calligraphy lettering Thoughts on lettering

O my Giotto

How often do you draw an O? How often in this age of keyboards do you pick up a pen, pencil or brush and draw an O? How often do you give thought to the creation of an O? Here are some of mine. Now, these are not necessarily an O – yes it is a circle but an O is more than that. An O has style and grace, and is not a pure mathematical or geometrical ‘form’. Nevertheless…without more ado here is my [rather primitive] selection

O large
Freehand O drawn with bamboo pen

Why this interest in O? It comes from having picked up Vasari’s Lives of the Artists [Penguin Classics, 1965 (reprinted 1976), trans. George Bull] who describes the artist Giotto picking up his brush when asked for a sample to give to the Pope. This is the relevant section – ‘The courtier told Giotto for a drawing which he could send to his holiness. At this Giotto, who was a very courteous man, took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red, closed his arm to his side, so as to make a sort of compass of it, and then with a twist of his hand drew such a perfect circle that it was a marvel to see. Then, with a smile, he said to the courtier: ‘There’s your drawing.’ As if he were being ridiculed, the courtier replied: “Is this the only drawing I’m to have?’ ‘It’s more than enough,’ answered Giotto.” [p.64.]

O with pen
O with the bamboo pen, made by John Skelton

Well, the Pope saw the O and was mightily impressed and Giotto got the commission. Vasari continues: ‘And when the story became generally known, it gave rise to the saying which is still used to describe stupid people: ‘You are more simple that Giotto’s O.’ This is a splendid witticism, not only because of the circumstances which gave rise to it but also because of the pun it contains, the Tuscan word tondo meaning both a perfect circle and also a slow-witted simpleton.’ [p.65.]

As an encore, here is an O from the Rev. Catich’s The Art of the Serif:

Letter O Trajan
Art of the Serif by Catich

Isn’t that so beautiful? How about we all take time out to draw some O’s?

lettering, typography, alphabets, stonework

Nicolete Gray and women in lettering

It was two years ago that I first mentioned Nicolete Gray, writing then that I would have more to say about her (see here). Well, finally I do!

Today there are many accomplished and brilliant lettering artists and typographers. In the field of letter carving in the UK there’s Brenda Berman and Annet Stirling at Incisive Letterwork. I am sure you can think of many others now active in typographer and graphic design – please let me know. However, back in the 1940s and on it is true to say that women were not often noted (or noticed perhaps) in the field. There were exceptions, and Nicolete Gray (1911-1997) was foremost among them.

She was an historian of lettering as well as a practitioner, and among the projects she completed (in partnership with John Skelton – whose daughter Helen Mary is also an excellent lettering artist) was the one illustrated here, made out of wood to commemorate Shakespeare in 1964. Nicolette Gray shakespeare

Writing about the piece she says: ‘The work is interesting, I hope, as an experiment in the sort of expressionism particularly suited to lettering…I wanted my letters to work at different depths and, as it were, to wear different clothes…As I read the poets and tried to understand their place in their time, their names took on shapes and the letters in them characteristics: Christopher Marlowe with his great R’s striding across the wood, like Tamburlaine over the map of the world…shakespeare and Nicolette GrayAnd Shakespeare himself? One thinks not of him, but of the people he created. He is Protean, impossible to grasp.; I found that I was trying, as I carved each letter, to express something of his immense revelation of all the depths and delights known to human consciousness. So some of the letters are in boisterous relief,; some gay; some, like the last A and R, cut as harsh, ruthless forms through the surface cherry wood down to layers of dark rosewood and ebony.’ [From Expressionist Lettering in Calligraphy and Palaeography, 1965, Faber and Faber.)

For an obituary of Gray see here (from The Independent newspaper).

eric gill

John Skelton and Eric Gill revisited


Previous posts have commented on the similarity in appearance between nephew and uncle. (see here and here.) By chance I found these newspaper clippings in a magazine, dated October and November 1958. I shall have more to write about Gill very soon, in particular the exhibition referred to in these clippings.



eric gill lettering

Lettering by John Skelton

John Skelton was a typographer, letter carver and sculptor. He was related to Eric Gill, and I have briefly touched on his life in an earlier post. I took some lessons from him when I was beginning letter carving and kept in touch until his death in 1999. More about him can be found here (The first piece is a brushwork I had from him at one of his workshops.)

eric gill

Visit I made to Eric Gill’s home at Pigotts

UPDATE – 12 November 2014. Please see here and here for a fictional response.


Gill and Pigotts, Memories of 1990

Back in the early 1980s I lived in High Wycombe, west of London, where I worked on a local newspaper. But my real passion then, as now, was printing and lettering – I had a treadle press in the spare room of the modest terrace house I lived in, and read avidly on typography, so I knew the area’s connection to Eric Gill.

Pigotts was just a few miles away, yet it wasn’t until one day in late November 1990 that I arranged to visit. By then I had moved away, was working in central London and living in Brockley (home of David Jones, another Gill connection, who is buried in a cemetery there).

