Vernicular Lettering Today

Talk given by Gabriel to the Art College in Carmarthen.

As a Monumental Mason I strive to “bring to mind” the lives, the names and the places of those who my work commemorates. As a letter-cutter I carve “Vernacular Letters” and I believe that I am the only one trying to do so today. This is partly because when I started carving letters in 2002 I had not heard of  DOT (the Department of Typography at Reading University) nor had I heard that vernacular lettering was dead, as the influential historian of the development of English letter forms, Professor James Mosely, has written, so I was able, unselfconsciously, to use as a  model for my lettering, the C18th carved Delabole slate headstones of North  Devon, where I grew up & lived & worked until recently.

“Vernacular lettering” is hard to define: it is more an attitude of mind & a set of characteristics than a style or font of letter. If you find a letter  that you can not categorise then it is likely to be “vernacular”.

The word “Vernacular” comes from Latin & means”native, indigenous, domestic”: It refers to the native dialect of a country or place, rather than a second language that is learned or  imposed. It is a word that is frequently used of architecture, where it implies the domestic or functional, rather than the  Monumental-a farm or a  country church rather than a  Cathedral or a Museum.

Vernacular Lettering is a home grown, native & local phenomenon: it is neither academic nor dogmatic; it is not Imperial or Technocratic and it is not the expression of power or authority.
Rather vernacular lettering is the writing, in stone in this case, of the local people and the small, but significant, events of history: not the Grand Narrative of Empire and War, but the story of individual people, families,  villages & communities. Vernacular lettering  does not commemorate wars but rather the more basic significance of life itself.

The opposite of vernacular lettering is  Roman Lettering, which finds its ultimate expression in terms of refinement and vigour, in the Trajan Inscription from Trajan’s Column in Rome, AD 128. This is  the gold standard of Academic Lettering for the  grand purposes of state, for commemorating important moments in the grand march of history. As we see at The Cenotaph in Whitehall,  at The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington: these letters make me think of a morgue of letters  like shiny black cadillacs and the perfection of power and propaganda rather than art; and, in a  slightly different register, at  The National Gallery.  Roman Lettering of this  kind is categorically different from that which I have come to talk  about today. Vernacular Lettering means the lettering of the local, indigenous people and language, as opposed to the International Lettering Style of Empire, State, Academy, with all its technological and financial resources.

It is a truism that handwriting is the most personal of the arts, and by extension that of lettering. It is a characteristic of vernacular lettering that it should have a personal feel: discipline is not at the expense of freedom; order  is not at the expense of spontaneity and the spirit is more important than the technique or form.

The Trajan Inscription may be  the height of perfection in terms of the incised letter, but the tradition of Vernacular Lettering from the Book of Kells, to the Lindisfarne Gospels, and including the St. Teilo Gospels (now known as the St. Chad Gospels, and kept in Lichfield rather than Llandeilo), excel in imagination and fantasy and something of that difference  of spirit may be seen in the vernacular  lettering of the  C18th Delabole slate headstones of N Devon.

I am both qualified uniquely and uniquely qualified to talk of vernacular lettering, as its  only exponent owing largely to my “outsider”attitude: no onlawe told me vernacular  lettering was  dead. Of course there is no letter that may not be carved with greater or less difficulty, but the Roman Letter with its serifs for terminations of stems lends its self  to this process particularly well. I have been told by no less an authority than my neighbour, the world famous letter cutter and calligrapher that I need  to be more versatile. But my strength as  a carver of letters  is not versatility but sincerity and my interest in lettering as carving and a joy unto itself: versatility may be the key to success for 99% of lettering artists, but it is also a factor that has contributed to the monoculture of technically perfect but characterless and soulless lettering that we see  around us.

Traditionally  lettering is one aspect of stone masonry and  wood carving: in wood carving it is seen as a way of learning basic  skills rather than an end in its own right. I have  been carving stone for 16 years and letters for 14 years.

I started  carving stone 16 years ago as an informal apprentice to Mr Jim Donaldson as he built the pilgrimage church of Ss. Mary & Cuthbert, Shepherds Law, Alnwick, Northumberland. Mr Donaldson was due to retire and had been trained by his uncle in that land of stone and castles and so I was able to learn from a living tradition, not quite on its last legs even though it was singing its swan song.

