Unveiling Of The Johnston Blue Plaque In 1977
This record of events was first printed in the journal
London Passenger Transport,
Issue 3 (September 1977)

Just before 14.00 on Saturday 27 August 1977, a group of about thirty people gathered outside No 3 Hammersmith Terrace in west London, to witness the unveiling of a GLC ‘blue plaque’ commemorating the late Edward Johnston CBE, Master Calligrapher, who lived in Hammersmith from 1905 to 1912. Although the administration and erection of GLC (formerly LCC) blue plaques is carried out by the Council, they frequently come into being as the result of a suggestion by a lay organization or by a member of the public. The conditions applied by the GLC for new plaques are very strict indeed and it is a fortunate situation that the building in question was able to comply. The sponsoring body was the Society of Scribes & Illuminators, a professional organization which Johnston himself helped found, though in a slightly different form, in 1921. The bulk of those present comprised members of the Society of Scribes & Illuminators, their invited guests and Johnston’s family though a healthy sprinkling of other interested people was evident, particularly one or two known for their interest in Johnston’s work in other fields, notably type design and industrial design connected with London’s Underground.

1932 psydo-geographical pocket map by F.H. Stingemore
A group of guests congregating before the unveiling ceremony.

An erudite resume of Johnston’s career, and his special connection with the Underground companies was presented as part of the ceremony by Heather Child and the Rt Hon Kenneth Robinson, transcripts of whose speeches are included in the complete record of the proceedings which follows below. The plaque follows the GLC’s standard design except for the typeface and it is pleasing to note that this is in the original style which Johnston designed for the exclusive use of the Underground, rather than the altered version which London Transport introduced for several characters a few years ago.

The following is a verbatim report of the proceedings at the unveiling. An attempt has been made to produce a full transcript and allowance should be made for the fact that it is a written transcript of impromptu speeches and some of the benefits of the spoken word may be lost in transcription.


Just before the inclement weather becomes more inclement, taking advantage of the brightness of the moment, I would like to introduce the proceedings by welcoming you all here; it’s nice to see so many here on this very special occasion. The chairman this afternoon will be the Mayor of Hammersmith, and accompanied by Councillor Doris Baufield. We’re very pleased to see them, and I hand them over to you for the rest of the splendid occasion. Thank you.

1932 psydo-geographical pocket map by F.H. Stingemore
David Graham (Chairman of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators) opens the proceedings. The next two in the queue are the mayor of Hammersmith and the Chairman of London Transport.

Thank you for that introduction. When this invitation came through, I want to assure you that I responded with the utmost alacrity because I believe that people who have contributed, as Edward Johnston himself, so much in the past; I am thinking particularly of this moment in time, of this great national debate on education, numeracy and literacy, and as one who was brought up in the era of the three Es. I only wish there were more people around today like Mr. Edward Johnston—it gives me very great pleasure to introduce to you this afternoon, Miss Johnston, is Miss Johnston present this afternoon? I think, Miss Johnston (clapping), Miss Johnston, the daughter of the late Edward Johnston, and I think on my immediate right, is Sir Kenneth Robinson there? I’m sure he is. The Rt Hon Kenneth Robinson, who as many of you know he is the Chairman of London Transport, who would like to speak later on and I also know that present with us this afternoon is Miss Heather Child MBE.

Perhaps Miss Child would come up and stand on the side. Now without further ado I am going to ask Miss Heather Child to open the proceedings—Miss Child.


How do you use these, things? I hope I don’t shout at you and that you will be able to hear what I’m saying before we’re all blown away because I’ve just got something I’d like to say about Edward Johnston for those of you who don’t know what a very great man he was. Edward Johnston was one of the great pioneer craftsmen, in the early years of this century. In his, own field as a calligrapher he stands as one of that small distinguished group which includes the potter Bernard Leech, Eric Gill, the sculptor and type designer, Ethel Mary, weaver, Phyllis Baron, the textile designer and block-printer, and her partner Dorothy Larger.

