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22 October 2014

Typography: From Gothic to Blackletter

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17. Morte d'Arthur (G.10510) - taken from 'Section 1 - for Dale' folder
Image: Morte d'Arthur

As part of our Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition, we asked writer Emma Tucker about gothic fonts (of which there are lots of examples in our archive). Emma is a writer covering design, music, and culture. She's currently working on a new design and type-focused print magazine for Monotype

There's no argument that cultural perceptions of the gothic come with a set visual language, informed by years of book covers, film posters, and history. Stereotypical graphic images of the gothic are often accompanied by appropriately spiky typography; the severe angles and points of the letterforms calling to mind engravings on ancient tombstones and the spikes of stakes. In fact, the typographic link has become so overt that too 'obvious' depictions of the gothic now feel inauthentic, or mocking.

There's also the borrowing of gothic type – or blackletter, as the script is commonly known – for music subcultures: punk, heavy metal, black metal, death metal. There's no doubt that, in the eye of today's culture, blackletter references the dark, the unapproachable, and somehow the undefinably supernatural.

The dark undertow of gothic literature is reflected in gothic type's own dark history, from its time as a vehicle for German national identity, through to its cultural appropriation by the Nazis. The more correct term for gothic type – blackletter, also known as broken script – refers to the calligraphic script of the Middle Ages, often hand-written by monks transcribing religious texts.

The very first metal type was born from this calligraphic style, and Johannes Gutenberg's 42-line Bible of 1455 used a blackletter which was based on liturgical scripts of the time. However, while roman types - the kind you're reading now - were embraced by most of Europe, and prevalent in England by the 17th century, Germany remained faithful to blackletter until well into the 30s.

Other European nations had jettisoned gothic letterforms in favour of the more 'simple' and 'graceful' characteristics of roman type, as opposed to the dark, angular, 'fussy' nature of gothic – barely legible to contemporary readers. The two styles were set against each other as polar opposites, with the very character of gothic type portrayed as somehow darker in nature. In his 1900 essay, Plain Printing Types, typographic scholar Theodore Lowe DeVinne issued a damning statement, describing blackletter as “a degenerate form of the roman character.”

Despite criticism, blackletter became a defining part of the German nation's visual character, with everyday books and newspapers published in gothic type, and children learning blackletter script at school. Some scholars even refused to read German publications set in roman type. However, during WWII blackletter was characterised as the 'German type', and debased and militarized by the Nazis for propaganda. Although the script was forbidden in 1941 – ironically by the Nazis themselves – blackletter remains touched by its cultural associations, unable to entirely shake free of its history.

Today gothic letterforms retain a dark historical resonance, but have also found new homes in visual language, particularly in that of subcultures. Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin says, “For current music and youth cults, blackletter is a means of proclaiming multiple identities: a collective, a people, a race, a nation, heavy metal, black metal, gothic – all of which celebrate brutality, or in a highly artificial way, the symbolism of death and destruction.'

Designer David Rudnick's HyperZeit typeface, a contemporary take on traditional blackletter
Image: Designer David Rudnick's HyperZeit typeface

Gothic lettering proliferates in the visual language of the music scene, particularly in those pitching themselves as musical minorities. It's also the stereotypical type style associated with horror, which seems to reference the fear and darkness associated with its historical connotations. Type designer Gunnar Vilhjálmsson compares the typeface to dressing up in a leather jacket and ripped jeans, saying, “It's this naïve way of looking scary or getting respect. The blackletter or gothic types have that insult. That's the design programme of these typefaces, these letterforms. They have some kind of mystical dark history even though, if you know anything about it, you would see it's a normal letterform.” Some of the gothic power of the style also lies in the striking appearance of the script – diagonal, clearcut, and bringing to mind its original use in bibles and latin texts, which adds to the mysticism. “There's no other style of writing the latin script that is as bold and powerful” says Vilhjálmsson.

You can view examples of Gothic typography from the British Library archive on our Discovering Literature website.

21 October 2014

Top picks from the British Library’s Gothic season

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Alongside our Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition, we’re running a packed programme of spooky talks, workshops and a fabulous Halloween LATE. Here are some of my favourites.

Terror and Wonder: Curator-led Tours
Tue 7 Oct 2014 – Thu 15 Jan 2015
Meet our curators and have a personal tour around the exhibition.

