A is for
Alphabet

by Madeleine Morley

Illustrations by DR. ME

Decorated drop caps, miniatures in marginalia and illustrated initials – letterforms that go beyond the limits of legibility are present throughout history. From the very earliest symbols through to the intricately adorned designs of the Middle Ages – and up to contemporary image makers putting their own spin on type – Madeleine Morley takes in an A-Z of illustrated, illuminated and re-interpreted alphabets.

“There’s something comforting in it: a harmony of meaning and vision.”

A is for Alphabet. B is for Body and laying Bare.

Letters are not pictures or representations, but they started out that way. Nearly all alphabet scripts used throughout the world today can be traced to the Semitic proto-alphabet, which in turn can be traced to a Proto-Sinaitic script developed in Ancient Egypt that drew from the shapes of pictograms, of hieroglyphs, in order to represent the sounds of language.

A fish, an ox, a house, a door, a hand, a head, an eye – illustrations of the everyday first shaped script; human bodies and the objects relating to everyday human experience forming what would become an abstract set of symbols that we now know as the alphabet, and in turn, use to describe and give shape to human experience.

This picto-origin is so ancient that it’s now invisible in the Latin A-Z, but the relationship of letters to what they represent is still crucial to how the alphabet is taught and learnt. It’s no coincidence that children learn their ABC with charts and picture books that illustrate letters into something recognizable: an S doesn’t become an S without a snake to shape it first, only later does the S become the abstract building block that it is. Like the origins of letters themselves, abstraction comes after representation.

Figurative, illustrated type, quite simply, communicates a message faster and with ease because it links a signifier with what’s being signified. There’s something comforting in it: a harmony of meaning and vision that the picture books of childhood, which first became popular in the 16th Century, understand well.

Figurative letters lull beyond the nursery too though. The type adorning today's advertising campaigns and magazine spreads is effective because of the simple link of message and vision. Illustrated type can also subvert – revealing the things in language that are kept silent or aren’t represented.

C is for Communicate and Comprehend, and also for Capital, Commercial, Calculate. D is for Design and E is for Educate. F is for Familiar. G for Growth (in mind and profit).

“It gave a story value; it made it worth protecting and therefore ensured that it was repeated.”

But first, H is for the History of I for Illuminate.

The earliest surviving examples of decorated drop caps, miniatures in marginalia and illustrated initials date back to 400 and 600 BC in Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire. Most surviving examples are from the Middle Ages though; intricate paintings on parchment made from animal skin or expensive vellum. Illuminated details aggrandised a document and aided its preservation over time: gold and silver pigments suggested worth, and the illustrations also communicated what text said for those who couldn’t read a specific language or were completely illiterate. They could read the letter’s image instead, and this made the manuscript more likely to be kept – illustration by the skilled hand of a trained illuminator articulating what was precious about content.

During the Middle Ages, the documents that were decorated with figurative drop caps were mostly religious texts, stories deemed the most important to protect and hand down. A capital S with a miniature of Moses being found by the Pharaoh’s daughter adorns a chapter of the 14th Century Breviary of Chertsey Abbey, the watery blue S transforming into the cascading bend of a river which the baby is pulled out from. Language, and letters which are the clothes that language wears, is how we make sense of the world. If a letter is illuminated with a figure, it equates that illustration with the sense of truth that we associate with language. In the early history of illuminated manuscripts, an illustrated letter meant something was important. It gave a story value; it made it worth protecting and therefore ensured that it was repeated.

J is for the Jackpot of K for Kaleidoscope. L is for Lull (Later, Lust).

There was a resurgence of popularity in illuminated manuscripts as part of the Gothic revival in the 19th Century. A romanticising of the Medieval approach was a reaction to faster and cheaper mass-production methods of the industrial revolution, and there was a belief that hand-illuminated books would reinstate ties between a work and its creator. This sentiment was appropriated by William Morris, the devotee of ‘honest design’, during the Arts & Crafts movement his Kelmscott Press (1891) produced handmade books that incorporated lacy, figurative drawings that curled around a drop cap’s lines and arc.

Illustrated letters used in marketing today make use of the 'honesty' associated with the hand-made as championed by Morris. It’s not religious figures and objects in gold that adorn a drop cap though, products aggrandise an alphabet instead – the illustrated hand then adds a sense of personality and fun to advertising campaigns. Illustrator Paul Pateman’s illustrated alphabet for a British Airways campaign for cheap flights to Sharm El Sheikh transforms letters into the objects of a holiday. It illuminates in your mind what the letters could mean. There’s the authority of equating image and type at work, but also the comic playfulness of the design lulls like the ABC books from kindergarten.

