If you take the train out of Rome to Ostia Antica, the port of ancient Rome, and wander through its ruins, there is a monument to a citizen that’s striking because of the size and clarity of its carved lettering.
The base of Trajan’s Column is held up as a high point in the invention of the Roman alphabet, when the capital letters that have become the unconsidered currency of western culture were given their first definitive form, carved into stone. There was nothing unselfconscious about the gesture; the Romans knew what they were doing when they carved their triumphs into the most durable material on earth, and in cutting the letters, they were giving birth to a civilisation.
But this monument is, if anything, a more affecting demonstration of the power of carved letters. It honours a man who was not an emperor or military hero but a good man, and it is these quiet virtues that are immortalised so emphatically in this grand display.
Since Roman times, carved lettering has become the means by which we defy time and resist forgetfulness, paying heed to our ephemeral loves and losses. The Victorians well understood the connection between imperial power, private sentiment and letter carving, filling our graveyards with ambitious artworks. But the plastering of machine-cut letters across buildings, gravestones and monuments has made us blind to the special creative act involved in carving a letter.
As Emily Hoffnung, a contemporary letter carver (prices on request), creator of headstones for Simon Gray and Harold Pinter, as well as other memorials and carved poetry, says, “The typeface or font sandblasted onto a piece of stone has little character or varation.” Scooped out in a uniform groove, it is relatively unresponsive to the play of light. “Ideally,” explains Hoffnung, “lettering carved in stone should be designed to suit the chisel, the essence of the text and the individual character of the piece of stone.”
Fortunately, it seems that we are once again in a golden age of crafted letter carving. Whether for memorial headstones or as artworks in private gardens and public spaces, artists and individuals are discovering the expressive potential of carved letters. The variety is enormous; from carved house names in slate to the poem Memory of Water by Simon Armitage carved in the native rock by Pip Hall along the length of the Pennine Watershed. As Hall sees it, “The way we can explore form and space with letter forms is much more understood today.”
John Das Gupta, who has made memorials to Derek Jarman, William Golding and Philip Lawrence as well as garden pieces (work from £600), ascribes the power of carved lettering to the fact that text is turned into an object: “There is the difference between a graphic representation and an object – the incised letters are sculptural forms, which change with the light.”
The revival is owed principally to two men: Edward Johnston, a calligrapher and father of the sans serif Johnston sign lettering for the London Underground, and his pupil, later collaborator, the sculptor, engraver, typographer and letter carver Eric Gill. For both, good lettering was a moral as much as an aesthetic question: “And what was fine lettering?” asked Gill. “It was in the first place rational lettering; it was the opposite of fancy lettering.” Inspired by Roman lettering, Gill believed the hand-carved and handwritten “meet an inherent, indestructible, permanent need in human nature. Letters are things, not pictures of things.”
Most letters carvers today in Britain trace their descent from Gill, by way of David Kindersley, who established his own workshop near Cambridge in the 1940s. His son Richard Kindersley, a teacher and architectural letter carver (work from £300) says, “After the second world war, lettering, in my field of architectural lettering, was dominated by Swiss typography Helvetica. It was hard work to cut across these rules and produce something more original. Postmodernism changed that.”
The key point to grasp is that carved lettering is not the transcription of typography into stone, but the act of creating letters anew each time. It is, in some ways, a radical act. Ian Hamilton Finlay, the late Scottish poet and artist, made us feel this. His garden, Little Sparta in Strathclyde, is filled with statues, temples and carved inscriptions, with the sayings of French revolutionaries dotted between gnomic Latin and English apothegms.
If Hamilton Finlay resurrected carved lettering in fine art, Harriet Frazer is responsible for its place in the memorial arts. Wishing to celebrate the life of her stepdaughter, who died aged 26, Frazer set out to find someone to make a headstone. She then set up Memorials by Artists, a service to aid the making of memorials and other hand-carved lettering works. More than 3,500 artworks have been created, and her organisation works with 70 letter carvers and runs apprenticeships and workshops. Frazer says commissioning a memorial can be therapeutic because the process is slow and this pace helps “take people through grief”.
Clare Twiss is one client who benefited. An only child, her father died when she was 18 months old, and had been buried in a small village churchyard on the edge of Dartmoor with “a horrid granite and chipping grave”. It had always displeased her mother. So when her mother died many years later, she contacted Frazer, who suggested the carver John Nash.
“I wanted to emulate older headstones and give the ages of both my parents when they died – 41 years and 90 years.” They chose Welsh slate, as close a match as possible to the older Cornish slate headstones in the graveyard. “It was such a lovely thing to do. Standing back, not rushing it, getting to the essence of it, is part of the healing process.”
David Cadman commissioned a headstone for his former nanny when he discovered that she had been buried in an unmarked grave in Suffolk. Because she was part Roma, the carver, Pippa Westoby (work from £1,500), carved a romany wheel. “The engagement with the artist, and their engagement with the stone and subject, is most satisfying,” says Cadman.
In this light, letter-carver James Salisbury explains: “You work very closely with a client. I usually mail scale drawings to and fro. It is very important that letter carvers make the letters fresh each time.” Das Gupta elaborates: “You get a sensibility about what a letter should look like, which will depend partly upon the stone you are using,” whether intimate Welsh slate, fine-grained York stone, rugged Caithness stone, rough sandstone or sober Portland stone. “I am interested in the abstractness of letter forms – this is the wellspring of what it is about. It seems so tight and bound, to achieve this perfect form, but the process can release a lot of creative energy.”
Hoffnung carves longer poems and individual names. “If you are carving a name, the letters are focused on individually,” she says. “For poems, it is the pattern of the text that is the design challenge. Putting a poem on stone is like setting it to music.” John Neilson, a letter carver who creates stone versions of poems or texts (work from £400), says, “The carving is more than the words. It is often not that important that the text is readable – making an abstract composition is of most interest.”
For Gary Breeze, whose evocative, sometimes large-scale carved-letter works (from £600) have been widely exhibited, winning the Jerwood Contemporary Makers prize, and who makes inscriptions in Norfolk dialect, English, classical Greek and Latin, the act of inscription “is a power in its own right – taking something fleeting and apparently unremarkable and elevating it”.
The evocative Anne’s Diary (2009), on reclaimed slate, takes some lines from the diary of 14-year-old Anne Gathorne Hardy, an ephemeral record of a brigantine setting sail, and immortalises them. The inscription is both homage and requiem to a lost moment, a lost mode of transport and language of sailing. It is as if by preserving things – dialect names, songs, field names, phrases – in Roman letters, he can save them. “You find these fragments of classical inscriptions and they hint at things lost, beyond the frame of the image,” says Breeze. “I am not very interested in proverbs or sayings, I would rather have something elusive.”
There is something heart piercing about these supremely skilful and beautiful transmutations. Cadman has a small rectangular piece of slate carved by Breeze that sums it up: “tabula ad animum tollendum caelata”: a tablet engraved in order to lift the spirit.