by Ken Thompson

If words are the vehicles of thought, writing, and its more formal representation in lettering, perpetuates them and prevents them from vanishing into space and time. The individual letter, though used casually in our everyday life, is the highest means of expression available to the human mind and is the currency in which our civilization is recorded. Originally, in the pre-alphabetical age, writing was an esoteric art of the exclusive few; the more complicated the symbols used, the greater the admiration for the writing and the writer. Consider the sensibilities prevalent in China, where writing is still regarded as an art. Western rationalism had a more austere functional system of symbols, mathematically constructed and practicable. However, as new qualities were required of the letter and as the ideas it had to convey became more exalted, striving to create a greater impression, this gave rise to the concept of the letter as a work of art, both in written, inscribed and eventually printed form.

Lettering may be divided into two main branches: epigraphy, or letters that are cut, engraved or moulded on hard materials such as stone, metal or clay; palaeography, or letters that are written or painted in ink or colour (with brush or pen) on soft materials such as parchment or paper. Lettering originated in the Roman alphabet, which itself is descended from a local form of the Greek (the word alphabet being composed of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha, beta). The Greek developed from the Phoenician, which derived from even more remote hieratical symbols found throughout the Mediterranean. The letter-forms (deriving from Roman capitals, and reaching their full development about 2,000 years ago) have been passed down and, indeed, been modified and influenced by the medium of the pen and the brush. In early cursive writing (the ordinary writing of the people) the letters are simply the old Roman letters written with speed and thus undergoing modification in their forms, developing into what is known as the minuscule (small letters), which led to half-uncials and italics. Roman uncials (a rounded form of rustic Roman capitals) were fully developed by the fourth century. Irish half-uncials (or majuscule) were founded on Roman half-uncials, which were probably brought to Ireland by Roman missionaries in the sixth century. They were perfected in the next century and developed into pointed writing, which became the Irish national hand.

Although use of the Latin alphabet came in the course of the fifth-century conversion, the earliest example is not a piece of calligraphy but an inscription on a stone in Inchagoill Island, Lough Corrib, Co. Galway. The inscription, dating from the fifth century, is in Gaelic and translates as: The standing stone of Lugnad Son of Limanin. The earliest examples of the Irish language are found in ogham inscriptions of the fourth century, while the carved text on the Lugnad Stone reveals that the Latin alphabet was also known to the Irish Druids of pagan times. Irish inscriptional work reached great heights of beauty between the seventh and twelfth centuries; much of this is to be found in the gravestones of Clonmacnoise, the letter-forms deriving from the half-uncial bookhand. Meanwhile Irish monks spread out over the whole of Western Europe taking with them their magnificently ornate manuscripts, which displayed such originality and freedom, raising the technique of writing to the status of a great art form. The unique characteristics of the Irish hand continued, practically unchanged, even after the collapse of Gaelic civilization in 1607 and, despite warfare, persecution and dispossession, manuscripts continued to be written in unadorned minuscule.

The well-known Irish calligrapher (and fer léigind) Timothy O’Neill, in The Irish Hand (1984), charted the work of scribes and their manuscripts from earliest times to the end of an era, which he believed came in 1880 with the death of Joseph O’Longan, the last of the hereditary scribes. He identified the return of the edged pen and the revival of the Irish minuscule for writing English as relatively recent phenomena, which owe a debt to the work of British calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872– 1944). It was Johnston who pioneered the scientific study and practice of calligraphy in Britain in the early part of the twentieth century. In Ireland the allied disciplines of typography and lettercutting evolved from study of the work of early scribes, evidence of which O’Neill has identified in the typefaces of Colm Ó Lochlainn (1892–1972) and the fine inscriptions of Michael Biggs (1928–93). O’Neill hailed the lettering used by Biggs for the bank notes, before the advent of the euro, as a masterly adoption of classical Irish letter-forms. According to the author, ‘the unique feature of the Irish Hand is its use, virtually unchanged, for over 1,000 years and the fact that today it remains for so many ordinary Irish people the only script for writing their native language’ (O’Neill, p.59).

When printing was invented in Mainz in the fifteenth century, the early printers copied the current scripts and letter-forms, because their purpose was to produce a cheap and quick substitute for the hand-written book. After the middle of the fifteenth century, lettering on tombs, medals and the titles of books was modelled closely on the classic scriptura monumentalis and, thus, the form of the printed Roman letters followed for nearly two centuries. At the end of the eighteenth century, a new form of type design evolved, which followed an engraved, rather than a written technique, and this form of letter shows a stronger contrast between thick and thin strokes, the thin refined serifs being horizontal and the stress vertical. This new development set the style for the design of letters until the middle of the nineteenth century, giving us the typefaces known as Bodoni, Baskerville, Bell and the earlier Romain du Roi.

