A Living Tradition

In a special guest post, Sarah Harrison, Executive Director of the Lettering Arts Centre, writes about how Britain’s tradition of memorial art and letter-carving is being kept alive.

As W.H. Auden wrote, “art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” And the art of the memorial, with its powers to help assuage the sense of loss, is perhaps the most important way in which one generation can break bread with another.

Britain has an extraordinary tradition of memorial art and letter-carving and has been a pioneer of fine lettering for much of the last three centuries. The ancient art of the stone carver continues to be passed down to contemporary artists, who are designing and making joyful, creative memorials. Memorials by Artists is an affiliation of more than 75 of the UK’s foremost letter carvers under the auspices of the Lettering & Commemorative Arts Trust, a charity which champions Britain’s rich heritage in the art of lettering.  Founded in 1988 to help with the commissioning of beautifully lettered memorials, they guide clients to skilled artists across the UK who can design and create a memorial that is personal, unique and a work of art.

The skills of the master letter carver raise what can be a drab, semi-industrial product to the level of art. No machine can match the subtlety of the trained hand and eye in making the slight adjustments in spacing which bring an inscription to life. It is a form of ‘visual poetry’ as Dr Jonathan Foyle wrote in his article on letter carving in The Financial Times.

Every aspect of the memorial, the shape of the stone, the style and spacing of the inscription, the decoration and carving are elements which work together to make a single statement, at the heart of which is the inscription itself.

Reinvigorated by craftsmen

The skills required for letter carving are hard won – the design, drawing and layout of letters take years to master. The UK has led the world in this craft in the past century, since it was reinvigorated by craftsmen like Eric Gill (pictured below) under the influence of the calligrapher Edward Johnston. The artists on the Memorials by Artists register are rigorously selected, submitting their work to a panel of distinguished experts so that only the most talented are listed.  The advisors at the Lettering Arts Trust are familiar with all the artists’ works, so that they can match client with artist.

Eric_Gill_-_self_portrait

Once an artist has been selected, client and artist collaborate closely, often using photographs, favourite texts and reminiscences to inform the design of the memorial. One of the most important skills an experienced artist offers, is the ability to help the client whittle down the layers of memories to find the most important elements to inspire and inform the design.  This process should not be rushed and the best artists demonstrate enormous patience and sympathy. Over the ensuing months, clients will often visit the studio to see how the memorial is progressing. When it is completed, the finished work will be professionally installed at its chosen site.  This gentle and intimate process; the empathy between the artist and the client; the completion and installation help to bridge the emotional journey from grief to commemoration.

As one client wrote of her experience commissioning a memorial, “The artist’s workshop was a revelation, and I was able to take my time. I was immediately aware of the great quality of the artist’s work and his wide range of approaches, choice of material and use of lettering. Every time I visit my husband’s grave I feel happy – happy memories of getting him a headstone I love, and he would have loved and happy memories of the whole experience, that took part at the lowest time in my life.”

The Great War

Not all memorials are traditional headstones.  One family commissioned a memorial bench for their garden to commemorate family members who lost their lives in the Great War. They wrote to the artist, “I don’t know how to thank for your brilliance in producing such a magnificent memorial to the children’s forebears.  The seat and your matchless stone-cutting are things of real beauty which, God willing, the children and the generations that follow them will admire and wonder over.  Thank you so very much.”

To commission a memorial, please visit www.memorialsbyartists.co.uk email advice@letteringartstrust.org.uk telephone 01728 688 934

To find out more about the work of the Lettering Arts Trust, its programme of lettering exhibitions and education, please visit www.letteringartstrust.org.uk. The charity is a custodian of the ‘Art & Memory’ collection, a permanent collection of contemporary memorial art in five major sites – Birmingham, Bristol, Perthshire, Canterbury and Suffolk, the home of the Trust.

 

 

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