Breton Fishing Figures
with Yoann De Roeck
Before 1900, Breton fishermen invented an amazing style for marking their registration numbers. Come on board and meet the fishing figures!
In the mid-nineteenth century, the French Ministry of the Navy ordered all fishermen to register their boats with local authorities. Drifter boats and sardine luggers were henceforth required to sport a clearly visible number and initial letter on their bows and sails in order to help the gendarmes identify them.
Whether or not a standard form of lettering was recommended by the authorities, boat numbers followed a consistent style (albeit hand-crafted) until the early 1880s. Then forms began to shift. Blackletter initials occasionally popped up on boat hulls, as did ornamental squares or diamonds; rounded letters opened up to the point of illegibility, ending in ball terminals or even more spectacular bifurcations (or ‘barbs’) at the feet of vertical stems.
According to some old fishermen, the ‘barbed’ alphabet style was invented to make the figures ‘favorable for fishing’ and to bring good fortune. But other witnesses rejected this superstitious idea and suggested purely aesthetic motives. Far from being incompatible, these points of view shed light on the complex ways of thinking at the time and our diverse perceptions of the people involved.
So were these graphic forms about identity, or art, or lucky fishing? Join us to find out!
Letterform Lectures are a public aspect of the Type West postgraduate program. The series is co-presented by the San Francisco Public Library, where events are free and open to all.
Yoann De Roeck
Born in 1978. A graduate of École Estienne in 2000, Yoann De Roeck then studied with Peter Keller as a researcher fellow at the Atelier national de recherche typographique (ANRT, Nancy). In 2004 he was a resident at the French Academy in Rome, Villa Medici, where he worked on an editorial project based upon the Campo Marzio area. From 2005 to 2011, he was the artistic director of Marge Design graphic agency in Paris.
Since then, Yoann De Roeck has been working as a freelance designer, taught for 6 years in art school (Esad Amiens) and often speaks at the University of Paris Saint-Cloud; he is now a permanent staff member of the DSAA (Applied arts diploma) in Montreuil, near Paris.
In November 2021, Yoann De Roeck started a thesis in epigraphy, under the supervision of Marc Smith (École pratique des hautes études, EPHE, Paris) and Alice Savoie at the ANRT, Nancy.