Friday, December 7, 2012


Letter set (1)

Little things can make a big difference. When it comes to architecture, one of those little things is the quality of the lettering used in signs, inscriptions, date stones, and the rest. Here's an example that caught my eye: the name and date stone on a chapel in the centre of Leicester. To harmonize with the classicism of the building the person who cut this inscription used what Alan Bartram, authority on lettering on buildings, calls the English letter. What he means is a letter form in which there is quite a big difference between the thick and thin strokes and in which the change from thick to thin in, for example, the curving bowl of the C here, or the P, can be quite sudden. On the whole the thick strokes are verticals. The serifs (the tiny protrusions at the ends of the main strokes) are generally bracketed, in other words the main stroke flows into them. But in this particular example the bracketing is quite subtle in some of the letters.

You can find English letters all over Bath, where they are used for the street names, which are carved directly into the stone walls. Elsewhere they pop up in all kinds of places, and are often, as here, to be found when you look up. They vary quite a bit in style –some have less heavy thick strokes than these. Many have fuller serifs. But if the letters are well proportioned and evenly spaced, they are all satisfying. Especially in the sun.


Stephen Barker said...

Has Alan Bartram published anything on lettering on buildings?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Stephen: Yes. There are three small books, Street Name Lettering, Fascia Lettering and Tombstone Lettering. Plus a general book, Lettering in Architecture. These are all quite old books (1970s) but the small ones can be picked up quite cheaply on ABE, the larger book is more costly.

Nicolete Gray's Lettering on Buildings (1960) is also interesting. And Peter Ashley's Letters from England, for his terrific photographs.

Hels said...

You certainly can find English letters all over Bath, but I wonder why. The locals would certainly have known that the building was a Wesleyan chapel, so the sign was either for visitors, or it was largely decorative.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: I think one reason for these stones on nonconformist churches and chapels is to do with identity. They were proud of their buildings, and eager to assert their belonging to their church in a land where it had once been illegal to worship anywhere other than in the established church. The name emphasized this sense of belonging. Also, in the Methodist church at least, anniversaries were - and are - celebrated, so the date is important too.

Stephen Barker said...

Philip, thank you for book titles I will have look on line for them. I have Peter's book which as you say has excellent photos in it.