William Drenttel | Slideshows

The Good Citizen's Alphabet

Cover design, Gaberbocchus Press, illustration by Franciszka Themerson, 1953.

In these political times, so polarized with heated rhetoric, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across a copy of Bertrand Russell's The Good Citizen's Alphabet. A important philosopher, Russell had the wisdom to realize that certain words require proper definition to be used correctly in political and social discourse; words such as, "asinine," "erroneous," even "nincompoop." Of course, there are also words that inspire: "liberty," "sacrifice," even "zeal." Russell aspired to educational enlightenment, believing "the ABC, that gateway to all wisdom, is not made sufficiently attractive to immature minds." In his research with this teaching tool, respondents found his explication of the alphabet both "wise" and "foolish," "right-minded" and "subversive." It is this spirit that this alphabet is offered here as a slide show for our readers, accompanied by Bertrand Russell's original introduction.

The back story for designers is that this book was published by Stefan Themerson of the Gaberbocchus Press, with illustrations by his partner and wife, Franciszka Themerson. Between 1948 and 1979, they published over 60 titles, including works by Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau, Bertrand Russell and Kurt Schwitters. Stefans Themerson's "Kurt Schwitters on a Time Chart," published in Typographica in 1967, is a seminal, and ironic, piece of information design. In 1973, they published a classic of collage, a visual novel, The True Life of Sweeney Todd, who would later make an appearance in a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim; as I look at my copy today, I discover that it was previously owned by Ruari McLean.

It is fascinating to think back to the early 1950s. A couple of Polish émigrés, having studied physics, architecture and painting, and having made a few art films and started a publishing company, sit down with a leading philosopher to make something whimsical and subversive. That an alphabet book was the outcome pleases me to no end.

Text of Introductory Essay by Bertrand Russell
This book, it is felt, will supply a lacuna which has long disgraced our educational system. Those who have had the largest amount of experience in the earlier stages of the pedagogical process have in a very large number of cases been compelled to conclude that much unnecessary difficulty and much avoidable expenditure of school hours is due to the fact that the ABC, that gateway to all wisdom, is not made sufficiently attractive to the immature minds whom it is our misfortune to have to address. This book, small as is its compass, and humble as are its aims, is, we believe and hope, precisely such as in the present perilous conjuncture is needed for the guidance of the first steps of the infant mind. We say this not without the support of empirical evidence. We have tried our alphabet upon many subjects: Some have thought it wise; some, foolish. Some have thought it right-minded; others may have been inclined to think it subversive. But all — and we say this with the most complete and absolute confidence — all to whom we have shown this book have ever after had an impeccable knowledge of the alphabet. On this ground we feel convinced that our education authorities, from the very first moment that this work is brought to their attention, will order it instantly to be adopted in all those scholastic institutions in which the first elements of literacy are inculcated. —17 January 1953. B.R.

Further Information:

Gaberbocchus Press titles are now published by Uitgeverij De Harmonie.

This book may be ordered from Athenaeum Booksellers.

Themerson Archive Online.

Kubasiewicz, Jan and Monica Strauss, editors. The Themersons and the Gaberbocchus Press - An Experiment in Publishing. New York: MJS Books & Graphics, 1994.

Poynor, Rick. Typographica. Princeton Architectural Press, 2001. [Includes "Kurt Schwitters on a Time Chart" and discussion.]

Wadley, Nick. "Experiments in Publishing: Stefan and Franciszka Themerson's Gaberbocchus Press." Eye Magazine 12 (Volume 3) 1994.

Permission for this special publication on Design Observer courtesy of the publisher.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History, Media, Politics

Comments [20]

They were indeed a fascinating duo. Not only did they write and illustrate childern's books and publish peotry, but started creating experimental short films in the 1930's. They moved from Poland to Paris in 1937 after meeting Moholy-Nagy and other experimental artists to continue their work.

Sefan joined the Polish Army in World War II, and, after his regimen was disbanded, travelled across occupied France from 1940-42 in an effort to rejoin his wife. In 1942, with the help of the British Royal Air Force, he rejoined her in Lisbon.

After the war, he met Kurt Schwitters in 1944 and they were close friends until Schwitter's death four years later. In 1948, they moved to Maida Vale, founded the Gaberbocchus Press, and lived there until their deaths. She died in June of 1988 at the age of 81, and he in September of the same year, at the age of 78.

Their story is really quite interesting and this oh-so-brief overview doesn't even scratch the surface. Here are a few other links to further explore about Stefan and Franciszka.
James D. Nesbitt

I love it -- not just for its irony and subversiveness, but also for the way the images and text work together to achieve those qualities. A great example of good graphic design. Thanks for this post!
Ricardo Cordoba

I like the first sentence:

This book, it is felt,

I immediately thought felt as in a fabric book, not one printed on paper.

