Michael Harvey’s Life of Letters

Posted inFeatured
Thumbnail for Michael Harvey's Life of Letters

I have known Michael Harvey, the British book jacket designer / lettercutter / type designer, for nearly thirty years. And I have known his work for far longer, having first discovered it in Erik Lindegren’s ABC of Lettering and Printing Types (Askim, Sweden: Erik Lindegren Grafisk Studio, 1964–1965, 3 vols.) when I was a teenager. There his typeface Zephyr, done for Ludlow at the dusk of the metal era, was displayed along with a hand lettered greeting card. In the early 1980s I stumbled upon a number of Michael’s handlettered book jackets while preparing an anthology of such things (which never came to pass). We became friends around that time as I helped arrange his first professional visit to New York City. Now Michael has allowed me an advance look at his autobiography, a book not yet published (and with a title that is still unsettled). Its contents have sparked this conversation—really an edited exchange of emails—between the two of us over the course of the past few weeks.

Paul Shaw: Your book, titled A Life with Letters (reminiscent of Edward Rondthaler’s My Life in Letters), is largely a professional autobiography rather than a general one. Why did you decide to leave out the personal side of your life?

Michael Harvey: I have Rondthaler’s admirable book, but had forgotten it when I struggled to think up a title for mine. Now I find two more books with this title! My book now has a subtitle: “A Life with Books: Eric Gill & Beyond”. Some years ago I wrote a more personal manuscript, but an editor friend thought it would interest my family, not the general reader.

Why is Eric Gill [1882–1940] part of your new subtitle? You never worked with him, or even met him since you were nine years old when he died.

“A Life with Letters” can be read as reading, writing, or editing letters; or making letters, which, of course, is my meaning. It is a bit vague perhaps, so “Eric Gill & Beyond” helps to pin it down. As this is about my professional life, Gill is the starting point. His Autobiography [London: Jonathan Cape, 1940] set me on fire, got me off the ground, lit the blue touch-paper! Gill was my mentor, but there comes a time when one needs to get mentors off one’s back, which my subtitle refers to.

What was it about Gill’s autobiography that fired you up and set you on the path to focus on letters as your aesthetic outlet? Was there something about Gill’s view of what letters should be and how they should be used? Or was it the uncanny parallel you discovered between Gill’s early life as an unhappy draftsman and your own?

I left school at 15, got a job as an engineering draftsman, was called up for National Service at 18, returned to the drawing office at 20, wondering how I could find more creative work. I wanted to make things, not produce drawings of things for others to make. Gill’s autobiography hit me at the right time, an uncanny parallel. I built a workshop in evenings and weekends, carving housenames in wood, and attended Gordon Smith’s Monday evenings class [at the Epsom & Ewell School of Arts & Crafts].

In your book you say that the first assignment in those Monday evenings classes that Smith—who “threw doubt” on your hero Gill—gave you was to design a book jacket. Was that your entry into the field of book jacket design?

A school friend, who worked in Longmans publishing house, gave me my first book jacket commission in 1954, just after I had struggled with Smith’s assignment. My next jackets were designed in 1957 while I was working with Reynolds Stone [1909–1979] as a letter carver, himself a link with Gill but not as enamored as I was. He introduced me to London publishers and commissions came my way. The freedom and color of jacket design was so refreshing after carving letters in stone and slate.

An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England by Peter Hunter Blair (Cambridge University Press, 1959)—handlettered jacket design

How did you come to work with Reynolds Stone. And how did you go from being a draftsman drawing letters to carving them in stone?

I was on holiday in Ditchling, learning to carve letters in stone with Joseph Cribb [1892–1967], Gill’s first apprentice, when Gordon Smith wrote to tell me that Reynolds Stone needed an assistant to carve inscriptions. In 1955, I left the drawing office and moved to Stone’s home in Dorset.

In your book you indicate that both Smith and Stone were not as enamored of Gill as you were at the time. What were their objections to Gill? Was it to his philosophy, his letterforms, or to his life? Presumably they did not know what we now know about Gill following Fiona MacCarthy’s biography [Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God (London: Faber & Faber, 1989)].