Fiona MacCarthey’s biography of Gill had just been published and it was the 50th anniversary of his death. I had set up a printing workshop in Bromley, an old stable block set around a cobbled courtyard, where I had a Monotype keyboard and caster and a Western proofing press. I had already printed a range of ephemera as well as a couple of books, and decided to celebrate the Gill anniversary with a reprint of his article “On The Flying Scotsman”, offered together with a printer’s hat of the type he is seen wearing in a print.

I found a printer at the newspaper I was working, the Financial Times, then at Bracken House, opposite St Paul’s, who taught me how to fold the hat, and soon could make one in a few minutes.

This is a record of that visit to Pigotts, as written shortly after. (I have retained my spellings and use of lower case.)

visit to pigotts, Tuesday 20th Nov.

the buildings are very similar to what they used to be when gill lived there. four buildings around a courtyard. in the middle of the courtyard (which is grassy – apparently in days of gill used to be muddy) there are 2 pens, one of which held pigs.

the chapel used to be a dairy. piggots has an ancient history. but present buildings date from 18th century. however settlement could date from 15th century.

the place used to be a tenant farm, then was sold to a private individual. he went to the continent in the 1920s and never returned. the place then came onto the market which is when gill bought it.

the place is presently occupied by nick and sue robinson, together with family. I met nick who had been a headmaster at a thatcham comprehensive for many years, but had taken voluntary redundancy two years ago. nick’s father has been in the place for 25 years: I could only gather that he had been a physicist, but had a passion for music – for many years the place has been host to what is  described as ‘the music camp’, where amateur musicians gather to perform works. something up to and above 100 come to rehearse and then give a performance.

the place where the rbinsons live is where petra (tegetmeir) lived. After death of gill in 1940 the family continued to live there. the robinson’s father lives in the dwelling which was occupied by gill. the chapel is now a workshop, very cluttered, there’s a billiard table in there, itself covered by a board on which are bits and pieces. the ‘altar’ has an inscription (a chap called bayer coloured it in – forget who cut the initials, not gill anyhow, may have been tegetmeir, have to check).

Upstairs in the bathroom is the black bath (story goes that gill had it in black to contrast with white nakedness of body. is large enough certainly for 2 people) – must be remembered that in the 20s and 30s there was no running water – everything had to be brought up in bucket frm wells. heating was limited to stoves and open fireplaces.

in the front room of the gill’s house (in photos it is shown with the gills and father macnab seated round a large rectangular table) there is a tile, 4 ins square (?) set into the floor cut by john skelton (took photo of it).

the workshop where gill did his stone carving has changed little. a supporting beam has been removed, this wld have supprted the blocks of stone, as can be seen in photos.

upstairs from the workshop is the room (now used as a music library) where gill did his engraving. Opposite to this workshop (and built onto gill’s house) is the workshop which would have been occupied by gill’s apprentices: this was divided in two: one section being occupied by dennis tegetmeir: the platform from which he worked is still there.

there are two cats owned by Robinsons, one called kinner because was born when young child of Robinsons was learning to talk and couldn’t pronounce kitten.

the carvd crucifix which d..potter made and placed in the woods around pigotts was ‘rescued’ by nick robinson when he heard that some of the trees were going to be felled. He knew the tree and decided to take it down – it now hangs in the ‘chapel’.

as I came to the bottom of the hill after my visit there seemed to be a strong smell of what I can only describe as incense in the air. where it was from I cannot say. There is a farm opposite and the smell may have come from there. or from a fire burning nearby.

At lunch with mick robinson (his wife being abroad – I think he said she was a music therapist) and another. he introduced me whose Christian name I only caught (Steven?). a man in his 70s wearing a cross – one of those large heavy ones attached to a leather ‘strap’ around his neck. at lunch we had a home made soup: home pickled walnuts which ive never eaten before and cider. Quite delicious.

I never returned to Pigotts but I did keep on with letter carving: I started taking lessons in letter carving from Richard Kindersley in Camberwell, son of David, an apprentice of Gill, as well as John Skelton – Gill’s nephew – at his workshop at Hassocks, Sussex. Gill associations were all around me.

I met David Kindersley on one occasion, Sunday 24 April 1994, after I had got to know Skelton a little (by then in his 70th year) which I recorded as:

To Cambridge. Pass David K’s in Victoria St this afternoon and see him walking outside. Marian [my wife] tells me to park and I go up and have a chat with him. He takes me into his workshop/studio. He was having a quiet smoke while the rest of the household were out for the afternoon. I asked him about Skelton and he said, funny man, found him too much, too much. At the end, when we stood outside in the gravelled courtyard, he asked me to remind him of my name. John Pitt, I said. Pitt, he answered. I should be able to remember that because the family has gone to visit some pits!

(This article first appeared in a newsletter of the International Society of Typographic Designers)