Anne Rice’s Prince Lestat: Midnight Book Launch
Wed 29 Oct 2014, 22:00
The Queen of the Undead is back, with her first Vampire Chronicle in over a decade – marking the return of one of the most popular vampires of all time. This is a very rare event: you’ll get to explore our Gothic exhibition after dark, meet author Anne Rice and as the clock strikes midnight, receive your copy of her new book, Prince Lestat.

Late-at-the-library


Late at the Library: The Sorting
Fri 31 Oct 2014, 19:30
A funeral-inspired experience with macabre performances, music, DJs, bar and a late night opening of the exhibition. You are invited to be the guest of honour at an extraordinary funeral: your own! You’ll have an appointment at the funeral parlour with our local undertaker. Run in partnership with award-wining theatre company, Les Enfants Terribles.

The art of the 'Gothic' album sleeve
Sun 9 Nov 2014, 11:45
Hear from two of the world's most talented and prolific graphic artists, Dave McKean and Vaughan Oliver, sharing a platform for the first time to discuss their work on album covers. Dave also created our exhibition artwork. Read his interview here.

Image-by-martin-parr

 
The New Black: from subculture to high culture
Sun 9 Nov 2014, 13:45
Fashion historian, DJ and writer Amber Jane Butchart chairs a panel of innovative designers who are inspired by everything gothic, including Nange Magro, an Italian-Japanese fashion designer and founder of DeadLotusCouture, who has a passion for electronic fashion (and latex).

13 October 2014

Interview with Dave McKean on Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination

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As I mentioned in a recent post, Dave McKean designed the wonderfully macabre artwork for our Terror and Wonder: The Gothic imagination exhibition artwork. That means that his image appears in all our marketing materials, from leaflets to tube posters. I asked him a few questions...

Mckeandevil

Hi Dave. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I have worked for the past 25 years as an illustrator, artist, photographer, designer, writer, musician, composer and film maker. I've illustrated around 50 books for an assortment of authors including Ray Bradbury, Heston Blumenthal, Richard Dawkins, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, David Almond, SF Said and John Cale, and I've made hundreds of CD and book covers including the entire run of Neil Gaiman's popular Sandman series. I've written and directed three features and several shorts, including MirrorMask for the Jim Henson Company/Sony, The Gospel of Us with Michael Sheen and my new film Luna.

How did you first get involved with the British Library and the Terror and Wonder exhibition?

I was asked to design the previous exhibition, Comics Unmasked, by co-curator Paul Gravett. I really enjoyed working with the British Library, and problem solving on such a large scale. The curators of the Gothic show were also interested in aspects of my work, especially my illustrations for Neil's book Coraline, so then it seemed possible that I could do the poster as well.

Can you tell us about the creative process behind the artwork?

I drew out six or seven rough ideas, trying to find an image that was not a single specific character or story, some way of representing the breadth of work in the exhibition, but touched on key Gothic texts - Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and for me, The Hands of Orlac. Something that suggested the psychological aspects of these stories seemed appropriate. I also wanted a simple, bold, almost silhouetted flowing image, something that would stand out in a variety of formats and sizes. The drawing was made in ink and graphite and simply toned in Photoshop. The strange shadowy smoky face was an abstract ink stain, distorted into a face in Photoshop.

What are you particularly excited about seeing in the exhibition?

The design and presentation of the narrative. It was a steep learning curve for me creating the Comics show, so I'm now very interested to see how others approach storytelling in an exhibition space. And of course, I'm sure the British Library archives have unearthed another fascinating collection of work.

What’s coming up next for you? I know you're speaking at one of our upcoming events.

Yes, I'll be speaking with Vaughan Oliver, one of the most important influences on my early art school self, and he still is to this day, so I'm a bit daunted. I have a new film out called Luna, currently doing a small indi tour of the UK via PictureHouse. I have an exhibition of drawings in Paris at Galerie Martel, a new book of covers out from DC Comics called Dream States, and new collection of short stories out from Dark Horse Comics, Pictures that Tick Vol.2, I'm planning a new film with the theatre company Wildworks, and drawing more comics, including a new graphic novel inspired by the wonderful expressionist film the Cabinet of Dr Caligari. I'm hoping to create a new performance piece for the British Library as well, as part of the Gothic exhibition.

You can see Dave's artwork for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination below.

Dave McKean