These were men and women whose work showed the way to excellence and whose standards continue to influence us today. When Johnston came to London, in 1898, to study early manuscripts in the British Museum, calligraphy was virtually a forgotten craft and the understanding of letterforms and their structure had been lost for centuries. Yet, just several years later, in 1905, when he and his wife Greta and their baby daughter, Bridget, moved from Grays Inn, to live at 3 Hammersmith Terrace, he was already teaching packed classes of students at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art. Through the creative genius of William Morris, who had lived on Hammersmith Mall, this corner, where Hammersmith borders Chiswick by the river, had become a kind of centre for the Arts and Crafts movement. Cobden Sanderson had the Doves Press at number one, Hammersmith Terrace, Emery Walker lived at No 7, Hillary Pepler at No 14, and round the corner, in Black Lion Lane lived Eric Gill. In those days what the old terraced houses lacked in the way of comforts we expect today they made up for in charm; a wonderful view of the river, and little gardens running down to the river wall. In the delightful biography Priscilla Johnston has written of her father, as many of you know, she gives a vivid picture of their family life at No 3. The climax of excitement naturally, in the year, being the Oxford and Cambridge Boat-Race.

Soon after he moved here, in 1906 to be exact, Johnston’s enduring manual ‘Writing and Illuminating and Lettering’ was first published. Now in its 32nd edition, it is still indispensable to students and all who are interested in the theory and practice of the craft. Sir Sidney Cockerell said of it, ‘Johnston’s handbook is a masterpiece, immensely instructive and stimulating and not only technically helpful, for the reader is conscious all the time of being brought in touch with a rare and kind spirit’. Johnston had an exceptional power to bring a manuscript to life under his hand. He exerted a beneficial influence on almost every form of lettering in public and private use in England - and on the Continent. It was not long after the publication of his manual that the impact of his teaching was being felt abroad, particularly in Germany and America. He lectured on lettering at Dresden just at the time when the Germans were turning from their traditional Gothic to Roman type and were much concerned with the new movement in lettering and typography. His manual was translated into German by his gifted pupil, Anna Simons, in 1910.

He also designed typefaces for Count Harry Kessler of the Cranach Press; in Weimar. In 1916 Johnston was commissioned to design a special type for use on the London Underground. The result, Johnston Sans Serif, was a block capital alphabet, based on the proportions of classical Roman capitals. You will hear more about this shortly. Johnston’s widespread influence on calligraphy and letter design sprang mainly from his work as an inspiring teacher. A direct outcome of his teaching was the formation in London in 1921 of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators and it was natural that Johnston should be its first honorary member.

In its early days it was a student body; today it is a society of professional calligraphers, many of whom were taught by Johnston or his pupils. Official recognition came in 1939 when Johnston was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year’s Honours List.

Writing and Illuminating and Lettering had been published in the early years of his working life. Towards the end of it, he was engaged on his second book that he had titled ‘Formal Penmanship’ but this remarkable work was unfinished when he died in 1944. However, ‘Formal Penman-ship’ was subsequently edited and published, just in time to celebrate Johnston’s centenary year in 1972. Although only a part of the book he intended to write, it does contain the fundamental principles of his mature thinking. Johnston revealed his outstanding genius as a scribe in the vitality of his own work. The idea of truth guided him in everything he did. He considered the search for the truth underlay all Man’s work and thought. Sir Francis Meynell of the Nonesuch Press said of him ‘He is one of the few really great men of our time’. And surely this ceremony here today is happy evidence of his ongoing inspiration to us all.


Before we get the Rt Hon Kenneth Robinson, I did forget to mention earlier that we have present with us today the vice-chairman of the Greater London Council Historic Buildings. Would you kindly come forward on my left. Indicating, obviously, their great degree of interest, in what we are doing this afternoon, by the Greater London Council. Well then, the Rt Hon Kenneth Robinson.


