Tortoise and hare comparisons are in order for the aptly-named Perpetua. This timeless design by Eric Gill remains a classic seventy-five years after its creation, yet the road to its release was bumpy and filled with delays.
Some typefaces seem to flow effortlessly from the designer’s hand, glide through the production process without a glitch, and are released to the world amid joy and fanfare. Perpetua is not one of those designs.
Yet, despite being slow out of the starting gate, Perpetua has lived up to its name as design of enduring quality and utility.
For most of its history, Monotype was a typesetting machine manufacturer first and a type foundry second. It wasn’t until Stanley Morison was appointed Typographical Advisor in 1923 that the company began to release typefaces with any consistency.
Morison had a long-range plan for the growth of Monotype’s typeface library. The first typefaces would be historical revivals: modern interpretations of classic designs like Bembo, Garamond, Baskerville and Fournier, developed for machine composition.
The next stage of Morison’s plan was the development of new, original designs, starting with a book face patterned after epigraphic, rather than calligraphic, letters. Morison knew that Eric Gill was the man for the job, but there were two obstacles to Gill’s involvement. The first was Gill’s open disdain for mechanical devices (like the Monotype typesetter). The second? Monotype’s management, which was conservative when it came to new ideas in general, and openly hostile toward any idea that came from Morison.
Morison approached Gill carefully and chose his time well. Gill had just begun to work with the Golden Cockerel Press and was becoming increasingly involved with bookmaking. Since fonts are necessary for the making of books, Morison had a “wedge” he could use to broach the subject of his project. After several meetings, Gill agreed to design the new typeface.
As for the “management issue,” Morison attempted to circumvent it by hiring (at his own expense) the Parisian punchcutter, Charles Malin, to cut sets of capitals, lowercase and titling letters based on Gill’s drawings. The punches were presented to Monotype as proof of the quality of the new design, which was called Perpetua.
Monotype management accepted the Perpetua design, albeit grudgingly. However, when Gill and Morison saw prints from the punches, they deemed the results unacceptable. This meant more work on the part of the Monotype production department.
The final revision of Perpetua might have proceeded smoothly, but by this time it had become obvious to both Morison and Monotype that a new sans serif design was more urgently needed than a new book face. Eric Gill was commissioned to draw Gill Sans, and Perpetua was put on hold.
It wasn’t until early 1930 that the new Perpetua roman and a companion italic named Felicity were announced, but the ill-named Felicity immediately presented a problem. Morison believed that a sloped roman, rather than a traditional cursive italic, was the ideal italic design for book faces, and Felicity had been designed accordingly. Unfortunately, no one but Morison liked the italic, and the Monotype management condemned it as “worthless.” With no italic, there was no Perpetua family to release.
Perpetua sat dormant for another year until Gill was asked to draw a new italic. Gill’s effort still had roman serifs but was more fluid in its design. The completed family was finally made available to the public in 1932 – more than seven years after Morison first approached Gill.