“I used to look at illuminated texts from the Middle Ages at school, and I’m sure they were the beginnings of my love of type,” says Pateman, whose illustrated letters appear in poetry books and spread across posters for TfL as well as on British Airways posters. The contemporary illuminator still stumbles on X and Q every time he pens an A-Z – for him the best illustrated typographies are the ones where letters aren’t cheated in any way, the distinction between object and abstract sign slipping and intermingling.

This is also the case for animator and illustrator Jo Ratcliffe, whose hand-drawn type for Nike, Kenzo, Vogue, and Sephora is a seamless kaleidoscope of bodies, colour, and fashion product. Ratcliffe is the illustrative magician of commerce and clothes – with her hand, and in Sephora’s colours, L O V E transforms into soap, nails, presents and polish.

M is for Mmmm. N is for the (subverted) Norm. O is for the Oh in P is for Pornography. Q is for the Questioning of the R of Rules.

“The illustrated hand then adds a sense of personality and fun to advertising campaigns.”

“Typography has also been perversely used as a means to graphically depict what can’t be written or isn’t spoken about in the open.”

S is for the Semiotics of the Sexualisation of the T for Typography.

Typography has also been perversely used as a means to graphically depict what can’t be written or isn’t spoken about in the open.

Second to religious iconography, drawings of the body, specifically the eroticised body, also are another popular trope in the history of illustrated type – visually putting into words (their shape) what was or is rarely put as words (written or spoken).

Peter Flötner, with his human alphabet of the 1530s, was one of first to actively depict the human bodies he saw in letterforms – linking the alphabet as we know it back to the hand, eye, head of its ancient origin. In his Anthropomorphic Alphabet, classically nude figures elegantly arrange their limbs to form the straight lines and curves of letters. V and M, which make use of legs spread wide apart, are only vaguely erotic, and the A made from two women kissing.

It’s in France during the late 1800s that illustrated letters become more explicit; Joseph Apoux, a French genre painter, decorated red and black capitals with naked nuns and hooded monks brandishing whips. By the 1970s in France, erotic typographic renderings adorned the pages of the pornographic press.

Contemporary illustrator Malika Favre aims to use the genre of pornographic alphabets to de-stigmatise, and to confront and challenge the status quo of the language of sex.

“I was aiming to create a beautiful, cheeky piece on a subject that needs a lot of lightening up all around the world: Sex,” says Favre of her first illustrated typeface, called Alphabunnies. Her Kama Sutra alphabet for Penguin books, which she describes as “naughtier, sexier and stronger” is a continuation of this raison d’etre. It’s about re-shaping the way the topic is perceived, to make it seem more “playful”, by literally re-shaping the representative symbols of words (which in turn give shape to the expression of perception).

U is for Un-Doing.

So illustrated type strengthens and affirms the message of content, but it can also reveal what is left out or missing from the (visual/spoken) vocabulary associated with something.

The evocative, cut-and-paste alphabets created by M/M Paris for V Magazine use each letter-shape to expose the language of fashion, marketing and magazines. The celebrated Alphamen (2003/4) and women (2001) of the studio’s Alphabet series are formed from cutting away at the lines and shadows in photographs of famous models. Fragments of lace, thighs, gaping mouths and heavily made eyes; these are the signs that give palpable shape to the language of glossies.

The juxtaposition is a simple one, used time and time again by designers and illustrators. In 2007, Fiona Banner’s The Bastard Word, which used aircraft components to shape an alphabet, exposed the violence and aggression inherent in language.

We make the link very quickly.

V is for Visualising and Verifying, and W is for What?

X is to e-X-plain (and Y is for) Your-Self.

As illustrated alphabets use in marketing lulls us into consumption: the deep-rooted and subconscious evocation of the A-Zs of childhood books, the personality and humour of a hand-made drawing, and the push to visualise and illuminate a product in the mind’s eye, is an effective combination.

Yet a figurative alphabet can also be a device for revealing how we consume and what we consume – whether it’s the language that fashion campaigns use, or the lack of a certain kind of language when it comes to sexuality and how we speak about sex.

When we see something abstract, the mind likes to give it representative meaning, like cloud animals in the sky. Letters give shape to our world and they derived from the objects of our world; now in their abstracted form, it’s only natural that designers and illustrators feel the need to find representative meaning once again. An illustrated alphabet is medium for both defining then redefining.

Z is for…

This feature is extracted from The Recorder Issue 4. You can order The Recorder Issue 4 from our Shop.

“..in their abstracted form, it’s only natural that designers and illustrators feel the need to find representative meaning once again.”