¶ Taking pride of place at the head of every new paragraph, the pilcrow had carved out a literal niche for itself at the heart of late medieval writing. Boldly inked by the rubricator, pilcrows grew ever more elaborate and time-consuming to add. Unfortunately the deadline is not a modern invention; occasionally, time would run out before the rubricator could complete his work and the white space carefully reserved for the pilcrow went undecorated. With the advent of the printing press, the volume of printed documents to be rubricated grew exponentially and it became increasingly difficult to attend to them all. The pilcrow became a ghost, and the indented paragraph was born in its stead.1
¶ Robbed of its raison d’être, the pilcrow retreated to the margins of typography. Though it found shelter in the worlds of proofreading (where it signified the point at which a paragraph should be split in two2) and legal documents (where it formed a double act with the section mark to create reference marks like this: §5, ¶123), its brief reign as the de facto standard paragraph mark was over.
Even after this ignominious relegation from mainstream use, the pilcrow refused to be done away with completely and was still resurrected from time to time to serve in its original role. Now functioning largely as a boutique character used to bring a historical or typographical flourish to a work, one of the pilcrow’s most intriguing appearances in this capacity came in An Essay on Typography,4 written by the famed English sculptor Eric Gill. Born in 1882 and brought up the son of a Protestant minister, at 31 Gill converted to Catholicism5 and led an increasingly ascetic life as a monkish, artistic polymath. His charisma and trenchant views attracted a retinue of like-minded contemporaries to a series of rural communities — communes, almost — with Gill at their centre.
By the time Essay was published in 1931, Gill had refined his view of the competing worlds of industrialisation and the Arts & Crafts movement into a philosophy espousing a simpler way of life free from the uniformity of mass production, and Essay is as much a manifesto as an educational textbook. In fact, the book’s creation was a loving paean to that same philosophy: Gill wrote the text, hand-set it in a typeface of his own design and hand-printed the first edition with his printing partner René Hague.6
Essay’s bold use of the pilcrow stands out to the modern reader from its very first line:
¶ The theme of this book is Typography, and Typography as it is affected by the conditions of the year 1931. The conflict between industrialism & the ancient methods of handicraftsmen which resulted in the muddle of the 19th century is now coming to its term.4
¶ With Essay, Gill made creative use of the pilcrow, both recalling its medieval heyday and introducing a subtle extra level of semantic meaning into the bargain: a pilcrow at the start of a new line introduces a new thread of discussion, while a pilcrow in running text separates paragraphs within that discussion.7 The result is text which looks haphazard at first (why does the pilcrow jump from the start of the line to the middle?) but which marries simplicity of expression with richness of meaning — mirroring, perhaps, the author’s Arts & Crafts ideology. ¶ Essay is filled with other hints of that same philosophy. Whereas many books justify text to fill each line and hence provide a uniform appearance, Gill used a ‘left justified’ or ‘ragged right’ setting to mimic a handwritten manuscript; abbreviations like ‘&’, ‘tho’’ and ‘sh’ld’ save space and evoke medieval scribal tradition, and illustrations are all taken from engravings cut by the author himself.
Gill’s Joanna — the slab-serif typeface in which Essay is set — was based in part on his earlier Perpetua type and was described by the artist himself as “a book face free from all fancy business”. This is not the whole truth, however, and Joanna bears a number of idiosyncratic touches which elevate it from its supposed plainness. Based on Roman letterforms, for instance, Gill deviated from the heavy contrast between horizontal and vertical strokes traditionally used in those letters and adopted instead a calligraphic style with more consistent stroke widths.8 Perhaps most noticeably, the narrow italics slope at a shallow 3° angle and forgo the traditional italic forms for ‘f’, ‘k’, ‘v’, ‘w’ and ‘z’.9 Joanna lends Essay a distinctive air and an easy readability.
