04 April, 2014

A British national letter

Some such heading seems appropriate for a post about the inaugural use of a letter that has been produced for the refurbished building that was once known as the Tate Gallery and is now Tate Britain. It houses ‘the National Collection of British Art’. The admirable new lettering was realised by the John Morgan Studio.
Its basis is an alphabet that was published in London in 1775 as Bowles’s Roman and Italic print letters by Carington Bowles, a maker and seller of prints and maps, for the use of signwriters and other makers and users of letters including ‘engravers and grave-stone cutters’. Nothing else quite like this handbook for makers of letters appears to been made at this date, or at any rate none is known to have survived. Illustrations from it have appeared several times in this blog.
The original printed alphabet, of which only one copy is known, was originally in the collection assembled in Oxford by John Johnson, Printer to the University, and it is now with the rest of his collection in the Bodleian Library. I published it myself in my original essay on ‘English vernacular’ in the 11th issue of the journal Motif. I may republish it again one day. Here is Bowles’s first plate:
In the mean time I salute John Morgan and his colleagues, and contemplate with satisfaction the use of this traditional letter on a major public building. It is worth recalling that, as this blog has noted, it is barely ten years since a weakly-drawn ‘Trajan’ letter was used by well-meaning but poorly informed restorers to paint the ship’s name at the stern of HMS Victory.
This blog was begun principally in order to register criticism of the director of the National Gallery who had its name cut in big imperial Roman letters on the hitherto unblemished portico of the Greek revival building for which he was responsible, an act that it would be an understatement to call insensitive. He has since departed from his post. It has also told the dismal story of the making of the clumsy new numerals that disfigure the front door of Ten Downing Street.
Since Bowles included the makers of grave-stones among the clients to whom his guide is offered, I should include a note in this post on some work by James Sutton, since he was the first letter-cutter to make use of the Bowles alphabet in his work, and he has shown how effective it can be. This memorial that he cut is in a country church in Kent.
And here is the inscription on his monument to Admiral Sir Philip Vian, which is in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral.
It is not far from the monument that, originally having been made for Cardinal Wolsey but not used for him, was stored with other accumulated royal property at Windsor and handed over for the burial of Nelson in 1806. It bears a good inscription in relief letters of gilded brass.
I made the image of the monument to Admiral Vian with the kind permission of the Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral, by whose courtesy it is shown here.