The biography of Edward Johnston was beautifully written by his daughter Priscilla. In the foreword Sir Sidney Cockerell writes: ‘To the unsympathetic observer Johnston could appear an exasperating eccentric but his daughter has shown the lovable quality of his eccentricity and given what is, in my view, a wholly authentic portrait of a man, while revealing something of his unparalleled genius as a scribe.’
This is an extract from the opening pages of the book.
The Downs change as much as the sea but, like the sea, are changeless. The weather and the time of day can make them blue or tawny, faint or clear. Even their contours seem to change. The cockle-shell chalk pits, in the early sun, are scooped left-handedly from their rounded flanks; the light of evening shows them in reverse. These are pastoral, domestic hills, grazed for hundreds of years by the flocks that made South Down mutton famous. They stand in a high, unbroken line between the Weald and the sea, their crest running in a series of gentle, familiar curves, from Black Cap in the east to Wolstonbury in the west with Ditchling Beacon between.
From their feet the ground falls gently away as far as the southern outskirts of the village; beyond, it rises sharply and the tight, steep little High Street faces the hills. As you walk up it they, too, climb sharply with each step until they stand like a wall across the end of the street and rise up higher than the chimney pots.
The house called Cleves looks down the length of an over-grown garden to where, beyond meadows and woodland, rise the Downs. It is a sizeable house, designed by an architect of more taste and imagination than was common at the beginning of this century; a house of character and charm.
It has never exactly been ‘furnished’, but furniture has come to rest there as sticks come to rest in a pool. In the centre of the dining-room stands a large, immensely strong oak table, a straight forward carpenter’s product having no truck with the niceties of furniture designing. Round it are rush-seated, ladder-back chairs of unstained ash. They have cushions on the seats because, all those years ago, the table was accidentally made a little to high.
On these cushions, under the table, cats may be found sometimes and cats’ hair always. Under the cushions there are always news papers. This is a mystery; I have never understood how they get there, but there they always are. It must be connected with the fact that newspapers, in this house, are not lightly to be thrown away and therefore they tend to infiltrate into positions where they can remain undisturbed. Such positions, as it happens, are fairly numerous. A child’s chair with a brokendown rush seat is stacked high with them, so is the old box-table next to it. This table has the body of a wooden crate, four removable feet and a removable top which can be folded and made to form a lid. The table then becomes a strong packing case for transporting work in, and the remains of old luggage labels on the sides testify to an active life in its younger days. Besides the piles of newspapers on top of it, other piles accumulate, like the ocean bed, in a series of deposits. Parcels are opened, glanced at and set aside there, still in their wrapping paper. They may contain consignments of stationery from the Army and Navy Stores, or possibly the type script of a book by some hopeful scribe or typographer who wants an opinion on it. Gradually these are silted up with fresh deposits: receipts, bulb catalogues, circulars, company reports and among them letters enquiring about manuscripts, lectures or classes, or simply enquiring about typescripts of books which, their owner fears, ‘may have been overlooked’. He is right: they have.
Beside this table is a massive white cupboard filled with every imaginable object from extinct fishing-tackle to broken teapot lids, but with a preponderance of amateur electrical apparatus and home-made crystal sets. Beside it, in the corner by the gas ring, is a narrow, unpainted door with a home-made handle. It leads into a carpentry workshop impinged upon by a confusing array of steps and platforms, all in unstained deal. A private stair case leads from here to the still more private workroom, above.
On the dining-room mantelpiece stands a carriage clock. It bears a small card, beautifully written, with a date four months old, announcing to all whom it may concern that the clock is – or, at least, was at that date – three-and-a-half minutes slow. Along of the mantelpiece are proper postcards ; reproductions of early manuscripts, or Elizabethan embroideries or the drawings of Blake. These remain for months, with corners gradually curling, accumulating a fine layer of dust, until the annual spate of Christmas cards sweeps them away. On the hearth is a clockwork contrivance for blowing the fire and an odd assortment of fire-irons. Beside it are bookshelves of unstained wood where P. G. Wodehouse and Jeffery Farnol rub shoulders with Sir James Jeans, Lancelot Hogben and J. W. Dunne.