Going back to the weaving room of the bauhaus era where the women were elevated to decipher the more detailed and fine art of three dimensions, felt as a textile is partial anarchy compared to the grid of warp and weft.

Then i returned to the reality field and understood felt as implied.

To paraphrase Black Flag

This f-ing country is run by pigs
They take the rights away from all the kids

Eerie how well that book speaks to the right now.

Extraordinary, like a less cynical Devil's Dictionary. And dismaying that it remains so timely.

Am I the only one who thinks that the Pedant in "P" is a caricature of Bertrand Russell?
John C

Initial Observation:

Bertrand Russell = Bolshevik Rational.

Franciszka Themerson = Foolish True.

Gaberbocchus Press = Greedy Pedant.

Very Respctfully = Virtue Rational.

Joe Moran = ( "J" is missing ) Mystery

Ha! = Holy Asinine.

Good stuff Mr. Drenttel!!!!!

Joe Moran

Cool pictures, but kind of tinny commentary.

Bill, Thanks for the design candy.

I agree with John C., it is dismaying that it remains so timely. Amazing how fresh it is, as well.
Michelle French

Stories of how Gaberbocchus books came into being are interesting and each book developed in a manner quite different from the others. The Gaberbocchus Press is a part of my PhD research project and I've been lucky to have access to the Themerson archive which contains clues as to how the Themersons published books. The idea behind the press was, as Stefan Themerson said, to publish 'best-lookers not best-sellers'. This meant an unique approach to every book.

I think we need to be careful about making presumptions about how books come into being. To say that the Themersons sat down with Russell to make something whimsical and subversive is incorrect as it presumes an earlier intention on part of the author, illustrator and publisher to create something intended for publication. But in fact The Good Citizen's Alphabet (1953) came out of a correspondence between Franciszka Themerson and Russell. It was the Themersons who saw the book potential of this correspondence and requested Russell's permission to publish it. In a letter dated 8 January 1953, Russell wrote in response to Themerson's request: 'It would be a pleasure to have you publish the Good Citizen's Alphabet... I had thought of making my alphabet a Christmas present, and if you are willing I should prefer to leave it so. I should not care to ask for royalties on what may well prove an unprofitable venture.'

One of the best qualities of the press was that the Themersons took, as Ruari Mclean put it, 'outrageous risks'. In fact, the book was a huge success. The version shown above is the trade format. There is also a beautiful limited (or as they called it 'deluxe') edition printed on handmade paper and signed by Russell. It was also published in other languages. The book was issued with additional content in a new paperback edition titled History of the World in Epitome (For use in Martian infant schools) (1970).

The range of genres published by the press was stunning, and included semantic poetry, an opera, radio plays and children's books. Most books were not just illustrated in-house, but designed as well.

Rathna Ramanathan

Rathna, Your comment is the kind that makes writing and publishing this blog rewarding. Thank you for the corrections, history and perspective. Bill Drenttel
William Drenttel

Being a pendant (as Rathna will know), I should point out that the drawing for P for Pedant is of course a portrait of Russell!
Paul Luna

beatiful book. reminds me of another inspiration from the 50s: Anatomy of an Interior Designer (1st and second edition- not third) with illustrations by Nino Repetto, Henry Stahlhut and Mario Carreno. Very expressive line work.
felix sockwell

Bill, Thank you for your kind comments. I was so delighted to find the Gaberbocchus being brought to light on Design Observer.
Rathna Ramanathan

Is it a mistake that the letter 'J' is missing?

It was the Greeks who messed with that semiconsonant yodh or yad meaning hand from the phoenicians, wasn't it? Mixing the visual constuction of the i and j. Maybe Bertrand is trying to rewrite that Greek philosophy after all, before 700 BC.



"Few traits of totalitarian regimes are... so characteristic... as the complete perversion of language, the change of meaning of the words by which the ideals... are expressed. The worst sufferer in this respect is, of course, the word 'liberty.'"

The Road to Serfdom

It's ironic that Bertrand Russell, in his clamour for Socialism, chose to sarcastically describe liberty on the L page as "The right to obey the police," when Socialist regimes have threatened and beaten so many into that very obedience.

Time has erased all sarcasm from that spread.

Absolutely wonderful. Great simplicity, irreverence, wit, poignance, economy and style -- all with a touch of the grotesque. Brilliant.

...And dismaying that it remains so timely....

John C, I was thinking exactly the same thing. I guess hubris and human folly remain timeless and universal.

Thanks very much for posting this, William.
Jon Resh

I'm delighted to have seen that. Congrats on the C&L link; you've added an excellent resource to the conversation here. Thanks again.
Blue Gal

J is for Jolly - The downfall of our enemies.


I know it's an old post but can anyone help me with the letter T? "True: what passes the examiners" (illustration: a man looking at his own footsteps with a magnifying glass). My english is not perfect, so I'm not sure to understand the joke here.

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