Reynolds, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, where he met [Stanley] Morison [1889–1967], was an admirer of scholarship which Gill wasn’t. Reynolds loved Renaissance letterforms, so wasn’t keen on Gill’s “modernizing” of some details in roman caps, lowercase & italics. But he called Gill “Eric” or “the Master”! He didn’t care for the extreme Roman Catholicism of Gill.

In your autobiography you include a design for Robert Speaight’s earlier biography of Gill [Life of Eric Gill (London: Methuen, 1966)]. How did that commission come about? I assume it must have been a wonderful assignment for you.

The Life of Eric Gill by Robert Speaight (Methuen, 1966)—handlettered jacket design

I was doing a lot of jackets for Methuen when they commissioned the Speaight jacket. I had to concentrate hard to return to the Master’s letters after absorbing Stone’s more classical forms. A nice commission to have, but Eric was already losing his grip on me!

Your jackets have a “big book look
” independent of the style as developed by Paul Bacon, the American designer (and jazz enthusiast). With the exception of the Gill biography, there is no one else’s discernible style in your lettering. It is all your own. Were there contemporary British (or American) jacket designers such as
George Salter [1897–1967], S. Neil Fujita [1921–2010], Hans Tisdall [1910–1997] or Berthold Wolpe [1905–1989] that inspired you?

The Good Son by Craig Nova (The Bodley Head, 1982)—handlettered jacket design; one of the inspirations for Braff typeface

Inspiration came from Hans Tisdall, Berthold Wolpe, Georg Trump [1896–1985], Hermann Zapf [b.1918], Oldrich Menhart [1897–1962], and Helmut Salden [1910–1996]. I just absorbed their letters, so exciting after years of being stuck with English tight-assed romans!

The Presidential Papers by Norman Mailer (Macmillan, 1958)—handlettered jacket design; an early example of the letters that became Ellington typeface

Did designing book jackets and carving letters go hand in hand from the beginning of your career? I have always been struck by how rare it is to find someone equally versed in both fields. Most letterers draw letters in two dimensions and never have any experience with the third dimension unless they draw letters for others to fabricate. On the other hand, most lettercutters draw letters as part of the process of preparing inscriptions, but rarely do lettering for print. Have you found it easy to go back and forth between the two dimensions because of your early training as a draftsman?

Detail of 1961 inscription with lettering inspired by Georg Trump’s Codex typeface

Well, my background is drawing—specializing in Disney characters & bombers taking off at dusk to hit Germany. As for carving letters, I spent all the war making model aircraft in wood, shaping forms in stone felt quite natural although needing a very different technique. When I began carving letters my first attempts were in wood. Stone seemed a less sympathetic material.

The work in your autobiography includes a number of book jacket designs with lettering that suggests a third dimension [e.g. The Notion of Sin (1959), Game Shooting (1963), Ways of Escape (1980), and The Good Son (1982)]. Several of your typefaces are also in this vein [e.g. Zephyr (1964 / 2008), Andreas (1996), Moonglow (2000) and Braff (2002)]. This seems to be an area in which you take particular delight. What is it about letters with an inline, an outline, or shading that attracts you?

The Origins of Scientific Economics by William Letwin (Methuen, 1963)—jacket design using letters mounted on type-high blocks; the inspiration for the Braff typeface

Paste-up of shaded display letters for use in designing jackets 1973

Reynolds drew outline letters to show clients who wanted plaques or headstones how the inscription would look, adding a thicker line to one side to give a 3D effect, such a simple device. I followed suit. I love the drama the stronger line creates.

Comp for inscription for The Clore Gallery for the Turner Collection, The Tate Gallery (1986)

Alongside your continual interest in letters with a three-dimensional effect, you have long been fascinated by stencil letters, so much so that you gave them pride of place as a separate chapter in your autobiography. There you say, “Stencil letters have a great appeal to me. The breaks and links between parts of letters give a lively aspect, a graphic tingle.” Can you elaborate on this?

The Duke’s Men (c.1987)—print using handmade stencils

Stencils appeal to me because they produce multiples. The crafts world is awfully precious, adoring single objects, and with my love of books I admire well-designed trade books in particular. I have no interest in so-called “craft books”. Of course, book jackets are multiples. Essentially, I like everyday things, useful things designed with care: “form follows function” is my war-cry. Before EG seduced me, I was keen on industrial design, liked the modernists, so it’s surprising that EG’s anti-industrial stance impressed me.

