To mark the publication of 'The Inscriptions of Ralph Beyer', author John Neilson, who is himself a lettercarver, reflects on the story behind the book and on how his own view of Beyer’s work changed over the years...
Ralph Beyer examining a verse by Philip Larkin carved as part of his sculptural group at Hull College of Commerce, 1969-70.
My first impression of Ralph Beyer’s work was a distinctly disagreeable one. I must have been about fourteen when we had a school geography field trip to Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral. Teenage boys don’t habitually sit around discussing architecture, but back at school we did just that. Almost all of us had been impressed by the building, which we found infinitely more appealing than the ancient, fusty abbey next to the school into which we were herded for morning services twice a week. However I didn’t like the lettering inside Coventry Cathedral one bit. Nearly all of it – and there is a lot – is by Ralph Beyer, not that I would have known his name back then. His huge ‘Tablets of the Word’, whose letterforms take inspiration from early Christian inscriptions, seemed to me a conscious attempt at fake naivety, and showed a poor understanding of letter design. I was already very interested in lettering and thought I was something of an expert on the subject.
Many years later, after a few years as a secondary school French teacher, I decided to fall back on that old interest and retrain as a calligrapher. The calligraphy course at Roehampton, London, was rigorous and thorough, informed by Edward Johnston’s teaching at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries, and based on a thorough grounding in historical letterforms. This immersion in tradition and precision was the best possible grounding, but also made different, fresher approaches seem all the more attractive. Thus I slowly became aware of Ralph Beyer’s carved lettering, and came to see that although his letterforms had little to do with conventional notions of correctness, there was a quality about his inscriptions which set them apart from simply mediocre work and made them extremely interesting. Writing this book has, in part at least, been an attempt to pin down – or at least discuss – what that quality might be.
Ralph Beyer. One of the eight Tablets of the Word.
Another reason for writing the book was that there are very few books about lettercarving, the craft I eventually took up myself and which has provided my living for the past thirty years. There are a couple of manuals such as Tom Perkins’s The Art of Letter Carving in Stone, a few books by practitioners about their own work (Michael Harvey, David Kindersley), some workshop brochures and photo books, and a few biographies of people whose work included lettercarving such as several on Eric Gill, Humphrey Stone’s recent biography of his father Reynolds, or Fud Benson’s on his father John Howard. But there weren’t any objective, critical studies of a lettercarver’s work or any which attempted to grapple with why this odd craft might – or might not – be worth perpetuating.
When the idea of writing a book on Beyer’s work first surfaced, in a conversation in 1999 with Gerald Fleuss of the Edward Johnston Foundation, Beyer was still alive, and I began to realise this would be a good opportunity to meet him and get to know him a bit. I made a tentative approach, and got an equally guarded but essentially positive response. I visited him several times in the house in Teddington that he and his wife Hilary had lived in since 1965. The two recorded interviews I did with him were not a great success: my questions were garbled and apologetic, his replies hesitant and sometimes contradictory (One question of mine lasted nearly a minute, to which Ralph replied ‘Yes...but no’). But Ralph and Hilary were unfailingly courteous and helpful and the ice melted once we got to know each other better. Luckily there were other sources of information: Ralph had written occasionally about his work; Tanya Harrod and Richard Kindersley had both interviewed him at length; there had been a few academic dissertations; and I had access to all Ralph’s work papers and much of his correspondence, especially with his father.
Ralph Beyer. 'Shatter me, music', Clipsham limestone, 305x860mm, 1987. Text from a late poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by JB Leishman.
After about five years Ralph became convinced I would never finish the book. He died in 2008, and Hilary in 2015. Whilst I am glad to have finally proved him wrong, it is a shame I was not able to get it done while they were still alive. There are, however, plenty of people still around who knew Beyer much better than I did, and I have been fortunate to be able to include some of their recollections and thoughts of working or studying with him. The longest of these passages is Peter Foster’s eloquent and amusing funeral oration. Peter was Beyer’s assistant for over forty years, and so knew him and his work better than anyone.
But even Peter admits to struggling when he tries to pin down that elusive quality in Beyer’s work that makes it sing. I’m pretty certain that I haven’t succeeded either, but I hope I have marshalled enough material to provide, at least, some food for thought.
-- John Neilson, 8th January 2021.