To the door is fixed a curious-looking apparatus consisting of a vertical bar and a handle. This was a home-made doorstop. It worked very well before the spring gave way, but is now only used by the cats which have sharpened their claws on it for generations until the upper part of the bar has been eroded to half its original thickness. (All over the house there are blocks of wood screwed to the walls, bearing hooks or loops of soldered wire or perhaps only retaining the time-worn marks of the forgotten purpose which once they served.)
Such is the room, the hour is half-past twelve and the table is laid. It is not clear whether it is prepared for the next meal or left over from the last, but in this house the table is nearly always laid.
The door now opens and Edward Johnston comes in. He is a man in his sixties, of medium height but with a massive head: ‘A magnificent head – whichever way you take it’, as Sir William Rothenstein remarked when drawing him. The hair has receded from his high forehead but remains at the back and sides so thick and dark – almost untouched by grey –that he looks like a monk with a tonsure. The hair sweeps down to rest on his coat-collar in a sort of Lloyd George curl. This might suggest a pose of the maestro–and indeed it has a rather noble and distinguished look – but the real reason is that he puts off going to the barber ’s from day to day until the days become months. High cheek-bones and deep-set eyes indicate his Scottish origin and must partly account for the frequently noted resemblance to Robert Louis Stevenson. He has a straight nose, slightly hollowed cheeks, a humorous mouth and a firm chin. His full moustache is of a light, almost tobacco brown, in contrast to his hair. His eyes arc dark a toffee with the distant, unfocused gaze of one who looks beyond the immediate prospect to some realm of thought. To no one could Hamlet’s words be more truly applied: ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space’.
He is wearing a good but very old suit of grey herring-bone tweed, with bulging pockets, and a grey-blue linen shirt with a collar so many sizes too big that it assumes the shape of a horse collar. This is to ensure that in no circumstances shall it be tight. His black silk tie is pulled through a gold ring. It is worn thin by now, the little ring with which Christian Deuchar, his great grandmother., was married in 18o9. On his feet are slippers, and round his neck, suspended by the laces, a pair of brown boots. In one hand he carries a cup of cold tea, in the other a pile of books. This contains, unfailingly, the Concise Oxford Dictionary, with the back of its binding gone and the covers loose, and probably The Innocence cf Father Brown and Orlando the Marmalade Cat.
He puts down his burden and looks with vague intentness at the preparations on the table. Then he picks up the morning paper, opens it out, and reads, leaning with both hands upon the table, neither willing to sit down nor able to escape. At last he turns to the porridge pot which is keeping warm on the hearth. He lights the gas ring on the wide, tile windowsill, turns it full up and puts the porridge on. Soon it is smoking furiously. Later the pot will go out to the scullery, lined with a thick coating of burnt porridge, and soak for the rest of the day. When the porridge is ready the kettle goes on to heat. The purpose of this is to heat the cup of cold tea, which is balanced on top of it in place of a lid. Mean while he sits down to his porridge, eating it with salt and butter, the milk in a separate cup, in the Scottish way. When the tea is heated he brings it to the table. It is now too hot to drink and he sits reading the newspaper until it is cold again. Then back it goes on the kettle to heat once more. He turns to the fire to make his toast, propping the fork in his own particular way. This operation is almost a ritual: techniques are involved and the craftsman is uppermost. Just so must the fire be mended and tended, just so must the toast be made. He has often said that women do not care very much about how a necessary job is done so long as it is done, but me ‘will go to the stake of the method’. They invented games, he points out, and what are these but essays in technique, devices for the exercise of method?
By his place is his own particular knife. This was an ordinary table knife until he accidentally burnt the handle off. Then he made it a new handle of a piece of cherry wood, sandpapered to perfect smoothness and treated by a process he invented to make it waterproof. Where the handle meets the blade it has been bound with brass wire, soldered over and then rubbed down till solder and wire are one.
