The truth about Westminster (the font!)
I knew that the designer Leo Maggs (who happens to be my father-in-law) designed a typeface back in the swinging sixties called Westminster, but the more I read about the font, the more confused I became… and it just shows you that you can’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia!
With conflicting opinions about the origins and naming of this font, I decided to ask Leo himself. This is his eloquent response.
In 1962, aged 23, I joined the Hazell Sun Group’s design studio in Covent Garden. The studio was run by Peter Newbolt, who was the Group’s typographic adviser. The work was very varied and one commission was the design and production of About the House, the magazine of The Friends of Covent Garden Opera House.
Although I did not take over the design of the magazine until some time later, I was occasionally asked to produce special artwork or help out with a particular feature. It was probably in 1964 or 1965 that I was asked to draw, in a ‘futuristic’ style, the title for one of the articles. Only a few words were needed and I opted to draw them in caps based on the MICR (magnetic ink character recognition) system, E-13B, used on bank cheques. Having completed the task to everyone’s satisfaction I decided to complete the alphabet in my spare time. Ever an admirer of Eric Gill’s typeface designs, I based mine on the classic proportions of Gill Sans.
Once completed, albeit still only in caps and figures, I submitted my design to Letraset. Some time later I received a rejection slip stating that they considered the font ‘commercially unviable’ but they did enclose about a dozen sheets of Letraset made up of my font. Knowing Robert Norton, founder of what I believe was London’s first photo-typesetting company, Photoscript Ltd, I asked him if he was interested. He was immensely helpful and encouraging, and copied the entire font photographically to a cap-height of 3 inches. This he asked me to ‘tidy-up’, after which he produced a master font which could be employed on his photo-typesetting machinery. Robert added my font to his catalogue and offered me a royalty payment of sixpence (2.5p) per word. His company sent me regular royalty statements, mostly accompanied by a welcome cheque. I recall receiving more than £300 one month when the credits for the film ‘Sebastian’ (1968, starring Dirk Bogarde and Susanna York) were set in Westminster. In the previous year the Weekend Telegraph supplement no. 126 of 3 March consisted entirely of ‘A special report on Britain, presented as if written 23 years from today’, with predictions supplied by a team of 12 leading writers. Each heading and sub-heading was set in Westminster and, although an extensive list of credits was published on page 4, sadly there was no mention of the font, Photoscript Ltd, or of yours truly, among it. Incidentally, Westminster was named by Robert Norton. Perhaps the National Westminster was his bank?
I cannot recall the precise chronology but, several imitations of Westminster soon appeared on the scene, including ‘E-13B’ and ‘Data 70′, produced by, surprise! surprise!, Letraset. Naturally the popularity of Westminster and its imitators gradually waned and, at their request and with my agreement, Photoscript passed the ‘master’ on to Berthold.
Finally, in 1993, quite out of the blue I received a telephone call from Robert Norton. By then I had my own design business which had been going for 22 years, so a lot of water had flowed under the bridge. It was wonderful to hear from him. Robert explained that he was with Microsoft and wished to include Westminster in a software package he was putting together for sale with one of their products. He further explained that he had been authorised to offer me a specific sum in exchange for a license for Microsoft to use the font and the name Westminster. Naturally, I readily agreed and contracts were exchanged. And that is the true story of the font, Westminster.