Second year at art school. Left to right; Del (Derek)? Mick Loats, below, Ricky Mann and myself aged 16/17. Mick Loates went on to become a successful nature painter.
My first year at Sidcup School of Art was fairly formal. We were introduced to: illustration, wood engraving, screen printing, etching, lithography and the first naked young women I had ever seen in my life at the evening life drawing classes. It was all very English and traditional and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
A year later we and Beckenham College of Art were merged and absorbed by Ravensbourne College of Art and Design and we were moved from Sidcup to Bromley. Ravensbourne had a strong modernist tradition, Bauhaus and the new Swiss typography were great influences on the school’s graphic design teaching. There were also life drawing classes, a print shop where we learnt to set metal type, and photography and darkroom classes. It was a brilliant second year; the teaching staff were dedicated, enthusastic and highly thought of. I thrived.
One teacher there, Ralph Beyer, taught lettering. He had been an assistant of Eric Gill the designer of Gill Sans and recently had become successful due to the large stone panels he had carved in Coventry Cathedral. I showed a lot of promise in the lettering class and could draw letters fairly easily. He asked me if I would do some freelance work for him and I agreed. I think he paid me 7s 6d an hour. He did a lot of big stone carved inscriptions for foundation and commemorative stones for hospitals, libraries and public buildings, often opened by the Queen or The Lord Mayor of London. He hated drawing the letters out on tracing paper and it was my task to prepare the final drawing for him. He gave me an alphabet that he had designed for that particular commission along with the dimensions, it was laborious work setting out the text and getting the spacing correct, and then filling in the letter with ink. The long roll of paper on the floor either side of the kitchen table made it difficult to see all the text in one go. I remember one of about 20 feet, so long there was nowhere big enough to unroll it, eventually we pegged it on his washing line! He would transfer the letters I had drawn, by rubbing chalk on the back of the paper, then tracing them onto the stone. I worked for him off and on throughout my college years which was a great antidote to the strict Swiss typography we were taught, I gained an invaluable knowledge of the underlying structure of letterforms. It was a great contrast, the Swiss typography with its use of grid, structure and hierarchy, a total rational approach devoid of all emotion and the letters of Ralph, full of spirit and emotion and the energy of his favourite designer, Rudolf Koch. I would say that Ralph had the single greatest individual effect on my early career as a designer.
Ralph taught me how to space letters the way Eric Gill had taught him. I started by drawing two parallel lines, baseline and capital height, (Ralph never used lowercase) and traced his letters off onto the tracing paper. For a long time I was not allowed to infill the letters directly with ink. I would fill the space in the counters of the letters and between them very evenly in pencil, and keeping within the parallel lines. The purpose was to fill in the negative spaces making sure that the spaces were visually the same. When I had achieved an eveness of visual tone along the lengths of the lines of texts, neither too light a tone or too dark an area. Ralph then checked it and if the spacing was even I then filled in the letters and rubbed out the pencil. One day, after I done a dozen or more, he said that I did not need to use the pencil any more, just ink in the letters directly, but still in my head I saw the grey visual spaces in and between the letters. Today when I’m designing a typeface I am still very conscious of this. For me there is no negetive or positive space, if both spaces are equally and well balanced then the letter itself will be ok.