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Nicolete Gray and women in lettering

10/01/2013

It was two years ago that I first mentioned Nicolete Gray, writing then that I would have more to say about her (see here). Well, finally I do!

Today there are many accomplished and brilliant lettering artists and typographers. In the field of letter carving in the UK there’s Brenda Berman and Annet Stirling at Incisive Letterwork. I am sure you can think of many others now active in typographer and graphic design – please let me know. However, back in the 1940s and on it is true to say that women were not often noted (or noticed perhaps) in the field. There were exceptions, and Nicolete Gray (1911-1997) was foremost among them.

She was an historian of lettering as well as a practitioner, and among the projects she completed (in partnership with John Skelton – whose daughter Helen Mary is also an excellent lettering artist) was the one illustrated here, made out of wood to commemorate Shakespeare in 1964. Nicolette Gray shakespeare

Writing about the piece she says: ‘The work is interesting, I hope, as an experiment in the sort of expressionism particularly suited to lettering…I wanted my letters to work at different depths and, as it were, to wear different clothes…As I read the poets and tried to understand their place in their time, their names took on shapes and the letters in them characteristics: Christopher Marlowe with his great R’s striding across the wood, like Tamburlaine over the map of the world…shakespeare and Nicolette GrayAnd Shakespeare himself? One thinks not of him, but of the people he created. He is Protean, impossible to grasp.; I found that I was trying, as I carved each letter, to express something of his immense revelation of all the depths and delights known to human consciousness. So some of the letters are in boisterous relief,; some gay; some, like the last A and R, cut as harsh, ruthless forms through the surface cherry wood down to layers of dark rosewood and ebony.’ [From Expressionist Lettering in Calligraphy and Palaeography, 1965, Faber and Faber.)

For an obituary of Gray see here (from The Independent newspaper).

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