Bacon is brought from the kitchen. He whistles and a grey, striped cat appears; Merry, scion of an ancient house, last and most loved of a line that has been a part of the family of Johnston for the best part of thirty years. He strolls up, casual, gentle manly, affably ready for what may befall. His master bends over him, smiling, holding up some titbit. ‘Taxi!’ he whispers, ‘Taxi!’ Obligingly Merry begs, raising one front paw above his head in the gesture described as ‘hailing a taxi’. He is rewarded, rubbed, talked to, till he settles himself on the footstool before the fire.
Johnston studies the newspaper through a magnifying glass, wearing rimless spectacles, their gold side-pieces mended with solder and sealing wax. A long piece of pink string hangs down behind his right ear. This is so that when he lays his spectacles down upon the table he will not lose them because somewhere, from beneath the litter of papers, a tail of string will always be projecting.
He once described himself as ‘a hurried and careless reader of the paper’, but this description is misleading because, as ever, his standard of comparison was not other people’s behaviour but a concept of absolute perfection. By this standard he was hurried and careless, although he was probably less so than almost any other of the million and a half readers this paper boasted. He read it from cover to cover, advertisements and household hints and all, and it might well take him as much as a couple of hours. To friends who were surprised by his choice of one of the more ‘popular’ of the daily journals he used to explain that ‘All newspapers are full of lies, but at least if you read The Daily – you’re not tempted to believe them.’
He is still sitting over his breakfast when someone comes to try to set the table for lunch. He lays aside the paper and begins to talk, stooping to put on his boots. He speaks slowly and with long pauses but never an actual break, for his thought pursues the subject in undeviating concentration, to the almost complete exclusion of everything else. It says in the paper that miners form two per cent of the population. Doesn’t that seem very high? Where are all the shopkeepers, railwaymen, soldiers and factory hands to come from? What percentage of the population are working men, do you suppose, when you’ve deducted women, children, old people, invalids and so on? At this point he glances up from his boots to see who he is talking to. It may be the maid or it may be one of his daughters, but the discovery will not affect his discourse. What matters is the subject under consideration, not the person addressed. ‘Would you’, he asks, ‘say thirty per cent, or is· that putting it a bit too high? Well, say, for the sake of argument …’
The table-setter is poised in the open door now, holding a loaded tray and waiting to leave the room. ‘Well, then, let’s see,’ he says, ‘that leaves twenty-eight per cent no, wait a bit …’
His boots are done up now. He puts on a little round tweed hat and goes out on to the verandah, to the suspended coconuts, the thin sunshine and the timeless view of the Downs. He takes out tobacco and papers and rolls a cigarette. Then he puts it between his lips and tries a burning-glass on the end, but the sun is not strong enough to get a light. Instead he takes out his flint and steel – a file without a handle and a flint from the garden with a length of yellow tinder, neatly accommodated in a home-made case. Two or three sharp taps and he gets a spark, blows on the tinder and lights his cigarette. He puts the case back into his pocket and goes off down the garden to his hens just as lunch is brought in.
Watching him going on his way is like watching an animal bent on some private errand. There is about him that air of essential solitariness. He lives a domestic life here with his family – and he thinks family life important – yet in himself he lives the life of a hermit.
As he walks down the wide, grass path he is not aware that the ancient Shetland cardigan which he has tied round his waist against lumbago has one sleeve dangling from beneath his jacket like an artificial tail. He is not aware of the thoughts and feelings of the people in the house behind him, or of a dozen things that would be obvious to the most casual observer. He is aware that he is on a planet spinning through space, held to the sun by an invisible thread. He is aware that he, miraculously adhering to the surface of this globe, is held there only by the force of gravity – and, he would add, by the grace of God.
Toy shop made by Johnston for one of his children around 1914.
Inexpensive copies of the book can be bought here
There seems to be an error in this second listing as the title reads Johnson instead of Johnston, although it is the same book.