The Fell Types, a font family that includes French Canon, were named after John Fell, who collected type for the University of Oxford in the 1660s. During this time, the type used in England was predominantly Dutch so, in addition to importing type, Fell sought to develop something original. Famously, he believed that, “[in] philosophy, philology, classical texts and Christian documents: the knowledge and the criticism lived on printed pages” (Marini). The Fell Types were created when Fell created his own workhouse and hired Peter De Walpergen (not surprisingly, a Dutchman) to be his type-founder.
The web version of De Walpergen’s cut still bears his original crudities — mainly inconsistencies in height and axis — that were later responsible for what Harry Carter touted as “unmistakable Oxford flavour.” The texture of its longform is unique and most either hate it or love it. Counters and apertures vary greatly (tiny in the two story ‘g’ but spacious in the ‘v’ and the ‘d’), which makes the type seem either to stumble or dance, depending on your persuasion. Regardless, whether the typeface appears vulgar or rich, it can be agreed that French Canon tends to make an awkward first impression. And this is perhaps why it deserves a bit of attention.
In a design world controlled largely by cursor and Bézier, the demands on type are far different than what they used to be. Rather than carving punches, type designers create perfect curves with the click of a mouse or a bit of code. Type is malleable. It might stand taller than a man or hover in the space of a few pixels, and these are all demands that did not exist in the age of punch and matrix.
Igino Marini breathed life into French Canon’s onscreen existence. He designed it in accordance with most web type revivals—a process that involves the repurposing of a static character (cut and molded to exist at a very specific size) into something utterly elastic and somewhat intangible. Not only that, the character is then optimized to adhere to a grid of pixels.
For the sake of both utility and form, several changes were made to the digital version of French Canon. One instance involves removal of the aforementioned ball terminals on the default italic capital ‘T’ which, when scaled down, dissolve into a pixel blotch. But besides this, Marini’s web version still feels hand-cut, which is noticeable in the dramatized outline of the italic ampersand.
Other irregularities were preserved as well. The typeface appears most conventional when set in regular uppercase — at least then axes are consistent in grade. Regular miniscule, however, begins showing signs of abnormality. One look at the two-story ‘a’ and you wonder if De Walpergen was having a laugh. Its spine, angled several degrees more to the right, makes it appear to be cocking it’s hip. And if regular seems a bit campy, the italic becomes comical, especially in uppercase. The skew of characters like ‘A’, ‘V’ and ‘W’ will have you asking, “Who ate a slice of pizza from my text block?”
The numbers also bear mentioning, for though they are congruent with the original cut, they come off as strange. Numerals 1-9 are lively and calligraphic, the zero however, is the only character in the entire set with no contrast. My first thought was to check for syntax errors. My second was simply, “WHY??” This geometric sore-thumb actually aligns itself with a classic tradition in oldstyle figures. Similar zeroes, also found in both Garamond and Caslon, were used to differentiate the zero from the miniscule ‘o’. These strange zeroes now exist on web as an homage to metal type. While readers can easily use context to discern a number from a letter, distributors of metal type did not have this luxury—thus, we are left with an anorexic cheerio.
The details go on and on, but we have reached the bottom line—French Canon wibbles and it wobbles. So why use it?
When confronted with web font databases like Typekit, users are often left with a feeling similar to the kind that occurs in supermarkets. The choices are overwhelming. Psychologist Barry Schwartz (“The Paradox of Choice”) refers to this as paralysis. There is no denying that choosing type is fun, but this sort of fun disintegrates three hours later when it’s gotten dark and nothing has been designed.
Ultimately, French Canon gets attention of this article because it soothes this paralysis. On a shelf of many typefaces, it stands out just enough—a pleasant departure from the usual horde of perfect serifs. While it comes off as funky, its flaws are consistent with the face’s historical engraving. Not only that, it stands out; its impurities give it character, validated by its history. If Futura was meant to aesthetically mimic modernist ideology, French Canon is perhaps a mimesis of ‘the handmade’—it is calligraphic and the curves of each character are humanistic and hand-cut.
Despite all its curiosities, the face has utility. French Canon reads well in longform, and its italics make for lively display. It can be used in place of many other ubiquitous serifs, and its capricious characteristics—while considered sloppy by some—make it utterly memorable.