Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Not too novel
In a quiet side street in Wantage, this shop front has insinuated itself into a terrace of 19th century red brick. If you'd told me that there was as Art Deco frontage in this red-brick street, with white paint, a black panel, and the rest, I might have imagined an intrusion. But the Wantage Novel Library is well mannered and far from intrusive, thanks to the discreet geometrical patterns of its glazing and, above all the lettering.
It was the lettering that caught my eye. Its proportions (the narrow L, B, and E), the small serifs, and the careful spacing suggest the influence of ancient Roman capitals – inscriptions on monuments such as Trajan's Column or various triumphal arches. Not that this is a direct imitation of a Roman script, of course – how could it be when it relies so much on the letter W, for which the Romans had no use? But the spirit is there, and the forms of these letters are subtly different from many English architectural letters, which can be wonderfully classical but tend to be broader in proportion.
A sign like this must have been the perfect prelude to the literary delights of the Wantage Novel Library, which was presumably a commercial subscription library of a sort no longer common in this age of peering at Kindles and prodding at iPads. Though this is hardly a triumphal arch or a monumental column, the letters do the building proud.
* * *
There is much information on architectural lettering, together with examples of Roman lettering and photographs of modern architectural letters in all their variety in Nicolete Gray, Lettering on Buildings (The Architectural Press, London, 1960)
* * *
A note on English county names An observant reader has pointed out that Wantage is in Oxfordshire, not Berkshire. This seems a good time to point out that I normally use the traditional, pre-1970s county boundaries, which put the town in Berkshire. I do so because I'm attached to these old ways of delineating our local areas and the rich history that they represent. I also find the old counties useful because the invaluable series of architectural guides known as The Buildings of England, started by Nikolaus Pevsner and continued, revised, and expanded since his death, also use these boundaries. (I also have to say, though, that the building in this post, The Wantage Novel Library, is not, so far as I can see, included in the excellent Berkshire volume [edited by Geoffrey Tyack, Simon Bradley, and Nikolaus Pevsner] of The Buildings of England.)