Friday, 20 January 2012

The One-Stroke Poster Letter, from Bread and Butter to Body and Blood

As recently as the 1980s, poster or "ticket" writing was a staple of signwriters everywhere. It's a measure of how much we've changed that this form of advertising, once seen as the quickest and most economical way to get timely information across, now seems unwieldy, and much more of an undertaking.

from Pen and Brush Lettering and Practical Alphabets, Blandford Press, 1952

As the name suggests, the "One-Stroke" style honed in the 40's and 50's to suit this ephemeral, quick-turnaround work, has been stripped of serifs and other extraneous elements. Its dynamic effect relies on fast, fluid execution and parallel, chisel-ended verticals.

Although its form is governed by utility, one of the joys of coming across this lettering is in detecting the hand of the maker; the small flourishes, eccentricities or deviations from the norm that are inevitable when a human hand is involved. As Emerson wrote, 'Though he were never so wilful... Man cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew.'
Nowadays the One-Stroke letter awaits our appreciation in front of neglected bastions of civilization like churches of obscure denomination, or cut-price shoe shops. I was surprised and delighted to find the details of weekend engineering work at New Cross Station brushed with great panache, manicules and all. In black on fluorescent yellow card, perhaps drop-shaded in red, the aesthetic violence of the style remains undiminished (Onward Christian Soldiers; Prices SLASHED!). If we sense that it comes from another time, this only adds to the arresting effect.

Christmas poster at Stoke Newington Baptist Church combining poster lettering with a traditional grotesque face for compactness and readability.

Another moribund font commemorated here by Phoebe Blatton.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Malicious Damage

The exhibition of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell's doctored library books continues at Islington Museum until 25th February. Displayed alongside all of the surviving covers are diaries, ephemera, and photographs of the couple's bedsit at 25 Noel Road, beautifully decorated at Islington Borough Council's expense:

For me one of the highlights of the show was a tangled and obscene jacket synopsis for a Dorothy L. Sayers book that ends with the reader being exhorted to enjoy it behind closed doors, 'and have a good shit while you are reading!' Orton recalled, 'I used to stand in the corners after I'd smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch people read them, It was very fun, very interesting.' (Joe Orton Online)

I was fascinated to learn that the two prime suspects were eventually caught by Sydney Porrett, a cunning and assiduous senior clerk with Islington Council, who hatched a plan to send a letter to Halliwell asking him to remove an illegally parked car. "I had to catch these two monkeys," said Porrett in the contemporary idiom, "They were a couple of darlings, make no mistake." The typewritten reply, stating that they did not own a car, matched irregularities in the defaced books, and the game was up.

Kenneth Halliwell, Untitled Collage, 1966
I was slightly disappointed that there were none of Halliwell's 'serious' works in the exhibition. Nobody took much notice of his baroque collages during his lifetime, which was probably a contributory factor in his murder of the more successful Orton, followed by his own suicide. But Halliwell's work shares a highly developed sense of colour and composition, as well as a camply subversive atmosphere, with his Californian contemporary Jess (below), and he deserves to be better known in his own right.