Mr Mayor, ladies and gentlemen, London Transport is greatly honoured by the invitation to join you all today to pay tribute to one of this century’s most distinguished craftsmen. Calligraphy, the very private craft of scribe and illuminator was, as Miss Child has reminded us, Johnston’s first and abiding love. And it was, surely, his concern for, as he put it ‘making letters live’, which led him into whole-hearted involvement in the very public world of industrial design. Just before the First World War, Frank Pick of London Transport, commissioned him to design a new typeface for the exclusive use of the Underground. The result of Pick’s far-sightedness, Gerrard Meynell’s mediation and Johnston’s enthusiasm for what he must have seen as a stimulating challenge, was the classic Johnston sans-serif which has ever since lent distinction to London Transport’s signs and printed posters. It became the father of a host of progeny: Eric Gill, the designer of Gill Sans which came later—acknowledged his debt. Yet the Johnston typeface is still recognised the world over as belonging to and characteristic of London Transport. It may be of interest that, not long ago, my colleagues and I sought to reassess our house style and we asked two typographical authorities, equally distinguished but very different, in their approach, and incidentally one of them is here with us this afternoon to advise us whether we should exchange Johnston type: for something more contemporary in idiom. Their verdict, unanimous and happily in accord with our own conviction was that Johnston type is as handsome and distinctive today as it ever was and that we should indeed be foolish to contemplate its superannuation. There is surely no greater compliment to a design than to declare after sixty years its abiding fitness for its purpose.

1932 psydo-geographical pocket map by F.H. Stingemore

LT Chairman, Kenneth Robinson, explaining the importance of Johnston’s contribution to London Transport and about to introduce Priscilla Johnston, Edward’s youngest daughter. The plaque (above right) awaits unveiling.


Johnston continued to work for London Transport for some twenty years; among other concerns he played a part in the evolution of one of the world’s best-known trademarks, London Transport’s bar and-circle device which is known in-house as the roundel. He himself singled out his work on Johnston type for specific mention in his entry in ’Who’s Who’. He once remarked in a letter to John Farley that his Underground Block Letter had won him an international recognition which, his own country was too practical, to recognise. This is, as we know, happily no longer true. Certainly, London Transport has always hastened to proclaim its indebtedness to this great and much-loved craftsman and it is proud that the Underground alphabet is his enduring legacy. For any Londoner with eyes to see, Edward Johnston’s epitaph must surely be that of another great designer, three centuries ago ‘if you seek his monument, look around you’.


Ladies and gentlemen, I have had my attention drawn to the fact that there are people here this afternoon, from Germany and from America, and to those people a very special welcome. I now call upon Miss Priscilla Johnston to carry out the unveiling. Miss Johnston.


I only undertook to do this on condition I didn’t have to make a speech because I’ve never made one in my life; so this isn’t a speech. It’s just that I do really want to say how tremendously glad I am about this memorial because I think it’s the very nicest memorial to my father that there can possibly be. Because this house was very important to him, he must have loved it—he had a very unhappy childhood, being dragged about from place to place and never having a proper home and he was very much of a home-loving man, in fact it was very difficult to get him to go further than the pillar-box at the corner when we were at Ditchling; he couldn’t bear being asked out to dinner or anything like that. And this was a particularly happy time for him when he lived here after this rather miserable time, he made an absolutely wonderful marriage and also of course living here in Hammersmith, he had so many friends round—all these other craftsmen that we’ve heard something about today and so it was a very lively time and it must have been a very, very happy time and I think that he would have been very happy at the thought that his name should be permanently associated with this house that meant so much to him. And I should like to think that this plaque on the wall is a memorial to both my parents because my mother did so much for him and was such a wonderful wife and now, I’m going to unveil it, aren’t I ? …

1932 psydo-geographical pocket map by F.H. Stingemore
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