Beyer – A Man of Letters

In 2015 The Archers’ Lynda and Robert Snell are making a garden at Ambridge Hall as a memorial to the victims of the village’s floods that year. The garden’s centrepiece is a carved stone. While the stone is waiting to be placed into position old Joe Grundy puts on his glasses and has a good close look at it and says – “Hey, who has carved this? The letters, they are all different sizes and not even, all up and down, like it’s been done with a nail!” Lynda replies – “Joe, it’s called Beyer’s font and it was used in The Coventry Cathedral and yes it does have a certain organic, unregimented, pre-industrial feel to it, but that’s the whole point.” Joe – “Oh so it’s meant to look like that?” The word carved into the stone is Resurgam: I shall rise again.

This started me thinking about the wonderful lettering of Ralph Beyer. His work is a bit like Marmite: some love it, some hate it. As I am a Coventry Cathedral guide and I like talking about its art and architecture, I would like to talk about Ralph’s life, his artwork, his father’s influence and Basil Spence’s faith in him.

Ralph Alexander Beyer was a German letter-cutter, sculptor and teacher. His long career linked him to some of the pioneers of early 20th century lettering in Germany and Britain, but his own work was quite different from that of his contemporaries and provoked admiration and detraction in equal measure.

Ralph Beyer was born in Berlin in 1921. His father Oskar was a well-known art historian. When Beyer came to England in 1937 with the rise of Nazism, the family fled Germany. He became apprenticed to the sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill for a few formative months. He studied at the Central School of Arts & Crafts and was taught by the sculptor Henry Moore at Chelsea School of Art.

On 7th March 1940 he married Anne Yvonne Poole (they were both 18) and that same year he was interned as an enemy alien and sent to Huyton Camp near Liverpool. During Beyer’s internment he met Kurt Jooss, a choreographer. He also befriended the historian and architect Nicholas Pevsner and discussed with him an early draft of his book An Outline of European Architecture. In turn Beyer was greatly influenced by Pevsner’s ideas on modern art and architecture. Much later, in 1956, it was Pevsner who introduced Beyer to Basil Spence, who was looking for an artist to carry out lettering work on the interior of the new Coventry Cathedral.

Ralph Beyer did not spend all his wartime in internment: he was drafted into the pioneer corps and later worked as an interpreter in Germany. Here he found his father, brother, and sister, ‘in a pitiful state’ just outside Berlin. Sadly his mother had not survived Auschwitz and had died in April 1945 after an ill-fated decision to return to Germany. Ralph remained in the army for six years then returned to England, where he attended art school and briefly taught at St Christopher’s School, Letchworth, before working in various building and carvers’ workshops. Following this he set up his own workshop.

Ralph’s father Oskar had been a writer on art and religion and the author of many books, including two important studies of the early Christian symbols and inscriptions in the Roman catacombs. Inspired by the books Ralph developed his own informal approach to carved lettering. He showed his father’s books to Basil Spence and was able to persuade him that the lettering for the eight ‘Tablets of the Word’ did not have to be standard formal lettering.

Beyer was influenced by his father’s books on early Christian symbolism

‘The Tablets of the Word’ are 8 nave inscriptions made in 1960/61 from Pink Hollington sandstone, each one measuring approximately 4.6 x 2 metres (15ft. x 6ft.). The inscriptions on them are Biblical quotes from St. Johns Gospel, carved by Bayer in a very basic, naive style with an early Christian influence. This is the job for which he is best known, a commission of huge and daunting importance. Lettering was envisaged in every part of the building, carved in stone or cut from metal and inlaid in the cathedral floor.

Beyer and his assistant Michael Watson worked in freezing temperatures in what was in effect a building site. This remains the most significant work of British public lettering of the 20th century. He also carved the scallop seashell shaped bowl into the Baptism Rock from Bethlehem. The Scallop Shell is used as a symbol of direction along the Camino, pointing pilgrims towards Santiago. Pilgrims also wear this symbol themselves which further enhances the camaraderie along this great walking trail. It is quite useful to assure yourself that you’re on the right track.

Beyer’s unique typography style, known as ‘Felt’ and locally known as the ‘Coventry Type’ was in effect a customised corporate font for the new cathedral. This typeface has been used for the past 59 years as the typeface on everything the Cathedral produces – publications, books, posters, signs, merchandise and it even appears on hymn books. While he was working in Coventry, Beyer married for a second time, to Hilary Stephenson Reynolds, a secretary at the BBC Library, his first marriage having ended in divorce. Throughout his life he practised as a sculptor, sometimes combining his work with lettering. His last home was in Teddington, near London.

Ralph Beyer died of a heart attack on 13th February 2008, aged 87.

A new book The Inscriptions of Ralph Beyer by John Neilson, who is himself a lettercarver and designer, was recently published by Lund Humphries, with a foreword by Edmund de Waal. It is profusely illustrated, with 125 B&W illustrations and 195 colour illustrations. The 176 page paperback is available from bookshops and online for £19.95. It places his inscriptions, and to a lesser extent his typeface design and sculpture, in context, in the process raising questions about hand lettering itself and what place the making of stone inscriptions may have in the modern world. It charts Beyer’s increasing sensitivity to words and their realisation in stone.

An online talk by the author in conversation with design historian Tanya Harrod and a contribution from Edmund de Waal can be seen here.

Paul Maddocks, Deputy Chair of CovSoc

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