 1814 it was later advertised as 'Egyptian' within the 1816 type specimen book of William Caslon IV and issued from his foundry in Salisbury Square, London. This typeface was unusual because although it was classical in structure it was designed without serifs and in block capitals only. It is the first known example of a sans serif typeface, a style that was to revolutionise nineteenth-century printed advertising and which has dominated typography ever since. The origins of this letter are hard to trace but find their roots in the eighteenth century. Until recently, the earliest datable examples of a deliberate serif-less letter were thought to be those made by the sculptor John Flaxman, evidenced by his monument to ‘Capt. R. Willett Miller’ in St Paul’s Cathedral (1803); and his monument to Isaac Hawkins Browne at Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge (1804–5). Other isolated instances of early serif-less inscriptions exist on provincial monuments, such as those to Penelope Boothby at Ashbourne Church, Derbyshire (1793) by Thomas Banks (1735–1805), and, in the same church, a later memorial plaque for her parents, Sir Brooke and Phoebe Hollins Boothby. The serif-less letter had become accepted on monuments by the final decade of the eighteenth century. The popularity of these serif-less letters and their association with classical style and sensibility ultimately produced a demand for their use within the realms of printing and the need arose to develop a sans serif printing type. In recent years, typographic historians have striven to establish the evolutionary path of the sans serif letter and James Mosley indicates that the architect John Soane was amongst the first, if not the first, to produce serif-less titling in his drawings.
This chapter examines the evidence for Soane as an early pioneer of serif-less lettering in Britain, and the progenitor of the sans serif typefaces of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It considers the events that led to Soane’s application of serif-less lettering and the reasons he became the principal executor of this radical departure from the roman letter. It also proffers suggestions for why Soane promoted the serif-less letter as desirable for inscriptions on buildings as well as for plan, elevation and perspective drawings in the neoclassical style. It considers the events that led to Soane’s application of serif-less lettering and the reasons he became the principal executor of this radical departure from the roman letter. It documents his early use of serif-less titling and proffers suggestions for why Soane promoted the serif-less letter as desirable for plan, elevation and perspective drawings in the neoclassical style. In order to establish the earliest example of a sans serif inscription on a Soane building still in existence today.
This historical research documents Soane’s earliest use of the serif-less (sans serif) letterform on his architectural drawings - in order to establish the earliest examples and time-line of both drawn titling and proposals for inscriptions on his distinctively purist neoclassical buildings within his early architectural practice since his return from the grand tour in 1780. The research proves the authors discovery, that the earliest extant surviving buildings by Soane to have a sans serif inscriptional: ‘TOVJOVS FIDELE’, is at Langley Park in Norfolk, England. Proposed from 1784 and drawn in 1790, the south-east Lodges were completed and billed by 1793, with James Nelson being the stonemason, who would have logically cut the serif-less letterforms in his workshops.
Sir John Soane (1753–1837) is one of Britain’s most eminent architects. Best known for his redevelopment of the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, his work is recognised for its pure, neoclassical style. Soane’s career spanned the last quarter of the eighteenth century and first quarter of the nineteenth century and his architectural ideology gave rise to a progressive modernism within architectural practice. Soane’s ideology and respect for the classical also extended to his use of serif-less lettering which he used not only on his plans and drawings but also on the stone inscriptions of some of his buildings. Soane is recognised as a progenitor of a British style of lettering which represents the neoclassical as well as the ‘antique’, which leads, through the last quarter of the eighteen-century to the first commercially cut metal type of c.1816 by the William Caslon IV Type foundry - the pre-cursor of the countless modernist sans serif typefaces of the twentieth century and an increasingly commercial and technological world.
This 4,000-word chapter published in Pen, print and communication in the eighteenth century by Liverpool University Press, makes a significant contribution of ‘new knowledge’ to type history and provides the platform for future research by the author which goes further back in time, to the origin of the 18th century revival of the ‘primitive’ serif-less Etruscan-Roman letterform. It also provides the context in which to fully document the development and use of the architects ‘skeletal’ titling and the sans serif typefaces used commercially throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This research therefore, confirms Sir John Soane as a highly influential ‘prophet of modernism'.
Is Sir John Soane the progenitor of the commercial sans serif letterform?
What are the earliest examples of Soane’s serif-less titling within his archives?
Is Langley Park the earliest surviving extant example of serif-less inscription on a Soane building?
NOTE: There was originally a 24-month online embargo on this written chapter from the book's publication date scheduled for Autumn 2020.
Print and eBook listing on WorldCat:
Book listing on JSTOR:
Researcher's Website: http://emfoundry.com/soanesseriflessletters.htm