From Northumberland I travelled to my dream job at Hereford Cathedral to carve Early English Mouldings for the Lady Chapel. These mouldings are among the most beautiful to carve because they are so simple that the slightest mistake shows. The carver is allowed a 1mm tolerance of inaccuracy-if you go under more than twice in one day you are out. The 1mm is very important because if the surfaces of the mouldings were  carved perfectly flat the result would be dead. After the end  of  my month  trial, in which I was competing against two City and Guilds trained masons from London for two jobs, I was sent down the road, crestfallen but with the best career advice that I have yet received: don’t stop carving, but find a shed in the middle  of nowhere and get on with it.

I returned to North Devon where either the local stone shatters, or your chisel does, before you can carve it, with the realisation that you can not really carve architectural masonry on your own – the weights are just too great. Shortly after I returned  my Mother’s friend Betty Kimberley, an eccentric artist, told me to go and see a touring exhibition in the local art gallery in Bideford. It was entitled “In Blessed Memory: Incised slate headstones of North Devon and Cornwall” and was put together by a  typographer called Justin Beament and a lecturer in the History of Design, called Esther Dudley. I was blown off my feet and fell in love  with the C18th inscriptions that were in any case old familiar friends: my Father was the local Vicar and his 4 churchyards were full of wonderful, homely, unconventional & lively examples of the work that the exhibition presented.

I got out every book on letters from the  library and was lucky too that my parents had many books  on the subject and on the work of Eric Gill also.

I went to visit the lettering artist Bryant Fedden in the Forest of Dean: he gave me a hammer and chisel and when I got started, stopped me with the words “It’s obvious that you have never looked at an alphabet in your life”. He then gave me a  copy of an Eric Gill alphabet and told me to carve it in slate three times in letters  no less than 6” high. This took 18 months.

Jan Morris has written that “the chief outlet for popular visual art in Wales has always been the tombstone”: this is certainly true of N Devon. It’s sparsely populated rural communities found it easier to move goods by sea than land and so, despite the lack of a local stone to carve they were readily able to get hold of Cornish slate from Delabole on the North coast -the hardest, most long lasting,   and, nowadays, the most difficult to get hold of of the slate family in our Islands. There is good slate (or was) in the Vale of Belvoir, Leicestershire, but that being a  more wealthy area than N Devon, was much more decoratively and expensively carved.  The N Devon headstone is a much humbler affair and so I prefer it as that is my “vernacular”. That poverty has contributed substantially to the aesthetic.

Headstones begin to be common in the C16th but the C18th is their hey day with observers like Alan Bartram commenting that the vernacular tradition declines  from the early to mid C19th. But the point is that when I started looking for people  to teach me, there still were a few local letter-cutters working in the traditional manner, however debased their practice and  I was encouraged  by fellow local-tradesman who saw nothing particularly odd or special in my ambition: it is this quality of unselfconsciousness that is so important! Without it there would be no vernacular lettering and without it I would be unable to carve such letters which have such  a different aesthetic from the dominant and dominating mainstream tradition of Roman, Trajan, Imperial, Academic(and latterly Commercial and Corporate) Lettering. Judged from the standpoint of todays’ elite professional letter cutter, vernacular lettering is inept, (which frequently it may is) which is to misunderstand its whole rationale.

Having carved my three Roman alphabets I then continued  to carve exclusively Roman lettering for another year and a half, earning the discipline of their geometry and proportions, drawing the letters  out directly onto the slate. Sometimes drawing the same line out10 times to get it balanced: one small mistake with a single letter and every other would have to be  redrawn. Eventually I could bear it no longer and reverted to type: a country boy with the same ethos as  my first teacher Mr Donaldson, who when he had finished a job would stand back and, if pleased would  say only “not bad  for  a  country  job”.

In the C18th letters that I was able to see daily around me I saw a  life, a sincerity, a warmth, an energy, movement and above all a spirit that was not apparent later and certainly not in the work of the  mainstream lettering artists  of today: Ieuan Rees, Richard Kindersley, Lida Lopez Cardozo Kindersley et al > Their technical accomplishment may be unrivalled (when they actually carve their own designs) but it is at the expense of life itself.

Quite soon I attracted the interest of the local papers, and then the local television and was the subject of a ten minute film. It’s all grist to the mill: encouraged and emboldened by this I telephoned The Monnow Art Gallery in Herefordshire which made a specialism of exhibiting carved lettering. When I told the lady on the other end of the  ‘phone that I carved vernacular lettering, she told me that I was being pretentious. I was shocked and  could hardly believe it. Now I realise that it was only my ignorance or innocence that enabled me to follow my path: had I been a City and Guilds Lettering student or been to DOT, or worked in R. Kindersley or Lida Lopez Cardozo Kindersley’s studios I should very much have been educated how to do things properly-as no vernacular  lettering artist would do and I should have lost my love for what I do and would  today be “versatile” in many hands but not have a style or a tradition of my own.

