The optimism of modernity: recovering modern reasoning in typography

Peter Burnhill

Catalogue to Peter Burnhill archive at Reading

Peter Burnhill bibliography

The following obituary, by Paul Stiff, is based upon one which was published in The Guardian on 22 June 2007.

Peter Burnhill died in March 2007 at the age of 84. He was one of a generation for whom it was axiomatic that designing was led by social purposes and that its methods were explicable and open to question. While many designers and teachers shared his optimistic vision of a post-War world guided by benign reason, what made him stand out within typography and information design was his single-minded pursuit of reasoning down to the elemental visual units of written and printed language: letters, words, lines of words, and the meaningful units of space between them.

This reasoning entailed giving voice to the design process and aiming, in a phrase of his contemporary and mutual admirer Anthony Froshaug, to ‘minimize the arbitrary’ in decision-making. Against the grain of a normal professional preoccupation with the shapes of letters within typefaces, Peter argued that spatial configurations in typography were what most needed investigation. For four decades he pursued the theme of modular spatial coordination; this flowered late into a book (Type spaces, 2003) in which through minute empirical observation he deciphered the spatial articulation of Aldine typography in Renaissance Venice.

Peter Burnhill was born in Cleckheaton, West Riding of Yorkshire, in 1922. His mother was a domestic servant; his father, a painter and decorator whose loss of an arm on the Somme made signwriting difficult, passed on to the young Peter some of his expertise. In old age Peter recalled his childhood encounters with letters, writing, and reading:

‘I can recall being taught to write. The teacher would draw lines on the blackboard, and we had slates that were a bit bigger than A4 and were ruled with lines as well. She would write on the blackboard with a piece of chalk and we would write with a stick of slate. She wrote a letter on the board. I didn’t know at the time, but she used what was called the “clerical hand”, handwriting that was taught to people who in all probability were going to become clerks. She used to stand at the board and say “a”, then she’d draw on the board a lowercase letter a. We’d say “a”, and write between our lines the letter that she’d drawn on the board. Then she would say, “We call that letter the letter a.” We went through the alphabet like that. Then started to move on to simple words and that’s how we were taught to write. Reading and writing went together, they weren’t taught separately. My memory of being taught to write, and my interest in the rhythm, and the sound of it, started my interest in lettering. I suppose in a way that led on to typography.’

After grammar school he attended Leeds College of Art (1939–42), aided by £10 per year from local philanthropy; there he learnt drawing and the crafts of lithography and process reproduction.

In 1942, after a brief spell in the Home Guard (of one exercise: ‘the Army took over Bradford and we were disgraced’), he joined the Royal Corps of Signals, serving first as a signalsman and then wireless operator on the eastern borders of Assam and Bengal, finally in Burma. The job was to establish lines of communication between isolated fighting units and the aircraft landing strips which from 1944 were essential to the success of the 14th Army in driving the Japanese from Burma. These years formed his vision: ‘Some of the people I worked with had been members of the International Brigade. We ended up in Rangoon, a force of many nationalities.’ He was inspired by them and by new friends in India and Burma; among those campaigning for Burmese national independence was Aung San, who was assassinated within months of concluding an agreement with Clement Atlee in 1947. After demobilization in spring 1946 Burnhill joined the Communist Party. (He left in 1956, after Hungary.)

In the summer of 1947 he worked on the reconstruction of Baláze, a village in Slovakia which had been razed by the SS. His reward was free attendance at the World Youth Festival in Prague, where he saw Paul Robeson sing ‘Forbidden fruit’. He met Ruth, who became his wife, on the train home. Peter had by then returned to Leeds (1946–49) to complete his studies, during which time and for some years to follow Ruth, a school teacher, was the breadwinner; their daughter Jennifer was born in 1948, and Tim four years later. At this time Ashley Havinden offered him a job at Crawfords, the advertising agency; he turned it down because bombed-out London had less appeal than the Dales or the Lake District. In 1949 he took up teaching – illustration and lithography – at Blackpool Technical College. When cash was short there were freelance jobs, including the winter work of painting amusements fascias on the Golden Mile.

In 1956 he moved to Stafford College of Art as head of Design, where he added wood-engraving, lettering, and commercial art to his teaching. After the Coldstream report of 1960 and the Summerson Council’s implementation, design courses like Stafford’s were expected to wither and die. But from 1963 Burnhill, with his friend Alan May, built a vocational typographic design course of real distinction. For over two decades it flourished against the odds, supported for a while by an enlightened education authority which funded students of wide abilities and diverse qualifications.

Peter then engaged with a small network of typographic reformers who lit up several drab corners of unreflective habit, particularly in the language and metrics of specification. Active in both the Typographers’ Computer Working Group and the Working Party on Typographic Teaching, he declared to the latter’s third conference in 1968 – its participants preoccupied by the challenges of computing, and impressed by the integration of mathematics and algorithmic reasoning into Stafford typography – that ‘all that is essential in typography can be taught by writing in the sand with your finger’. The central issue – planning written language to meet readers’ needs – was constant, irrespective of technology.

Around that time Peter began a long and prolific collaboration with Jim Hartley, a psychologist at Keele University: together they explored the writing, design, and evaluation of texts, showing how typography can be used to display information structure. Their widely-published findings had practical applications to the design of textbooks, indexes, academic journals, and bibliographic references. The unusual scope of this partnership was mirrored in an equally lengthy project with students at his College: the Stafford documents, a dozen or so typographic analyses of systematic variations in the configuration and spacing of typeset text. Small quantities were printed for staff and students, free, and to project the College’s intelligence beyond its local boundaries. Such work would have been notable anywhere: in a college of further education it was quite remarkable.

Peter Burnhill never abandoned the skills he had acquired in youth: after retirement he made time for wood-engraving and for sparkling in situ water colours, especially of the Roman campagna and the burnt landscapes of Oman. His view of typography, and of craft, was all of a piece with his social vision. He joined the first London–Aldermaston march in Easter 1958. His garage doors, facing a busy road, displayed a history of political protest in the last three decades: there he painted slogans for CND and against Thatcher, Reagan, Bush, Blair. He spent long hours of vigil the Stafford Market Square, sometimes alone, in protest at the betrayals of governments.

In the late 1940s the historian E. P. Thompson had taught Peter’s parents at Workers’ Educational Association classes in Halifax. When, decades later, Thompson spoke at a public meeting at Hanley in the ‘Protest and survive’ campaign of the early 1980s, Peter presented him with a print from Thomas Bewick’s 1797 engraving of the Great Bustard (in 1973 Thompson had self-mockingly written: ‘I remain on the ground like one of the last great bustards’).

Ruth Burnhill was struck by cancer in 1982; Peter then took early retirement. She died in 1984, and for years he was desolate. He met Sonia on a trip to Russia in the late 1980s; they married in 1999, the year he was diagnosed with leukaemia. She saw him through his final years, blighted by emphysema and early-stage Alzheimer’s. Throughout his working life Peter was outside both fashionable graphic design and clubbish British typography. He remained until the end a member of the awkward squad, citing Chomsky’s Syntactic structures in his melodic Spen Valley accent, a mischievous and defiant twinkle in his blue-grey eyes. He is survived by Sonia, his daughter Jennifer, and his son Tim.

Peter Joseph Burnhill: born 5 December 1922, died 11 March 2007

For more about Peter Burnhill see Robin Kinross's recollections, here.

Photogrpah of Peter Burnhill

Peter Burnhill at his friend Alan May's house in Stone, Staffordshire, April 2004. Photo: Petra Cerne Oven