This study is intended to place Edward Johnston in the context of the ideas and people who helped shape his thought and work. In no sense is it a biography, for the good reason that the account of Johnston’s life written by his daughter Priscilla Johnston in 1959 has such intimate knowledge and warmth that it is unlikely to be superseded. Nevertheless, the chronology of Johnston’s life is one of the structures of this study as is the pattern of his life among his fellow artistcraftsmen, first in London and then in Ditchling.
The project germinated during the time I was teaching in the School of Graphic Design at Ravensbourne College of Design. It seems odd now that the name Edward Johnston was not especially dear to the students, nor even to the staff, during the period from the mid-1970s to 1990. Attention was focused elsewhere, on ostensibly more relevant developments for graphic design such as the Russian Constructivist movement, Bauhaus theory, Swiss modernist graphics, or Californian post-modernist departures.
My realisation of Johnston’s role in the formation of twentieth-century letter design and typography came gradually. It was prompted (as Johnston himself was) by an interest in that period of transition from the handwritten manuscript to the printed page which took place from the mid-fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries.
My interest was quickened by the calligraphy exhibition, Sharpness Unity & Freedom, occasioned by the fiftieth anniversary of Johnston's death, which was held at Ditchling Museum in April, 1994. The question then arose: given Johnston's dates (1872–1944), what part did he himself play in the development of modernist design thinking in Britain? And what was his impact on others? His followers, many of whose work was shown in the Ditchling exhibition, formed a Johnston tradition that became predominant in Britain. Its calligraphers do not appear remotely to have been connected to modernism. Yet Johnston’s typographic legacy clearly does. Is this because of Johnston, or was it in spite of him?
Answers would emerge only by understanding Johnston within the broad context of the ideas of his time. A project presented itself: to examine Johnston’s philosophical roots. His voice needed to be heard within three interconnected but implicitly rival systems of thought. One was the the Arts and Crafts movement, to which Johnston himself was a brother born. The second was the more diffuse modern movement itself, of which Johnston’s block letter alphabet used for the London Underground is a clear affirmation. The third was the nineteenth-century resurgence of Roman Catholicism, of which the craft-based Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic in Ditchling, was an important offshoot. For the Guild was begun by Johnston’s two closest friends and colleagues, Eric Gill and Hilary Pepler, and located on the common of his home village. These movements were further intertwined by virtue of having developed during the same period of time. Furthermore, Johnston’s place in twentiethcentury design history, already elusive on account of the complexity of these movements, is made more so because he himself was largely reticent about the matter. There is no autobiography and few public utterances or personal statements of belief from Johnston’s own hand. There can only be certain illuminations.
The project was fostered by the most promising circumstances. Johnston, it seemed, was to be celebrated as one of a group of craftsmen to be shown in a much expanded Ditchling Museum, to be funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Museum would be able to show and explain more fully the communality of Ditchling’s twentieth-century artist-craftsmen within the wider history of the handmade artefact – an aesthetic of ‘manufacture’ – first acclaimed by Johnston’s mentors, John Ruskin, William Morris, and William Richard Lethaby. Recognition, it seemed, would come not only to Johnston, who is anyway firmly on the map, but to the village of Ditchling. As home to other pre-eminent artist-craftsmen, including Eric Gill, Ethel Mairet, Frank Brangwyn, Hilary Pepler, David Jones, Joseph Cribb, Dunstan Pruden, and Philip Hagreen, Ditchling is quite as significant a place as, say, St. Ives in the history of English artistic craft and design. Sadly, this project did not materialise.
To return to Johnston. Good decisions were made by those who have secured many of Johnston’s papers for public collections. And there are compensations, perhaps, for the fact that they are shared between scattered institutions in Los Angeles, Texas, New York, Chicago, Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, Farnham, London, and Ditchling itself. For it is remarkable how views can be inspired according to the location in which one studies – by the enveloping Gothic brown of Dr. Williams’ Theological Library in Bloomsbury, by the spacious clarity of the new British Library, by the rambling, makeshift cellars of the Dominican archives in Edinburgh. But how fitting it is that a significant portion of Johnston’s papers have found their way back to Ditchling, where he worked and thought for thirty-two years in his modest workshops in his three Ditchling homes – Downsview, Halletts, and Cleves.