I usually carry a camera to photograph buildings and lettering on buildings, shop fr
onts and pavements, capturing men with stencils painting road markings. They wondered why I was photographing them!

Engagement with God by Hans Urs von Balthasar (The Bodley Head, 1972)—handlettered jacket design; the basis for Balthasar typeface

One of the things that is fascinating about your stencils is how they tend to avoid the cliches of the genre. You have stenciled italics, semi-serifs, shaded letters and unclassifiable forms reminiscent of the work of German type designers. I am surprised that your typeface Mezz (especially the bold and black capitals) did not end up as a stencil design.

Are stencils part of your dual interest in letters on paper and letters in stone and wood? Your experimental 1965/1999 letters cut out of aluminum, plywood and cardboard hint at stencils.

Experimental letters cut out of plywood c.1965

My first ambition was to become an architect, but I had no educational qualifications. Architectural Review in the 1950s had many drawings of building projects, road signs and so on. I must have absorbed some of this, continuing to subscribe when I was with Reynolds. I think my 1965 experimental cut-out letters show my excitement in making pure abstract shapes. I am not interested in letters as letters, but only as shapes.

That is certainly evident in much of your book jacket lettering, especially in the early years where there is a jagged liveliness. I am thinking of Bertolt Brecht Plays (1960), The Spanish Civil War (1961), Power without Glory (1962), and Hostages (1976). In general I am struck by how often your lettering feels physical, as if it has been fashioned out of material rather than ink or paint. Even when the letters are italic or script, there is a sense that they exist on a different plane from the book itself.

Hostages by Grigory Svirsky (The Bodley Head, 1976)—handlettered jacket design that anticipates Ellington typeface

Most people who know you as a type designer assume your career in this area started with Ellington [Monotype Corporation, 1990]. That makes you appear to be a late bloomer when in fact, as your autobiography indicates, you had already been designing type for many years. Your first typeface was Zephyr, issued by the Ludlow Typograph company in 1964. Ludlow is often a forgotten technology from the metal era. How did you end up sending your design to them?

Zephyr was my first typeface, which John Dreyfus, then adviser to Monotype, liked, but warned that Monotype would take ages to make as a font, so advised me to send my drawings to Ludlow Typograph, who payed me $500.

Zephyr (Ludlow Typograph, 1964)

Your story parallels the famous one about Frederic W. Goudy [1865–1947] sending drawings for a typeface to the Dickinson Type Foundry in Boston back in 1896 and receiving a check for $10 in return (equal to about $250 today*). The typeface was Camelot, released in 1897. Like you, it was his first typeface. Did Ludlow give you any advice or requirements about how your drawings should be prepared?

Ludlow gave no advice, just the dollars!

Prior to designing Ellington you mention designing typefaces for use with the Caslon Supasetta? This is a machine most of us have never heard of. Can you explain what it was? How were these early typefaces used? Were they available to others?

In 1980 I quit part-time teaching, deciding to work on type, bought the Caslon Supasetta, a Halco Copy Scanner [a device for reducing or enlarging an image which can then be traced off], a Rotring A2 drawing table, a PMT [photo-mechanical transfer] film printer. This was the start of my type design decade (much extended!). The Caslon Supasetta, a variable type-size photo-headliner, suitable for two-inch film fonts (£1125 in 1980), was manufactured by Caslon Limited beginning in 1977. Jetsetter, The Graphic Rabbit, Phototypositor, Spectrasetter, Staromat, Dicoliner and Fotostar were other machines that took the same two-inch films. I wanted to make my own fonts, so made a film alphabet in my darkroom and it worked. I used it on two jackets for Cambridge University Press. I didn’t use it again, but then Monotype took on Ellington, and in 1990 Adobe asked me to design fonts for them, but wanted discs not drawings so the Macintosh arrived in West Dorset. Mezz, my first Adobe type, was a Multiple Master font. No one suggested a stencil version, but that came about with Conga Brava in 1996.

You mention Monotype taking on your typeface Ellington, but there is more to the story than that. It is a typeface that got caught between technologies and between companies. Can you describe its history? And talk about the relationship between Ellington and Strayhorn, your other typeface for Monotype? These are typefaces that, because of their different names, many people do not realize are closely related.

