Adventures with Letters, A Memoir by Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey

Adventures with Letters is a new memoir by English lettering artist and type designer Michael Harvey. The hardcover book contains many color illustrations, short chapters on Harvey’s career, and has been published by Harvey’s own press, 47 Editions.

Harvey was born in 1931 and some of his earliest memories are of the Battle of Britain and building model airplanes. After compulsory service in the military, Harvey worked in a drafting firm. Driven by restlessness and ambition to be a designer or artist rather than facilitate the designs of others (and unable to go to university), he found inspiration in a local library, where he happened upon Eric Gill’s autobiography. Impressed by the parallels between his life and Gill’s, Harvey became a devotee of Gill.

Harvey built a workshop for himself and began lettering but longed to inscribe letters in stone, like Gill. When a position opened to assist the letterer Reynolds Stone, who had known Gill, Harvey applied and was accepted. Over time, he became adept at carving inscriptions and also began to pick up work designing book jackets. Eventually, Harvey worked for himself and designed many jackets for British, Dutch, and American publishers, and his work grew to include typeface design, teaching, and architectural lettering. He also worked closely with well-known Scottish poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. Harvey’s skill at drawing letters, his long career, and his connections to the generation of Gill’s associates and apprentices has made him a well-known part of the lettering and type scene in England.

Adventures with Letters offers valuable descriptions of the life of a freelance book jacket designer from the 1950s through the 1980s, as well as that of a teacher in British design schools in the turbulent 1960s. Harvey mentions that almost all of his early publishing clients were not trained art directors, but “book people” who knew how to match design to texts in a way that created a unique publishing design sensibility. Every two weeks Harvey traveled by train to London, delivering work to publishers and searching for new commissions.

When Harvey began teaching lettering in 1961, British design education was still influenced by the Art and Crafts Movement, which stressed the mastery of useful skills. The Summerson Committee soon challenged the system, however, and, in Harvey’s view, weakened arts education by separating “doing” from learning. Research gained status, while learning through practice declined. Harvey describes a revealing moment when the head of his school’s commercial art department alarmed the Summerson Committee inspectors by admitting that, in instilling traditional skills, “he had great difficulty stopping the students being creative”!

Thankfully, unlike some older designers, Harvey keeps grousing about the modern world to a minimum. His work designing typefaces drew him into the digital age; in the early 1990s Adobe gave him an Apple computer and sent him to California for training in type design software. Also, Harvey describes himself as determined to be modern. As a young man, he admired modernist architect Walter Groepius, and even wanted to be an architect. Like many moderns in the 1950s, he fell in love with American jazz, and he names some of his typefaces after favorite jazz performers. Harvey eventually overcame his obsession with Gill and learned to appreciate the work of many Continental letterers and type designers, including Georg Trump, Helmut Salden, and Hermann Zapf.

Harvey’s work reveals a tension between Art and Crafts reforms (which shaped Gill, Stone, and therefore Harvey as well) and his desire to be modern. Often, his lettering and inscriptions are wonderfully restrained. For instance, his headstone for poet laureate C. Day Lewis is noble, sensible, and appropriate. The combination of Harvey’s traditional lettering methods and Ian Finlay Hamilton’s idiosyncratic words is deeply satisfying. The Finlay work is genteel on the surface, but mysterious and sharp-witted, evidence that charm need not be stuffy.

Paul Shaw, in an informative interview with Harvey, describes Harvey’s book jackets as an independently-developed version of the “big book look” of some American jackets since the 1950s. Harvey’s  jackets reveal his love of drawing roman letterforms, and many of the jackets look like inscriptions on headstone-proportioned rectangles. Harvey experimented with fashionable shapes and textures on some of the jackets and tried new lettering styles that moved away from Gill’s influence, but he would not commit to stylish European modernism.

The typefaces that Harvey designed for Ludlow, Monotype, Adobe, and his own company, Fine Fonts, range from quirky novelty designs like Studz, derived from an eighteenth-century manuscript, to large, practical families like Ellington. They show his interest both in beautiful roman letters and in experimenting with something other than what he has called “English tight-assed romans” (in Paul Shaw’s interview). Harvey reveals that his typeface Studz has been popular with the gay community and playfully reproduces an ad for S&M services that uses the type. He acknowledged his mentors Eric Gill, Reynolds Stone, and Hermann Zapf with the 2004 typefaces Mentor and Mentor Sans.

The variety of Michael Harvey’s experience and the range of work reproduced in the book will give it a diverse audience, from those interested in inscriptional lettering to historians of book jackets and design education.

Doug Clouse