Wednesday 7th October – “Type Talk” – Southgate’s Typefounder Vincent Figgins

Figgins - Window in Christ ChurchThank you to everyone who recorded the final of the Great British Bake Off (!) and spent the evening in church for the first of the new season of “Friends of Christ Church” lectures, focusing on some of the personalities connected with the art and windows in our building. We are grateful to Garry Humphries for putting us in touch with our first speaker, Professor Mosley and for writing this review of the lecture:

Vincent Figgins
The new series of lectures organized by the Friends of Christ Church is intended to throw a spotlight on individuals connected with the church in the early stages of its history.

The subject of the first lecture, on 7 October, was Vincent Figgins, whose name appears among the benefactors involved in the project to build the present church and who is commemorated in the Clayton & Bell east window. His name appears in the bottom left-hand corner panel.

The name of Vincent Figgins is well known in the field of printing and typography – he was a typefounder with a foundry in Clerkenwell and lived at The Wilderness in Blagden’s Lane, a site now occupied by Southgate College.

Figgins - TypeTo talk about him we were privileged to welcome Professor James Mosley, one of the world’s foremost printing historians with a particular interest in letterforms, who began by making clear the steps involved in the production of printing types – the punch, the matrix, the casting – and by reminding us of the words of the great Harry Carter, that ‘type is something you can hold in your hand’. In today’s world of digital images, this element no longer exists, other than in specialized printing.

Professor Mosley also gave us something of the Figgins family genealogy: it was not the famous Vincent Figgins who lived in Southgate, but his son, also Vincent, who carried on the foundry which, after his death in Nice, was handed on to his brother James. Indeed it remained in the family until 1933 when it was incorporated into the firm of Stevens, Shanks where James Mosley as a young man learned the art of casting by hand from hot metal. Subsequently, as librarian of the St Bride Printing Library in the City of London, he was able to give a home to the various artefacts – including punches, matrices and moulds – from the Figgins foundry.

Figgins - New Premises FarringdonBoth the Figgins (Clerkenwell) and Stevens, Shanks (Southwark) buildings still exist, looking remarkably unchanged on the outside, and Professor Mosley had photographed them, the Figgins grave in Nunhead Cemetery and former house at Prospect Place, Peckham, specially for our talk.

He also illustrated some of Figginses typefaces, including several exotics, such as Telegú (a south Indian language), and dispelled some myths perpetrated by such sources as Wikipedia (and the present writer!), but confirmed that Figgins developed, and coined the term, ‘sans-serif’.

Figgins - TeleguThis was a fascinating talk and an auspicious start to this series of lectures and, if anyone’s appetite for typography has been whetted by the talk (or just by reading this report) may I recommend James Mosley’s blog – http://typefoundry.blogspot.co.uk/ – where some of these, and related matters, are discussed.

Huge thanks to Phillip Dawson for organizing and hosting this event with his customary aplomb.

Garry Humphries

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