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Creating the Glastonbury Font

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Too many years ago to count, I was lucky enough to attend St. Albans School in Washington, DC. It's a great school with a rich history and an association with the National Cathedral and the rich cultural heritage of the Episcopal Church and many of the traditions of the English public schools. It's a school with a lot of character and a reputation for shaping future leaders in politics and the arts.

This year St. Albans is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and as part of that celebration they decided they wanted to spruce up the school. One of the things which drew their attention was the sad state of the hand-lettered lists of graduates on the walls of the upper school refectory. The tradition of putting the names of each graduating class on the walls began in the 1920s, and at first the quality of the calligraphy was excellent, but eventually the original calligrapher retired and his replacements were less skilled, until by the 1960s the quality of the lettering had declined to an embarrassing level and looked nothing like the early examples.

St. Albans contacted a local interior designer and wall artist named Raea Jean Leinster (Wall Transformation Designs) to find a way to improve future lettering and replace the old names which were poorly done with new lettering of higher quality. She decided that the best way to do that would be with a font, and using a thermal transfer system that would create perfect letters every time. The problem was that the style of the original lettering was so unusual and idiosyncratic that no existing font would even come close to matching it.

So Leinster went looking for a font designer,and in a bizarre example of synchronicity she stumbled onto our site and discovered the only font designer to have actually attended St. Albans and who already had a familiarity with the lettering. My interest in calligraphy began at St. Albans and I did a lot of my first lettering in my notebooks while paying very little attention in class, just a few yards from the lettering on the walls of the refectory. Undoubtedly that lettering had an influence on me. Many of my first calligraphic designs fall into the same gothic black letter category like Froissart and Franconian.

Thus began a process which lasted for almost a year, in which photographs and measurements of the best examples of the lettering were taken and sent to me, and I redrew each of the letters by hand, on paper and in some cases in Adobe Photoshop, then traced the outlines manually in Fontographer to get a perfect match. I then spaced and kerned them and imported the characters into FontLab for final hinting and output. During the process there was ongoing input from the school and from Raea, more photographs, and more measurements, and I even visited the school towards the end of the process to see the new lettering in use.

Designing the font presented a lot of challenges, because the photographs were not always entirely accurate, or distorted by the shiny black background paint on which the lettering was done. In addition there were lots of variations in the designs of the the letters, so finding common elements and making the overall look consistent and unified was quite a challenge. It also resulted in the final font having lots of alternate characters which were designed and then rejected as part of the primary character set, and in some cases rejected and then brought back in, reminding me why I never throw away a rejected character design. I've done fonts which took longer to complete, but few which were more challenging.

Despite the difficulty, the end result was very impressive, and it was ready in time for the centennial celebration. I'll take some of the credit for the accuracy with which the font reproduces the unique gothic fraktur style of the original lettering, though Raea gets some credit as well for pushing me for total accuracy. Raea gets all the credit for the fantastic results of the process by which the letters are applied. I don't understand exactly how it is done, but it seems similar to the way in which gold leaf was applied to manuscripts during the middle ages, except that in this case an inkjet printer is used to transfer the letters in the appropriate font onto the transfer medium. The result actually looks better in many ways than the original lettering. When I visited the school earlier this year, several of the most recent graduating classes had already been applied in the new font, and they were going back and redoing the poorly lettered classes as well.

The new font ended up being named Glastonbury after the Glastonbury Thorn, an unusual tree planted at the front entrance of the school, which legend says grew from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea when he arrived in England. The current tree at St. Albans is a cutting from an older tree planted there many years ago, which came from a cutting of the original tree in Glastonbury in England. Given the thorny spurs on the font, naming it after the legendary tree seemed appropriate, plus the story of Joseph of Arimathea and his association with the holy grail fit well with my fascination with Arthurian legend.

Perhaps the best thing about the whole arrangement is that I've retained rights to the font, and it is now being released by The Scriptorium. A percentage of the sales of Glastonbury will be donated to St. Albans so that they can continue to improve the school and provide scholarships to DC kids who otherwise would not have an opportunity to attend a school of such quality. There's even a demo version of Glastonbury available to try out for free.

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About Dave Nalle

  • John Lake

    You seem a very humble man to fill us in on your pastimes. And you have included a final version of your “Glastonbury Font” able to be downloaded.
    “The Unigue gothic fraktur style of the original lettering” – quick research:

    fraktur:
    “German black-letter text, a style of type.”
    combined with
    Gothic -(from architecture):
    “noting or pertaining to a style of architecture, originating in France in the middle of the 12th century and existing in the western half of Europe through the middle of the 16th century, characterized by the use of the pointed arch and the ribbed vault, by the use of fine woodwork and stonework, by a progressive lightening of structure,…”
    And now we know about the Glastonbury Thorn.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Gothic ought to have more than one definition there. It refers to more than just the architecture of the time period you mention, but also to other design output of that period, including calligraphy and early type, especially in Germany. Strangely it also applies to some calligraphy from the much earlier period of the Ostrogothic Empire and to much later type of an entirely different style called gothic but bearing no resemblance to gothic period calligraphy.

    Dave