Ellington began with ITC [International Typeface Corporation]. Their scouts came to Europe in the early 1980s looking for talent. In London about a dozen met them and I was the only one they took on. The underst
anding was that if at any stage in the font’s development ITC decided to take it no further I kept the advance and was free to take the design elsewhere. René Kerfante at Monotype took on the design that became Ellington in 1983. Ellington was launched at ATypI in Oxford in 1990. While Ellington required around 1000 drawings for Monotype to digitize, Strayhorn was created by myself on a Mac, editing Ellington’s characters to make a sans version.

Until the establishment of Fine Fonts, the foundry you run with Andy Benedek, most of your typefaces were released by Adobe. Did you approach them or did they contact you first? What was the experience like designing a font for the now-discarded Multiple Master technology? In your autobiography you seem to simply enjoy the process of making letters so much so that making typefaces is just another way to do that, one that guarantees the multiples you like so much. You don’t seem to be trying to solve someone else’s problem (e.g. designing type for a newspaper or for airport signage).

It was at ATypI in Oxford that Robert Slimbach approached me about working with Adobe. None of my Adobe typefaces had a purpose, such as type for newspapers, signage etc. In fact, almost none of my typefaces have had a purpose beyond excitement at creating a new set of characters. No “form follows function” here! More an adventure to see what would happen.

With the exception of Tisdall Script, your typefaces have all been originals rather than revivals. What is your perspective on type revivals?

Tisdall Script was a tribute to a master long forgotten. I am a great believer in copying the work of those who excite one. Something of their work rubs off. I like the account of a jazzman who played his soprano sax so much like [Sidney] Bechet that listeners thought it was Bechet, but he was annoyed that he could hear sounds he couldn’t remove. Then he gave up and worked on those sounds, creating his own very different soprano sound. Some people observed that he must have heard Bechet sometime way back. As I say, things rub off, becoming part of making what you are. Enough of this waffle!

In your autobiography you state, “I am a great believer in copying the work of those who excite one.” That is a very Chinese notion, but one that goes against the contemporary emphasis on originality and moral rights.

Art schools are against copying as this will stifle the students “creativity”, which is nonsense! Maybe today moral rights are at risk, but if someone copies me I regard that as praise! Never go for originality, let it creep up on you!

Drawing seems to be an essential means of copying, much more flexible than calligraphy. The problem with calligraphy is that there is a great temptation to become in thrall to the pen, letting it do the work rather than treating it as a tool in service of one’s vision. You claim that, unlike the pen, “The pencil is neutral.” But how do you respond to those who insist that calligraphy is essential because its long history has shaped the way our letters look, whether it is the balance of thick and thin strokes, the location of serifs, or their structure (such as branching)? After all, the first example of lettering in the chapter on drawing in your autobiography is clearly calligraphic in form and structure.

I think an understanding of calligraphic letters is essential for anyone wanting to design type, signboards, inscriptions etc, which is why I had [University of] Reading students try their hands at writing scripts. Some made a mess but pennies dropped. Understanding letterforms through some practical exercises was the point of my Reading classes. I wasn’t interested in producing calligraphers. I hoped that Reading with its emphasis on type would connect with the courses in calligraphy at Roehampton [University in London; formerly Roehampton Institute], as both disciplines use spacing, line lengths and so on to organize readable text. But Reading thought of Roehampton as “crafts”, while Roehampton thought of Reading as “commercial”. I exaggerate slightly.

I just came across this statement in your autobiography that seems to sum up your attitude: “Historical knowledge is not the same as that discovered for oneself through practicing the hand skills that shaped our alphabet.” Earlier in our conversation you said, “I am not interested in letters as letters, but only as shapes.” That is a surprising statement to come from someone whose lettering—for the most part—seems to be rooted in tradition even though not imitative of it. That is, most of your work seems to be more about letters in the Beatrice Warde crystal goblet mold: distinctive but in the service of the text, whether it be a book title or a memorial. Even your experiments seem rooted in familiar forms, not too “arty”, gestural or expressive. Besides your belief in form follows function, could this be due to your love of drawing? It seems that drawing (and lettercutting) are about form, whereas calligraphy is often about gesture and movement.

