From Egypt to Dulwich

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Since December, I have been walking around London every Saturday, looking for bookshops and interesting type-related matters around the city. Back in 2008, I found a post on Typophile.com where James Mosley talked about William Caslon IV’s famous 2-Lines English Egyptian, that Justin Howes revived. Perhaps it’s more correct to say he made his own interpretation of the English Egyptian, for Dulwich Picture Gallery. Howes was the founder of the H. W. Caslon Type Foundry and he passed away in 2005. The post has been bookmarked on my computer ever since then.

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Five years later, I’m lucky enough to be here in London, and what’s even more lucky is that Dulwich is a place that I pass through every day to get to Dalton Maag’s studio. So a few weeks ago I got off the train at West Dulwich station, walked along the Gallery Road for 15 minutes and reached the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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Mosley, and most type historians, believed the Egyptian type style has its deep roots within architecture – as seen in his book ‘The Nymph and The Grot’ and Alan Bartram’s ‘Type Form’. The Dulwich Picture Gallery building was designed by Sir John Soane, a  renowned British architect prevailing from the late 18th to early 19th century, who was well known for often using sans serifs for his projects. The gallery opened in 1817, which is the period around about when William Caslon IV published his 2-Lines English Egyptian. With these strong reasons, it’s not surprising that, as a Caslon geek, Howes decided to draw this particular English Egyptian for the gallery.

We don’t know why the Picture Gallery only commissioned Howes for the west Entrance/side entrance sign’s lettering. To me the side entrance sign works really well within the whole context. The original English Egyptian was of experimental purpose, one could imagine the type wouldn’t go well with each other. Howes made some slight improvements regarding the letterforms and counter-space, while still maintaining the interesting awkwardnesses, like the capital G. Punctuations and figures were also designed by Howes, so that all the awkwardnesses came together (strange A and comma, an awkward figure) to create an interesting sign for the gallery.

The look and feel inevitably looks like Gill Sans. While people have said that the Caslon-style inspired Johnston Sans, and Johnston Sans inspired Gill Sans, could there be some relations in-between? That would be an interesting story to dig deeper into. Our own Effra was inspired by the same 2-Lines English Egyptian source, although took a somewhat different approach to it.

Julius Hui

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