Subsequent research revealed that vernacular lettering had  officially died 70 odd years earlier and been on the way out  for a hundred years before that but as no one had  told me personally I thought it best to ignore this  late news and just carry on walking my path alone with the belief that even though one may attain virtuosic heights of technique if one’s lettering had neither life  nor spirit it was all a waste of time, and on the other hand if ones lettering had life and spirit the technique would come in the end. So I resolved to try to continue the tradition of vernacular lettering that had first inspired me.

In an age of computer mass-production of everything, including gravestones, the bespoke handmade item is  luxury itself and the work of “The Unknown Craftsman” can command a great deal of money and I am sure that the aesthetic of vernacular  lettering, vis a  vis  the near technical perfection of mainstream lettering artists, has a much more powerful and  far reaching appeal that is not only hard to explain but is perhaps simply a profound mystery. In The Unknown Craftsman” he speculates as to the profoundly special appeal of humble and homely domestic items, as a rice bowls: they seem to have the soul of the uncelebrated maker within them and seem shaped by the great mass sub-conscious: they have life!

For me the vernacular tradition of lettering is one that puts one’s love for one’s work, for carving letters in slate, before any preconceived or received notions of letter form or spacing: the spirit is more important than the form. As my now-father-in-law Simon Verity, letter cutter and sculptor, wrote to me in response to a  letter seeking advice and encouragement: the technique will come but the spirit is  all important. Many academics and professionals laugh at the  idea  of contemporary vernacular  lettering, but I am busy, no one  else is doing what I do.  I love my work and am almost always asked for “country lettering” and “rustic headstones”. Which I would characterise as being freely carved, fresh, spontaneous, unselfconscious, flowing with the movement of dancing letters.

Vernacular lettering differs from academic lettering in that it is less formal, and so more personal, it tends to use serifs, as these are an aid to the carving and shaping of the letters; it is carved by its designer: the hands and head are united and as Eric Gill said “it is the hand that thinks”; it has a different aesthetic. It likes a varied rhythm and texture, movement, irregularity and flow: very often the same letters of the alphabet are NOT uniform; there is a freedom of handling and an evident joy and love in the work. The lettering emerges from the carving process organically: the shapes and forms are dictated by the tools, the materials, the skill and the need to work quickly! There is  a willingness to experiment without self-consciousness, the difficulties are not so much artistic ones as technical.

In terms of letters and  layout there is a movement, a flow, a freedom, an informality, openness and sincerity: the overall effect is personal.  Vernacular lettering can seem chaotic or inept these are not defining characteristics  but can be aspects  of  its  charm.

To carve a  letter is a performance: one is constantly striving to get closer to that letter in one’s mind’s  eye.

Vernacular lettering is by definition hard to identify: it fades in as the native expression of the land and the people, looking as though it simply came into being rather than having to be made and imposed upon the stone by sheer effort of will. It is not bound by rules and theories, it cannot be taught in Academies_this would kill it!

Archetypal Vernacular Lettering can be seen today as a subversion of the dominant aesthetic of  “Designed” Academic or Roman lettering and a  challenge to its authority and that of power of the status quo and  its  dominant and dominating aesthetic of perfect order, discipline and technique. I use the same materials & techniques and privileged places of display but am primarily concerned with humanity, communication and the importance of memory rather than  perfection of form and  order, however  beautiful which to the vernacular letter cutter can seem, despite their beauty and refinement, to be safe, tame, static forms with everything being on its best behaviour. That academic lettering, lifelessly perfect, is somehow instep with the mass-produced versions-a more expensive brand but still lacking in feeling and sterile.

As a vernacular letter cutter I have a freedom to interpret the  letter-forms without having to have recourse to the academic canon or other conventions and, in Alan Bartram’s words “work within a tradition unencumbered by dogma or historical theories”.

To carve vernacular letters today  is  to discomfort historians of lettering,  to b written off by calligraphers and  designers and  99% of contemporary letter  cutters, BUT still to satisfy a demand and to make headstones that  fit in with their  environment and so look  as if they  were  meant to be  there, in a way one doesn’t really notice  them: they  fit in without drawing attention to themselves.

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