I think it was Cartier Bresson who said, “A good photographer is not interested in photography”. I like this paradox. It is the act of taking a photograph or drawing a letter that’s interesting. Over the years I have absorbed many alphabets, learnt how they evolved, how to use them when they suit a particular task, but that doesn’t make me interested in the alphabets. I believe it’s a question of games, which game will work here? I’m not out to play just one game —dare I mention Tom Perkins who has a recognizable style?. I don’t have a style, but people recognize my work! It’s all very mysterious. Let a style emerge, I tell students. Don’t set out to create a style as it will look contrived and then dated. On calligraphy versus drawing, I am happier drawing as I can control the shapes, even retouch them, whereas calligraphy is much too risky, like walking a tightrope, so easy to fall off!

“Calligraphic” lettering drawn by hand

The chapter on drawing in your autobiography opens with several drawings of a hand in motion drawing a letter. The composite image comes from your book Creative Lettering (1985) which I have always admired for this very aspect. It is a distinctive method of explaining how drawing (formal sketching) is done physically. This is very different from other lettering manuals that focus on tools (pencils, pens, ink, compasses, rulers, t-squares and so on) and from calligraphy manuals that are all about ductus, the sequence and direction of a pen in motion. Where did you get the idea for this illustrative approach? It was not there in Lettering Design (1975), your first book on lettering,

Illustration of how a hand draws a letter from Creative Lettering (Taplinger, 1986)

When I wrote Creative Lettering I had to find out what was going on when I drew letters, so I photographed my fingers stretching and shortening as I drew verticals, horizontals, diagonals and circles in two halves. Tracing off the prints and overlapping these strokes showed me how my fingers worked, which was news to me! With a background in engineering drawing I am used to compasses, rulers, French curves, t-squares, set-squares etc. These provide precision when drawing type letters. If I’m working on a calligraphic letter I might start with writing before drawing to get the weight, strength of serif I want, etc. I have all the tools needed to tackle any job.

Your drawing is always freehand. The emphasis is on making marks directly from the body rather than with the aid of draftsman’s tools, yet you were trained as a draftsman. How and when did you develop this emphasis on free drawing as opposed to technical drawing?

Free-hand drawing must have begun with making layouts for Reynolds Stone’s clients, and later for mine. These were really sketches. Reynolds sketched letters on slates I had to carve with a chisel to give crisp forms. Roughs I sent publishers were sketched. I’ve long considered the pencil as a thinking tool. I can’t think without a pencil in my hand. Stone went out painting trees and wildlife, reducing these for engraving on wood, very sketchy white paint to be shaped by the burin.

Besides letters the other thing that we had in common when we first met in the early 1980s was a mutual interest in jazz and blues, even if we had differing tastes. Your love of jazz has been evident in the titles of your typefaces (Ellington, Strayhorn, Congra Brava, Mezz and Braff; and the unreleased Zoot) and in some of your personal pieces such as the “bird bath” in honor of Charlie Parker. Do you see a connection between jazz and drawing? Or jazz and lettering? What types of jazz do you favor and what is it about them that you respond to?

Jazz and letters. Designing book jackets late at night in the 1950s I’d have Armstrong or Basie on the player. Jazz men were improvising on well-known tunes, while I improvised on well-known letters. Two abstract artforms. I love this connection which is why I have given my typefaces jazz names. The Louis Armsrong Foundation wouldn’t let me use Satchmo, while Adobe thought Jelly Roll’s sexual connotations were unacceptable. The French lawer in charge of the Django Reinhardt estate banned Django. I have more Ruby Braff CDs than any other jazzman. The melody is the most important thing in his music, on which he builds lovely variations. Dizzy [Gillespie] doesn’t give me that.

detail from Bird Bath, an homage to Charlie Parker with letters influenced by the work of Sepp Jakob

There is much more that we could talk about—your inscriptional work, your association with the Scottish concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay [1925–2006], your love of bicycling and photography—but it is time to bring this conversation to a close. Is there anything else about your work you would like to mention?

Yes. A final thought. Almost all of my typefaces are for display. It’s the book jacket in me. I like to create dramas. Text doesn’t interest me. I’m a loud-mouth. It all began with Walt Disney!


Michael Harvey Font Links:

  1. Braff

  2. Balthasar

  3. Mezz

  4. Ellington vs Strayhorn

  5. Conga Brava Stencil

  6. Tisdall Script