Signs of Italy by James Clough



B1458 – Signs of Italy by James Clough



Foreword to the book by Luca Barcellona :
James Clough taught me the history of typography and calligraphy. I am just one of the hundreds of students who had the luck and pleasure to attend to his impassioned lessons, during which he used to comment - with his conspicuous English accent - endless series of signs and inscriptions of all kinds. It is thanks to him (or maybe it is his fault) that while travelling, or even just walking in the streets of my home town, I now find myself photographing more letters than landscapes. My attention has moved to things that most people hardly even notice.

The letters that surround us are an integral part of our history, our culture and our visual memory. They tell us about our glorious past and about what we have become. The letterforms include everything from the most elegant inscriptions in Roman capitals to the most boorish plastic signs made without any apparent awareness of graphic criteria.

The images shown here represent a heritage that ought to be preserved and known to the public. At last a significant part of James’s extraordinary archive of thousands of images has been made available along with his valuable explanatory text.

I have always dreamed that one day I would have a book like this. I have always thought that dreams often come true as well. Luca Barcellona

Introduction to the book by the author :
When the alphabet is used for communicating information limited to one or two words, like shop signs, it is amazing how flexible and accommodating it can be. The letters can assume an infinite quantity of more or less familiar shapes and proportions, with or without added decorations, in two or three dimensions - and all this can be done without the slightest loss of legibility.

This book discusses Italian signs from historical and visual standpoints, among which fitness for the purpose of the letters (a twentieth-century design criteria) is discussed together with the materials used and the work of the makers, be they professional sign painters, architects, blacksmiths, designers or non-professionals. Recondite among the modest, run-of-the-mill signs that prevail everywhere, and not just in Italy, there is original and intuitive design, skilled craftsmanship, fanciful improvisation, humous (intentional and unintentional) and also some examples of astonishing bureaucratic incompetence. The most interesting signs and inscriptions are rare and usually they have to be patiently hunted down. What distinguishes them is the variety of original letterforms that are sometimes applied in situations that would be unthinkable in polite ‘Anglo' circumstances.

In Italy there is a tiny number of professionals still designing and painting letters by hand. All other makers of signs use font-derived letters and, to my knowledge, no professionals have been cutting letters in stone by hand for several decades either. One consequence of ready-made font-derived letters for signs and inscriptions has been widespread banality, especially of shop signs, and a dreary national uniformity of street-name lettering in recently-built suburbia and in many town centres too. Furthermore, the industrially-produced metal letters and the machine-cut letters seen in cemeteries from the 1970s onwards are often tasteless and devoid of any understanding of layout. However, discounting these insipidities it must also be said that a visit to an Italian cemetery can be a rewarding experience for anyone interested in the letterforms of the past two centuries. Many big and small towns have cemeteries that are open-air galleries of lettering and a few inscriptions of outstanding interest are included here.

Before typefaces and computer-generated fonts dominated the scene, for about a hundred years there was 10 standardization of letterforms for commercial signs. This may have been due, in part, to the absolute lack of printed manuals for sign painters published in Italy.

Before the end of the nineteenth-century traditional letterforms started to give way to Art Nouveau styles and in the early 1900s there was an outburst of fantasy every area of lettering from posters to book jackets, from shop signs to gravestones and even institutional inscriptions. The freedom to make unconventional letterforms sanctified by the Art Nouveau movement continued throughout the twentieth century at both professional and amateur or ‘vernacular’ levels. And it is precisely this freedom and detachment from standard letterforms that makes some Italian signs of the twentieth century so extraordinary. Italian signs are a mirror of Italian society because they reflect a variety of cultural milieus, attitudes and pulsations that permeate the country at all levels, both public and private.

In Britain the craft of cutting letters in stone by hand is still practiced by a considerable number of professional lettercutters. There are many tasteful and elegant examples of lettering done by these men and women and the quality of their work with traditional letterforms is unquestionably high. Although sign painting has been a declining trade for several decades, the British craftsmen in this field were also deft interpreters of traditional letterforms. But, unlike their Italian colleagues, British lettercutters and sign painters were rarely inventors of original ones. Despite some recent innovations, on the whole, stone-cut and hand-painted British letterforms of the twentieth century derive either from models dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or from the influence of the romans and italics of men like Eric Gill. There was also an obsession with Imperial roman letters during the first half of the twentieth century. British painted signs and inscriptions have adhered to these conventional letterforms and they make quite a contrast with what can be seen in Italy where there were no such conventions. The best British signs tend to be more ‘bourgeois’ and much more predictable than the best Italian work... (cont). James Clough

Bookseller’s Comments:
James Clough takes us on a journey that covers 10th Century Styles, Art Nouveau, Architectural Lettering, Sign painters and Shop Signs, More Shop Signs, Designer Signs, Three-Dimensional and Illuminated Signs, Cinema Signs, Hanging Signs and Metalwork, Mosaic and Ceramics, Vernacular and Institutional, Fascist Ghosts and other Fading Signs, Street-Name Signs and finally, the fascinating world of Manhole covers. An inspiring book for any letterers!

1st edition, 2015, hardback, 148pp, over 350 photos and illustrations, 20.5 x 30.5cm

B1458 – Signs of Italy by James Clough
£41.00 EUR 50.54