It is these typefaces that had such an influence on the letter-forms cut by the eighteenth-century stonecutters, which are found on gravestones and public inscriptions throughout Ireland during this period. These stones represent a significant contribution to the then current carving and sculpture, displaying the impeccable sense of design of that age of good taste. These eighteenth-century monuments combine imaginative relief carving with lettering that is deeply cut and always laid out in a pleasing, although often free and idiosyncratic, manner. The Monument to Thomas Prior (1756) [441] in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, commissioned by the Dublin Society, comprises a bust of Prior, a relief panel flanked on either side by putti and a lengthy inscription. The monument is the work of John van Nost (qv), who, at the time of completing the work, sought ‘four pence a Letter’ from the Society in 1756 for carving the inscription. However, the Society believed that the cost of the inscription was included in the original price agreed for the monument in 1752 (RDS Proceedings, 2 December 1756). When William Mossop, who described himself as a ‘Die-sinker, Seal and Letter Cutter’ and who successfully modelled a medal for Dublin Society (1802), was commissioned to carve ‘Simpson’s Hospital’ for the entablature over the door of Simpson’s Hospital for the Blind in Parnell Street, Dublin, in 1798, he was paid seven pounds (Strickland, II, pp. 132–38).

441.John Van Nost, Monument to Thomas Prior, 1756, marble, Christ Church Cathedral. ©Denis Mortell Photography.

Although the skill and handling of large monuments continued, the innate sense of design and layout, the charm and the humour, all vanished from roughly 1820 as a result of the Industrial Revolution. However, the stone trade, its skills, traditions and folklore survived in Ireland until the 1940s. Séamus Murphy (qv), the well-known Cork sculptor, stone carver and author of an informative and entertaining book on this subject, Stone Mad (1950), described a world of journeyman stone carvers which had already died out in England in the 1880s.

Edward Johnston’s book Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering (1906) and the work of renowned English letter cutter, typographer, sculptor and engraver Eric Gill (1882–1940) had a considerable influence on the revival of good lettering during the first half of the twentieth century. Gill wrote a practical guide to carving inscriptions, both incised and in relief, in stone for Johnston’s book (Appendix B, Chapter 17, eighth edition, 1917, pp. 389–406). The work of British letterers David Kindersley (1915–95) and John Skelton (1923–99), Gill’s nephew, led to a minor renaissance in lettering in the late twentieth century in England and, to a lesser extent, in Ireland. Gill made no distinction between the applied and the fine arts (always with a small ‘a’). In his autobiography (1940), he described lettering as a ‘useful trade’ and a ‘precise art’ that depends ‘for its beauty upon nothing but man’s musical sense’. ‘Letters’, he stated, ‘are things not pictures of things’ (Eric Gill, Autobiography, London, 1992, p. 120). Gill visited Ireland in 1919 (‘A Diary in Ireland’ (1919), in Eric Gill, In a Strange Land, London, 1944, pp. 27–49), and again in 1937 when he lectured at the DMSA (later NCAD) (IT, 10 March 1937) and published an article in Ireland Today (May 1937). He even harboured plans to move to Ireland to pursue a peasant lifestyle on ‘Crappa Island off the coast of Galway’ (Fiona MacCarthy, Eric Gill, London, 1990, p. 170). Some of Gill’s decorative lettering was shown in Dublin in 1932 in the context of a touring exhibition of the work of the Society of Wood Engravers (IT, 18 April 1932) and in 1938 he was invited to design the lettering of IRELAND for the façade of Michael Scott’s Irish Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair [431]. Poet, letterer and artist David Jones (1895–1974), who studied with Gill in the 1920s, was also to be a pivotal influence on a generation of letter-carvers.

The inscriptional work of Séamus Murphy [442] was partly influenced by the work of Gill, with whom he corresponded on the subject of monument letter-forms (Séamus Murphy, p. 52). In an article on Letter Cutting (1944), Murphy was critical of the lack of ‘good lettering’, particularly in the Irish cemeteries (ibid., p. 51). He decried the use of mechanical processes for the carving of inscriptions, favouring the individuality that results from the hand of the craftsman and giving as an example the work of George Jacks (design) and William Donoghue (carving) on The Heroes Column (1920/21, Johnstown Puce marble) [443] in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork. Murphy himself carved a vast number of memorial inscriptions, which have helped to redeem cemeteries throughout the country. His lettering, on well-proportioned stones, is harmoniously laid out (often painted a terracotta colour) and accompanied by a finely carved motif [see 220]. Murphy recommended working in situ, rather than in the workshop, in order that ‘the scale, weight and effects of the light’ are properly considered and that legibility is ensured (ibid., p. 52).

443. George Jacks and William Donoghue, The Heroes Column, 1920s, marble, St Fin Barres Cathedral Cork. © The Dean and Chapter of St Fin Barres Cathedral.

