Martin Andrews: stiff type
Letters of memorial: letterforms on coffin plates recovered from the vaults of St Marylebone Church, London
People involved with typeface design and interested in letterforms are unlikely to have thought of nineteenth century burial and memorial practices as a rich source of diverse, inventive and decorative design. Over the last century we have tended to shy away from the reality of death, and funeral arrangements have become clinical and lacking in aesthetic values. Aside from the timely revival of hand-cut lettering in recent years, most memorial stones reveal a norm of crude, debased lettering, mechanical and lifeless in design and execution.
Yet in the eighteenth century, John Baskerville cut letters on tombstones, and Thomas Bewick regularly lettered coffin plates as part of his everyday work as a trade engraver. And in the nineteenth century, the monied classes saw death as an opportunity to display wealth and status, and ostentatious display and indulgence in fashion accompanied the black gloom of mourning. New styles of letterform and type design were quickly reflected in the lettering used on coffin plates, tombstones and the memorials, which line our church walls and are found on the silent structures in cemeteries.
In the early 1980s, the department of typography and graphic communication at the University of Reading was given a collection of about 1200 coffin plates. These have already proved valuable for research into the development and dating of letterforms in the first half of the nineteenth century. The coffin plates all came from the vaults of St Marylebone Parish Church in London. In 1983 the sealed vaults at the church were opened and cleared for building work to convert the space for community use. On opening, the vaults were found to be densely packed with coffins, many of which disintegrated when disturbed. Undertakers relocated the human remains and the coffin plates were carefully collected and brought to Reading.
The vaults were in use from 1817, when the church was consecrated, to 1853 when they were sealed up. The collection is something of a ‘time capsule’, reflecting the style and fashion of a defined period of time and social group – and the material is very accurately dated. The building was constructed at the time that John Nash was designing Regent’s Park and is opposite the park’s main entrance, York Gate. The congregation largely consisted of the inhabitants of the wealthy residential areas around the park, including Portland Place and Devonshire Terrace; the titles on many of the coffin plates indicate the social status of those interred. Those who could afford it preferred to be interred in vaults rather than buried, partly to escape the grave robbers, who supplied bodies to the medical profession, and also because graveyards were overcrowded. The cost of internment in a vault created prestige and provided a welcome income for the Church.
The plates date from 1801 and are made from a variety of materials: brass, copper, zinc, lead and tin. The different metals reflect the different functions of the plates, and the status and wealth of the deceased. For a basic funeral, a simple lead plate would be lettered with the name, date of death and often the age of the departed, and nailed to the lid of a wooden coffin. But the high status of the congregation of St Marylebone meant that most of the wooden coffins contained lead inner coffins and these too had inscriptions – sometimes cut directly into the lead of the coffin or, more commonly, into separate lead plates which were soldered on. Once located on shelves in the vaults or stacked one on top of each other as the vaults became overcrowded, it became impossible to read the plates on the lid. Small ‘labels’ made of lead and inscribed with the minimum of information were nailed to the foot or head of the coffin for identification.
Expensive wooden coffins were sometimes covered in velvet or cambric, over which would be nailed the formal coffin plate (often referred to as a breastplate). Professionally engraved, this was the most prestigious form and a focus of attention, so needed to be the most decorative. Produced in many shapes, sizes and metals, the most common was the brass trapezium form. For an adult coffin, the height of the plate was around 400 mms. These very visible breastplates display an amazing array of decorative letterforms. The plates on the lead inner coffin and the lead labels were either concealed or attached after the internment and tend to be cruder in execution and use the common script of the day. These often show a vitality and naïve flourish that is missing in the more intricate and formal breastplates.
The quality of work on the formal breastplates shows that it was the work of professional trade engravers. The techniques involved were similar to any other kind of engraving and coffin plates were a source of regular work. Some advertisements show that engraving was offered in-house by the undertaker and it is possible that the cruder lead plates and labels were cut by an employee with a good writing hand. A trade card of around 1800 in the John Johnson Collection of printed ephemera at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, shows that women did this work as well as men – one Margaret Smith advertising her occupation as a ‘chaser’ of coffin plates.
Engraving was not the only method of producing lettering. Etching was also used, but also methods with no relation to intaglio techniques. In the collection from St Marylebone there are examples of decoration and lettering that have been stamped from the back into thin sheets of tin; occasionally the letters are formed by lines of dots punched into the metal. One example has letters stamped or cut out of a thin sheet of lead and then stuck onto the plate in relief. On other plates, individual letters have been stamped into the soft lead by a lettered punch, very precisely cut in the style of type. Very often, intaglio letterforms have been filled with a bituminous black material to enhance legibility.