Although today Gill’s typefaces are his most visible work, during his lifetime his chief occupation was as a sculptor, and his prodigious output as such seemed positively calculated to bait the prurience of the day. His first major commission was to carve the Stations of the Cross (a traditional Catholic depiction of Christ’s final hours) for Westminster Cathedral, and churchgoers were shocked by their unspiritual directness.10 While working on the Stations in the cathedral, a woman approached Gill to tell him that she did not think they were nice carvings; he responded, in characteristic form, that it was not a nice subject.11
Another of his works, a near-life size carving of a couple entwined in a sexual embrace, posed problems both in creation and exhibition. Gill was forced to post his apprentice outside the modelling sessions in which his sister Gladys and her husband Ernest posed for the sculpture. Initially sold to a local private collector with a penchant for similarly racy works of art,12 tastes had become sufficiently liberal by 1949 that the sculpture could be sold at auction. Even then, Gill’s original title for the piece (as recorded in his private diary) was still considered too brazen, and so the cheerfully direct ‘They (big) group fucking’ became the rather more circumspectly-named ‘Ecstasy’ for public consumption.13
Despite frequent forays into then-taboo subject areas, after his death Gill remained well-known mainly for his artistic successes and staunch Catholicism. The Eric Gill known to his close-knit family and followers, however, was a startlingly different man. Twenty-one years after his death in 1940, the BBC broadcast an hour-long radio documentary about Gill’s life, and in it could be discerned the first hints of the extraordinary gulf between the artist’s public façade and the reality of his private life. In the programme, René Hague — now husband of Gill’s daughter Joan — spoke about his father-in-law’s attitude to evil:
I wonder whether Eric really believed in evil. He would talk about the evils of industrialism, he would talk about things going wrong, but he certainly didn’t believe that there was any ‘bad thing’. He didn’t believe in evil in that sense, that anything in nature could be evil. That was one of the reasons why he was willing to try anything, anything at all, but quite literally. Either right or wrong, or supposed to be right or wrong, he’d say “Let’s try it, let’s try it once, anyway.”14
The awful truth behind Hague’s musings became clear in 1989 when an unflinching biography revealed incest, child abuse and even bestiality within the Gill household.15 The artist’s posthumous reputation was rocked by these revelations, yet despite this (or perhaps partly because of it), Gill remains a resonant name within the typographical world and Essay one of his most enduring contributions to it.
The pilcrow never quite recovered from its mauling at the hands of the printing press, and despite occasional celebrity appearances as a paragraph mark (such as in An Essay on Typography), it remains largely alienated from its traditional role. As compensation, perhaps, the pilcrow has since acquired a sort of talismanic power for those in the know, especially in the worlds of typography, design and literature. Jonathan Hoefler, designer of Hoefler Text (one of the typefaces in which Shady Characters is set), penned an essay about the joys of designing pilcrows;16 the Pilcrow Lit Fest takes its name from the character,17 and the fictional hero of Adam Mars-Jones’ second novel takes ‘Pilcrow’ as his pseudonym, comforted by its status as an outsider.18
Hints of the pilcrow’s heritage do still crop up in unexpected places. Many word processing programs, for example, support the display of ‘formatting’ or ‘non-printing characters’ — the tabs, word spaces and carriage returns which give a document its structure — and most often, the button which invokes this feature is decorated with a pilcrow. In fact, such word processors also use pilcrows to represent new lines and dots to show spaces when in this mode, lending the average computerised document a dignified medieval appearance.
If the pilcrow is ever to be rehabilitated, its best chance lies with another rather more significant computerised innovation. The internet has fostered a new burst of interest in typography: amateur typographers design countless new fonts on inexpensive computers; personal web pages have democratised typesetting in a way unimaginable to Gutenberg or Gill, and disused characters have been rescued from obscurity to add spice and dignity to the everyday exchange of information. The pilcrow among them has once again carved out its niche as a paragraph mark, and is returned to its former glory in the glow of the computer screen.
- Andrew Haslam, “Articulating Meaning: Paragraphs”, in Book Design, 2006, 73-74. ↢
- Unknown entry ↢
- Richard Eckersley, “Pilcrow”, Glossary of Typesetting Terms, 1994. ↢
- Eric Gill, An Essay on Typography. ↢
- Fiona. MacCarthy, “Ditchling Village, 1907-1913”, in, 1989. ↢
- Martin. Hutner and Jerry Kelly, “A Century for the Century : Fine Printed Books from 1900 to 1999”, in, 2004. ↢
- Mark Thomson, “Visions of Joanna”, 2006. ↢
- “Joanna”, Fonts.Com, March–2011. ↢
- Robert. Bringhurst, “11.2 Serifed Text Faces”, in, 2008. ↢
- Patrick Rogers, “Stations of the Cross”, Oremus: Westminster Cathedral Magazine, March–2005. ↢
- Fiona MacCarthy, “Ditchling Common, 1913-1924”, in, 1989. ↢
- Fiona MacCarthy, “’Mad about sex’”, The Guardian, October–2009 October–2009. ↢
- “Ecstasy by Eric Gill”, Art and Artists, March–2011. ↢
- Douglas Cleverdon and Guy Brenton, “Portrait of Eric Gill”, 1961. ↢
- Fiona MacCarthy, Eric Gill, 1989. ↢
- Jonathan Hoefler, “Pilcrow and Capitulum”, typography.Com, March–2008. ↢
- Amy Guth, “Pilcrow Lit Fest”, 2009. ↢
- Unknown entry ↢