Adventures with Letters – A Memoir by Michael Harvey

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Adventures with Letters – A Memoir by Michael Harvey

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Publisher’s Synopsis
Michael Harvey has written several books on the lettering arts, covering inscriptions, calligraphy, drawing and type design. With Adventures with Letters, Michael takes the reader behind the scenes of commissions, his views on education and his long collaboration with Ian Hamilton Finlay. Inspired by Eric Gill’s Autobiography, Michael Harvey became a Letter Carver. He joined wood engraver Reynolds Stone in 1955 to help him in carving inscriptions in slate and stone.

In 1957 he began designing lettered book jackets for several publishers, and from 1961 taught at Bournemouth & Poole School of Art and Design.

The Ludlow Typograph Company in Chicago released his first typeface in 1964. Since then he has designed typefaces for Monotype, Adobe, The Dutch Type Library, and Fine Fonts, a partnership with Andy Benedek.

From 1980 teaching and lecturing continued in Europe and in the United States, where calligraphy had become very popular, and South Africa.

Introduction by Alan Powers:
I think the first time I saw Michael Harvey was across the street where I live and once ran a gallery. He had come for a private view, but on the way he stopped to photograph the cut-out, shaded Egyptian lettering I had amateurishly made for the shop fascia, with help from a book of typefaces (Verdi was the model, with strokes so wide that I didn’t have to cut any counters out of my plank of pine), a photocopier and an electric saw. It was the sort of lettering he likes, but I was greatly flattered that he thought it worth an Ektachrome. I am flattered to write a foreword for his book, and delighted that he has brought together so many enjoyable and instructive pictures with a highly engaging commentary which gives you an authentic portrait of his mind and his way of talking.

That exhibition included some prints by Ian Hamilton Finlay, whom I discovered in the late 1980s and visited Scotland, where Michael’s work was well presented in the Little Sparta garden and in the wider world. Before that I had enjoyed his lettered book jackets – poised between traditional good taste and improvisatory freedom.

As Michael writes, there are now many good letterers – cutting in stone, using calligraphy and other media – in England, but he was helped to carry things on between the generation that had first hand instruction from Eric Gill (Joseph Cribb, Reynolds Stone), from whom he learnt, and today’s variety and multiplicity. Now we have his own words to tell us how this happened at a series of stages in his life, as work opportunities successively opened and closed. The North European influence – angular, expressive – has been in play against Mediterranean roundness and smoothness for everyone working during this time, but few have managed to steer the conflict into a creative resolution more effectively than Michael, with his fertile mind, alert eye and unconventional approach tempered by perfectionism and craftsmanship.

It seems that everyone has to grapple with Gill and come to terms with him, as Michael so vividly explains. This is not just about type design and letter forms in general, but even so, they wordlessly tell us so much about standards, values and aspirations. I was interested to read that the Architectural Review in the 1960s fed into his aesthetic, for those old issues are a typographic treat, apart from articles by Nicolete Gray and others about inscriptions and lettering on buildings. The editorial team was agreed about making it a Gill Sans and Helvetica-free zone – a resistance to Modernist conformity that also informed their choice of architectural examples and their Townscape’ approach to making towns and cities experiences of visual drama and contrast. The 1830s, a historical reference point for Michael’s lettering on several occasions, was also the Architectural Review’s centre of gravity as a period when classicism was just tipping over into a delicious rule-breaking eclecticism.

As a type designer, Michael has been able to enjoy a new wave of patronage in the decades of digital diversity, taking them (as a couple of examples show) into places where Eric Gill might have liked to stray in life, if not in letters. His fonts are fun but not frivolous, and besides this, they are an education in the names of great jazz players. It is hard to define the quality that makes them so much his own – a sort of compressed energy, perhaps, although with Songlines and Tisdall Script, the energy is unzipped in the calligraphic lines. They compress a lifetime of experience and, like everything shown in the book, they will live on. Alan Powers 2012


Booksellers Comments
A book provides a fascinating insight to Michael’s life and lettering and a nostalgic reminder of how book covers used to look years ago. Its 236 pages contain more photographs and images than I have time to count but I estimate that there are well over 500 of them. Inspirational to anyone interested in the Art of Lettering.


1st edition, 2012, hardback, 236pp, full colour throughout with more pictures than I can throw a stick at!! 22 x27.3 cm



Adventures with Letters – A Memoir by Michael Harvey
£30.00 EUR 36.98