Winter 2004

Letter rich Lisbon [EXTRACT]

Phil Baines
Catherine Dixon
Travelogue / lettering

Nicolete Gray’s 1960s snaps inspire a re-examination of the capital’s streetscape

There are many designers who find that a good proportion of their holiday snaps documents the graphical details of their holiday destinations rather than friends and family. Examples of lettering, signing and other information systems, all of which inform a sense of place, are randomly recorded in this way. We are no different. Our brief to follow in the footsteps of the lettering historian, Nicolete Gray, and document the graphic character of the city of Lisbon was, therefore, not only something of a designer’s dream but an opportunity to develop already well practised photographic instincts.

These instincts are nothing new. Designers have been recording the graphic environments of their city travels since the late 1950s. Robert Brownjohn, Tony Palladino and other colleagues from their New York-based design partnership were among the first who literally looked outwards in their search for inspiration, recording the vernacular details of out-of-town locations that they could later apply in jobs. (1) Here in Britain, Herbert Spencer was following his own instincts to explore photographically (among other things) the graphic detritus of streetscape and the chance juxtapositions and creative possibilities suggested. This transatlantic vogue for the vernacular is perhaps most richly drawn together in the pages of Spencer’s Typographica magazine. Experiments with visual narrative are played out across a series of photographic essays, one of the most striking being Brownjohn’s ‘Street level’, based on a single trip to London. (2)

At the same time, photographic records of lettering in the environment were being made by those keen to promote the study of letterforms. The writings of Alan Bartram, Nicolete Gray and James Mosley all include a significant body of visual evidence gathered by each of the authors in robust support of the views of history they seek to reveal or defend. (3)

From these combined traditions of photography and critical teaching, our own work emerges. Spencer’s work can be usefully positioned alongside the broader interests of British architectural photography of that period. (4) And looking back, it is clear that architectural books from that time, and more particularly the photography of John Maltby, Eric de Maré and Henk Snoek, were subconsciously influential. (5)

It is also true that, from the beginning, context has been a primary interest for us: how lettering makes use of materials and relates to a particular space. This approach has more in common with Alan Bartram’s than with Nicolete Gray’s. Our sympathy with her work and ideas came later, through a familiarity with the material she photographed and collected. Her unusually catholic outlook helped shape the Central Lettering Record (CLR), a photographic teaching archive begun at London’s Central School of Arts & Crafts in 1963, and now curated by the authors at Central Saint Martins, where we are responsible for teaching typography. (6)

Lisbon: the project

In September 2001 Robin Fior, a British-born graphic designer (see Eye no. 32 vol. 8) resident in Lisbon for 30 years, visited the CLR to see how many photographs were taken by Nicolete Gray during five known visits to Lisbon in the 1960s. (7)

Fior’s interest in Gray’s recording of letters in the city was fuelled by conservation concerns back home. Lisbon was capital of what had, under the authoritarian rule of Salazar, been a closed society for four decades. Following the Revolution in 1974, a depressed economy resulted in minimal change well into the 1980s, when the once-quiet city braced itself for the advent of consumer society. The capital had long been safeguarded from the homogenised visual uniform that characterises so many of our city centres, but change was in the air. This was a good time to draw attention to the value of the visual environment of the city and the part that lettering played in it before everything was lost.

Fior found some 70 photographs, not all of great merit as photographs in themselves, but all useful records of some of the rich variety of lettering and sign-making techniques to be found back in Gray’s day. Some of the subjects were familiar to him and some were still in existence. However, many were unknown, with a lack of locational information on the reverse.

On his return to Lisbon, armed with a list of images (and later, a set of photocopies), Fior began to find what had survived. Various enquiries revealed that more examples were in existence than he had thought. Having secured some funding from the British Council, he invited us to re-photograph those locations with the eventual aim of compiling material for an exhibition. Because money was only forthcoming for photographic materials, we decided to combine the visit with a planned second-year student trip. [...]

1 Katy Homans, ‘bj’ in Eye no. 4 vol. 1, 1991, pp.52-63.

2 Robert Brownjohn, ‘Street level’, Typographica, new series, no. 4, December 1961, Lund Humphries, pp.30-60; see also Rick Poynor, Typographica. London: Laurence King, 2001.

3 Especially influential have been Alan Bartram’s, Lettering in Architecture, Lund Humphries 1975, and later Nicolete Gray’s seminal Lettering on Buildings, Architectural Press 1960. See also James Mosley, ‘English vernacular’ in Motif no. 11, Shenval Press, pp.3-55; ‘Trajan revived’ in Alphabet, Moran, 1964, pp.13-42; and ‘The Nymph and the Grot’ in Typographica, new series, no. 12, Lund Humphries, 1965, pp.2-19.

4 Rick Poynor, Typographica, London: Laurence King, 2001, p.71.

5 See especially the jubilee edition of Nikolaus Pevsner’s History of European Architecture, Penguin, 1966; Basil Spence and Henk Snoek, Out of the Ashes, Geoffrey Bles 1963; Eric de Maré, Bridges of Britain, Batsford revised edition, 1975.

6 The CLR was started in 1963 by Nicholas Biddulph with the aim of providing photographs for students to study. Within a couple of years Nicolete Gray had been invited by Biddulph to teach a course on letterforms and from then, until her retirement in 1975, she contributed to the collection. Following years dislocated from the main teaching studios, the CLR is now housed within the BA (Hons) Graphic Design, typography department of Central Saint Martins, and is once again used actively in teaching. (The core collection has approx. 10,000 black and white prints, and about 3500 slides.)

7 See Richard Hollis, ‘Robin Fior: Design in search of a revolutionary language’ in Eye no. 32, vol. 8, 1999, pp.66-75.

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