Winter 2004

Letter rich Lisbon

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. Eight students volunteered to join us for this working holiday alongside tutors Amanda Lester and Clive Challis. Meanwhile Fior had enlisted the some part-time photography students from AR·CO, a private art school in Lisbon. [8]

Fior’s agenda was to concentrate on the Nicolete Gray subject matter, and the arrangement was that all films would be duplicated so that both the CLR and Lisbon’s Museu da Cidade would each have a set of the images. Prior to this project we had only taken pictures for ourselves. Partly because we don’t like being told what to do, and partly because we felt that if this was to be the beginning of an archive in the city museum, the brief was a bit limiting, we decided that we should cast the net much further. In addition to survivals from the past, we felt it essential to record the present, the graphic design interventions of signing and public transport, and the many unnoticed incidental uses of lettering in public places.

First impressions
Our planned time in Lisbon was short. Even the walk from the station to our hotel confirmed, however, that the city was full of wonderful examples of lettering, and that there was plenty to record in the time we had.
The first morning we met with everyone involved for a bilingual briefing. We gave the students a film each and asked them to work in pairs. The Central Saint Martins students had a predisposition to the subject area and the ar·co students knew the city itself. We gave each pair a specific mission – trams, elevators, metro, rail-ways, road signs, street names, graffiti, stopcocks, manholes and other street ironworks – in order to focus their attention and to avoid duplication.

Meanwhile, we were to visit and photograph the sites Nicolete Gray had recorded – whether the lettering had survived or not. Of the 77 CLR images, Fior had identified 58 locations, most with both a street name and number. For some locations, we were looking for signs he knew had survived; for others, we were to record their removal or change of appearance. We used the list as a framework for exploring the city, noting locations in close proximity to each other and plotting routes between them. For some locations we only had a street name and our photocopy of Gray’s original image. These locations were only found by looking carefully at architectural features such as balconies, rooflines, window mouldings, and on one occasion, nothing more than holes in walls.

We didn’t like the idea of re-taking photographs as Gray had done: she seldom took more than one shot of a location, and always used a standard lens. We favoured taking a general context shot followed by details of the lettering. Because our own collections of images were intended to be viewed as slides, it was important to us that the crop should be more or less correct through the viewfinder. Composition, even if not artistic, always had to be thought about from the start. Despite the ad hoc simplicity of Gray’s shots, it was hard to match her exact viewpoints. For
one thing, she was a few inches shorter than us!

In some ways, having Gray’s photographs was a mixed blessing. It was a joy to see many places and signs surviving and looking good, but there were also examples of buildings losing much of their character by having lettering altered or removed entirely. The fire of 1988 in the Chiado district was a particular source of devastation.

Between Gray’s locations we were able to explore the adjacent streets and photographed everything we saw of interest. The areas she had photographed in the 1960s were, in the main, shopping districts, those closest to her hotel (the Avenida Palace), or en route to galleries. Gray’s husband Basil, was keeper of Oriental Antiquities, and later acting director of the British Museum, and his curatorial work often took him abroad. Gray and her camera took full advantage of that fact, and we assume Basil’s visits to the Gulbenkian Foundation were the reason for at least some of the Lisbon trips. A basic sense of propriety would also have curtailed the range of her lettering models. It would not have been considered proper for her to wander into some areas of the city alone. Free to do as we pleased, our journeys started in the central districts of the Chiado, the Baixa and Rossio, and worked outwards as our curiosity led us and time allowed.

The overriding impression was one of a city where old and new co-exist; and somewhere full of old survivals, without feeling old-fashioned. After only four-and-a-half days in the city we knew the answer to a question we had asked ourselves earlier: ‘Why didn’t Gray photograph this, and this, and this?’ There was simply too much.

Returning to Lisbon
A positive meeting between ourselves, Robin Fior and the curators of the Museu da Cidade during our first trip, together with shared hopes for an exhibition of our images in Lisbon, enabled us to obtain a small research grant from Central Saint Martins, leading to a return trip in May 2004. Equipped with updated information we continued our search for a number of Gray’s locations; to reshoot a small number of buildings again in better light; to explore some other areas; and to meet with staff at the Museu.

Fortunately there was only one significant lettering change for the worse: a shop had changed hands and the fine reverse-painted and mirrored fascia had gone. Happily we had recorded it the previous year. On this visit we were able to explore Lisbon’s oldest district, Alfama, which we found to be rich in painted street names; and nearer the river’s edge we found sans serif traces of an industrial past. Industry was also the main interest when we explored Bica, sandwiched between the Bairro Alto and the railway. We had passed through Alcântara en route to and from Belem the year before, but stopped this time in the middle of the main route south-west from the city centre, to photograph two factories, each named by huge pieces of tiled lettering. As often happens, we noticed something else in the distance across the dual carriageways.

It looked worth a detour and turned out to be one of the highlights of the visit: a set of dilapidated government buildings. The finest was the Comissão Reguladoro do Comercio de Bacalhau, a fabulous example of 1940s bombastic architecture, which featured condensed serif letters that had obviously been conceived as an integral part of the architecture.

The beginnings of an archive
The set of around 1300 images taken in 2003 and the 360 added in 2004 cover lettering of all kinds, with a particular focus on older, hand-made
kinds, and styles of lettering unique to Portugal and Lisbon. This set cannot pretend to be comprehensive, but it contains a wide range of examples of lettering from around the city.

While there are good reasons for preserving some of these things in situ, and equally good reasons for the Museu da Cidade to be collecting examples threatened with destruction, we hope that this modest collection will provide a third way of recording the city’s lettering for future generations to enjoy.

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.

8 The Central Saint Martins students were Andrea Hoffman, Paul
John-Baptiste, James King, Josh Leigh, David Preston, Nadine
Rinderer, Laura Thompson and Machiko Yoshida. AR·CO students
were Joaquim Calérot, Pedro Andrade de Melo, Helder Bento,
Vasco Azevedo e Silva, João Bernardo Martins e Melo, Cristina
Almeida, Maria João Alves, Paulo Henriques.

First published in Eye no. 54 vol. 14 2004

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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