Letters fascinate for their design features, for the almost endless variations we can make to their forms, while maintaining their function – that a letter 'a' should be recognizable as 'a': that it should be legible.
Carved lettering adds a sculptural dimension: the contrast between the plasticity of the forms and the solidity of the material. Letters can be cut into stone (incised) or carved in relief - common in the Islamic tradition. The techniques used to incise letters come down to us, like our alphabet, from the Romans and have changed little since the 1st Century AD. A chisel is struck with a hammer to cut a V-section which can be varied in width, depth and angle of cut.
The art of the lettercarver lies not just in the design of the letterforms themselves but in the spacing, rhythm and variation of their execution.
In earlier centuries monumental masons included in their repertoire a wide range of lettering. Their enthusiasm and range of influences can be witnessed in many churchyards and cemeteries. The harmonious forms of Roman letterforms and the symmetry of Roman inscriptions, as reinterpreted by such 20th Century masters as Eric Gill, still provide the standard today.
But letterforms are in constant change and lettercarvers today like those of the past are agents of that change, often as interested in developing their own styles as in reinventing those of the past.
Traditionally a lettercarver would work out the design directly onto the stone, as part of the act of making.
'Stone carving is conceiving things in stone and conceiving them as made by carving' - Eric Gill Autobiography
In practice, for the commissioning of a memorial, the preparation of a working drawing is essential, to allow the all-important participation of the client in the design process.
The planning and execution of a drawing can take many hours, even days. It is here that the experience and sensitivity of the artist is brought fully to bear.
The actual making of the piece will involve something more than simply transferring it to the stone. Small adjustments may be made to the spacing and detail as two dimensions are translated into three.
Arts and Crafts - The Workshop
Most independent lettercarvers working today can claim descent from the workshop tradition begun by such figures as Eric Gill and Edward Johnston, which itself derived from the ideas of the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th Century. This was a conscious rejection by a group of artists of the mass-produced: a return to hand and eye and the act of making.
As well as making memorials, modern lettercarvers are called on for: architectural lettering; restoration, commercial and institutional lettering; public art and installations exhibition works.
Edward Johnston (1872-1944) Calligrapher and inspiring teacher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He also designed public lettering (London Underground). 'He talked very, very slowly, and in his outlook on life everything had to be absolutely truthful.. Everything had to be in threes; it all had to be a trinity.' Hilary Bourne quoted in The Scribe No. 59. The three 'essential qualities', Johnston wrote, of formal penmanship were sharpness, unity and freedom. 'If there is one word which sums up the effect of sharpness, unity and freedom it is life'. Eric Gill (1882-1940) Johnston's pupil, lettercarver, sculptor, wood engraver and type designer. 'And what was fine lettering? It was in the first place rational lettering; it was exactly the opposite of fancy lettering.' He designed successful typefaces for machine printing, his Gill Sans for example, but believed the handcarved and handwritten 'meet an inherent, indestructible, permanent need in human nature'.
Britain is blessed with a great variety of stones of all types: slate, limestone, sandstone and granite. The supply of native stone is constantly changing, due to commercial pressures and planning restrictions on quarries. As a result lettercarvers are also looking to Europe for stones with good qualities and in good supply.
Qualities of stone that will affect the carving: hardness, structure, texture. Other qualities that will affect its use as memorials: colour, weathering, durability. The softer or coarser the stone the deeper the letters will need to be cut. Granite is traditional for memorials in granite areas (such as parts of Cornwall) but is hard to work finely without machines. Slates, being fine-textured, are often favoured for fine lettering and carving.