But what was the source of all these diverse letterforms? One book that had an enormous influence on lettering style in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was The Universal Penman by George Bickham. Published in parts from 1733 to 1741, when it was issued as a complete book, it was a compendium of samples of lettering from some twenty-five contemporary penmen, some by the author himself. Bickham also engraved most of the plates. It included lettering designed for a variety of purposes, and layouts for billheads and business documents. It established a stylistic tradition that lasted well into the nineteenth century. Reprinted many times, The Universal Penman became a well-used source and copybook for engravers.
The most frequent letterform used on breastplates is a style that Bickham entitles ‘Roman Print’. Characterised by the marked contrast of thick and thin strokes, pronounced serifs which sometimes show slight bracketing or none at all, and a strong vertical stress, this letter imitates printing type more than handwriting. It anticipates the typeface of Baskerville and the modern faces such as Bodoni which were well-established by the time that the coffin plates were engraved. The delicacy of the thins and hairline serifs was the natural result of the engraver’s tool, and the basic letterform has been embellished and played upon with shadow effects and patterns as the engraver’s imagination took over. This patterning can obscure the pure shape of the letter but, if filled in, some of these letterforms are exaggerated and become similar to the popular fat face types introduced by Robert Thorne in 1810. Engravers had again anticipated this letterform before it appeared as metal type, but it is to been seen in a mature form on many incised tombstones of the period. Being hand drawn, letters often vary in width and become expanded or condensed to fit the space available. Other inconsistencies are common and there are one or two examples in which the bowl of the lowercase g has been engraved in reverse – a typical error of the engraver, who has to letter backwards, and perhaps is not so expert as a calligrapher.
Bickman’s Roman Print was accompanied by an Italick Print and this often appears in a plain form, similar to an italic type. On many of the coffin plates, in upper case, a sloped Roman is used, frequently in a decorated form. Closely related to the italic, but a distinctly different form, is the ‘Round Hand’. This is commonly referred to as copperplate, and the connection with engraving is obvious, but the letterform also has a natural affinity to the fine point and flexible spreading of the pen nib. Engraved on the brass and copper breastplates it is rather stiff and formal; but it is also the letterform most commonly used on the lead plates, in a much more lively and crude style. The most obvious and fascinating aspect of the letter incised in lead is the cutting technique used. Rather than a flowing incision, these letters have been produced by a series of blows from a chisel, giving a pronounced ‘stepped’ or staccato effect. Varying the depth and strength of the blow produces the natural swelling and tapering of the letter. The result is a letterform full of unique character. At this more informal level, and in particular when the plate was not seen, it would have been unnecessary to employ a trade engraver and the appealing naivete of some of the plates suggests that this kind of lettering was done by one of the workers employed by the undertaker. Lead being soft, much less skill was needed to produce a satisfactory result.
Today we tend to associate nineteenth century mourning with rather theatrical Gothic lettering, and indeed variations on Bickman’s ‘Old English Print’ and ‘German Text’ are frequently used on the breastplates. Other letterforms reflect in a more direct way the new printing typefaces that were popular at the time. Heavier letters with thick, strong bracketed serifs show a growing taste for Clarendon type, particularly evident in the use of numerals. There are examples of slab serifs, often referred to as Antique or Egyptian, with hardly any bracketing at all, which are virtually monoline letterforms. These letters are particularly noticeable on the lead plates or labels that have been stamped with steel punches rather than engraved. The sans-serif letter, first issued as a type by the Caslon Foundry in 1816, begins to be used on plates from this collection from around the 1830s, in both a plain solid form and in outline shapes, which are then patterned. Finally, the flourishing of purely display typefaces in the nineteenth century is paralleled by the use of Tuscan letterforms on plates. These are rich in ornamentation with bifurcated serifs, swirling curls and bulbous projections.
The craftsmen and women who produced these letterforms were following fashions rather than leading them. But the St Marylebone collection tells us something about how the changing tastes in typefaces and letterforms spread, and the speed in which they came into general use. Most of the formal breastplates show the use of a wide range of differing letterforms – changing lettering style from line to line rather as title-pages and posters did at that period. Many have more flowing layouts, with some lines of text curved and surrounded by intertwining swirls and flourishes, showing off the skills of the engraver as did the writing masters such as Bickham on the title-pages of their manuals. A study of the coffin plates also confirms how central tools and materials are to the development of particular letterforms.
This article would not have been possible without reference to the excellent undergraduate dissertation on the Marylebone collection of coffin plates written by Bryony Newhouse, who did so much in organising and documenting the collection, in 1996 – now in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading. I would like to thank Roger Kent, and also the Centre for Ephemera Studies and the University Library at Reading for permission to reproduce material from their collections.
Martin Andrews teaches printing history at Reading University.