Mrs. Gray and the Mystery of the Grecian Italic

“Grecians” are slab serif typefaces in which curves are replaced by bevelled corners. The fashion for octagonal letters took off in the 1840s (the style may have begun with an American wood type, produced by Johnson & Smith in 1841), and by the end of the decade there were all manner of Grecians on the market: narrow ones, squat ones, light ones, ones with contrasting thicks and thins, and ones without. It’s unusual that the rather obvious “square-proportioned” Grecian didn't arrive until 1857, and that no one thought to add a lowercase until 1870. It’s this very center of the Grecian universe that our Acropolis typeface occupies, which includes an additional feature of our own invention: a Grecian italic, something that no Victorian typefounder ever thought to create.

Or so we thought. This is the Six-Line Reversed Egyptian Italic of William Thorowgood, which sure enough qualifies as a Grecian italic. It has many peculiar features, but the most unearthly is its date: 1828, thirteen years before the first Grecian roman appeared. What’s the story?

In Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces, Nicolete Gray reproduces the Thorowgood face alongside a collection of other cameo alphabets. She writes: “The peculiarities of this design anticipate the Grecian.... is the idea again derived from the visual effect of contemporary three-dimensional letters with a canted return?”

It’s an interesting idea, and perhaps the one that explains one of the design’s strangest features: the disagreement between the forward angle of its stems, and the backward angle of its serifs. (Thorowgood’s other faces exhibit strong convictions, suggesting that this could hardly have been an accident.) Following Mrs. Gray’s idea to its logical conclusion, it’s interesting to imagine these white shapes as the shadow of some absent form: I wonder if this is what Thorowgood intended?

Had two-color “chromatic” types been invented, I would have liked to see these foreground shapes rendered as their own alphabet (minus the awkward M, which is presumably a casualty of the drop shadow.) If this was what Thorowgood had in mind, it’s stirring to think that he was indeed the inventor of the Grecian, and a cameo, dimensional, high-contrast, italic Grecian at that. —JH

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