The present writer (qv) was invited, after Séamus Murphy’s death in 1975, to carve his name on the family tombstone in Rathcooney Cemetery, Cork, and subsequently to carve the inscription on the new Cork City Archive Centre, which was dedicated to Murphy (2007). Also influenced by Eric Gill, by way of his daughter and son-in-law, Joan and René Hague, the writer subscribes to Gill’s view that art, whether applied or decorative, is essentially about making things. It is interesting to identify the subtle, even charming, modifications that each letter cutter’s personality brings to what might seem as the unyielding discipline of classical Roman letter-forms. This expresses itself in a natural exuberance, especially when cutting less formal inscriptions, where a certain playfulness is appropriate. There is a tendency in some contemporary letter-forms towards an unpleasing ‘arty’ quality.

Michael Biggs, who worked slowly and painstakingly at his craft, carried out many inscriptional works, among which are the lettering on the Thomas Davis memorial in College Green, the Garda Memorial in the Phoenix Park and the Custom House Memorial, Dublin (for which he was paid £175 in the mid-1950s (Custom House Memorial file, OPW D51: 6/1/46)). However, his most noted and acclaimed carving is the inscription in Ardbraccan limestone of the 1916 Proclamation [444], in both English and Irish, which forms a wall at Arbour Hill, Dublin, above the grave of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising. Biggs cut the lettering between 1959 and 1963.

444. Design OPW architects carving Michael Biggs Arbour Hill Memorial Ardbraccan limestone with carved lettering gold paint, 1964. Image courtesy OPW State Art Collection

The work of Shane Cullen (qv) bears some resemblance to Biggs’s wall of text. Cullen’s monumental work The Agreement (2002) is a historical/political text comprising the words of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement (1998). The 11,500 words were carved mechanically, in classical serif typeface, into 56 polyurethane (mock stone) panels, which were ten feet high and 67 metres long. First exhibited in Belfast at the Golden Thread Gallery in 2002, it was subsequently shown in Dublin, where it took the form of an installation in a vast industrial space in the docklands.

The work of past generations of stone cutters and letterers reveals the immense skill and labour involved in the handling of what is an intractable material. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, while there remain clients, in the form of the Church, public bodies, architects or private individuals, who care about fine lettering and who commission work, a relatively small number of sculptors have remained interested in pursuing a career in letter carving in Ireland. Brian Fallon noted in 1991 that there were few people at the time who had ‘mastered the art of lettering’ (IT, 8 August 1991). That lettering has a particular association with religion, and that letterers, such as Biggs and Murphy, were expressing something of their faith in this aspect of their sculptural work, may explain the falling numbers of practitioners of the craft. Thomas Glendon (qv), who carved the familiar radio telefís éireann (granite) in gaelic script in front of the radio and television station at Montrose, Dublin, and inscriptions on other well-known buildings, is one among the dwindling number of letter cutters. Glendon had served as an assistant to Biggs in the late 1960s.

Ada K. Longfield (Leask) in Some Irish Churchyard Sculpture (Ballycotton, Co. Cork, 1974) noted that the practice of erecting headstones in graveyards did not develop until the eighteenth century. She identified Dennis Cullen of Monaseed, Co. Wexford, as the first carver in the eighteenth century to sign headstones that have distinctively individualistic relief work and ‘remarkably graceful’ lettering (Longfield, p. 12). Anonymity often befell these stone carvers, as a result of the absence of a signature, or damage to the monument by weathering or the growth of lichens. Séamus Murphy used the conversations between ‘stonies’ in Stone Mad, to identify some of the problems encountered by stone carvers – the paucity of good letterers: ‘And the lettering! Show me the man today who could cut letters like Ned Draddy’; the neglect of work carried out by stone cutters: ‘That job was put up by subscription and it has an inscription in Irish, English an’ Ogham… And now it’s all falling down’; and the poor pay: question ‘And how much wages have you now?; answer ‘Wisha, nothing. We do it for the love of the trade’ (Stone Mad, London, 1986, pp. 176, 179).  

SELECTED READING Séamus Murphy, ‘Letter Cutting’, The Bell, vol. 7, February 1944, published as ‘Letter Carving’, in Peter Murray (ed.), Séamus Murphy 1907–1975 Sculptor, Kinsale, Co. Cork 2007, pp. 51–53; Timothy O’Neill, The Irish Hand, Portlaoise, 1984.

The Royal Irish Academy has kindly granted permission to Sculpture Dublin to reproduce a number of texts from Sculpture 1600-2000, Volume 3 in the Royal Irish Academy’s 5-volume publication Art and Architecture of Ireland (Yale, 2014). The book, edited by Paula Murphy, comprises introductory essays, biographies and thematic essays.