Michael Harvey’s opinions

Michael Harvey was always candid about his likes and dislikes in the overlapping worlds of calligraphy, lettering, lettercutting and type design. At the same time, he was very gentlemanly about them. Sometimes he kept them to himself or voiced them privately to friends and colleagues, such as myself. At other times he uttered them in public but always in such a way that there was no sense of meanness or rancor, just opinions borne of experience and long reflection.

One of the things that disappointed me about Adventures with Letters is that it did not have as many of these opinions as I had hoped for. They were all pushed to the back of the book in a Postscript where they felt crammed together and unfinished. Recently, while writing a tribute to Michael for publication in Codex 4, I re-read re-reading Adventures and found myself enjoying those opinions anew—and once again wishing for more.

While I cannot reprint the entire Postscript due to copyright restrictions, I can highlight a few of Michael’s opinions here. For the full text I urge Blue Pencil readers to buy a copy of Adventures with Letters. There is more to the book than examples of excellent lettering and type designs.

Without further ado, here are seven thoughts by Michael (with a few comments by me), in the order in which they appear in Adventures with Letters:

1.—Models should be chosen with care, with simple clarity, free from unnecessary historical details. A model is not an end but a beginning. Copying a good model is a good start, particularly when practicing writing with similar pens and materials that were used in the originals. The student will gain insights, into how letters were originally made of [sic], and later translated into type characters.

2.—No matter how much one tries to reproduce another person’s style we add something of ourselves.

3.—Teachers used to insist on students copying the models they set, but they now claim that copying the work of others will ‘stilt their creativity’. Of course this is nonsense! If someone’s work excites you, then copy it. Something will remain that is a part of your own style, though style is a tricky word. What others recognise as ‘your style’ is simply what has grown over the years. Never set out to create a ‘style’ as that will always look contrived.

4.—There is no ideal or perfect letter, but then there never was. Platonic idealism in letterforms is nonsense! [Michael was a big fan of Nicolete Gray and this thought is in tune with her entire body of writing. See especially her books Lettering as Drawing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972) and A History of Lettering (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1986).]

5.—Paramount in any use of letters—whether drawn, written, carved or printed—is design.

6.—Designing a book jacket is similar to designing a stage set. [Coincidentally, the German American book jacket designer George Salter worked as a theatrical designer during his German years.]

7.—Lettering on buildings should reflect the architectural or historical style of the building…. A building is an individual construction so it deserves purpose-designed lettering. [This is another thought that is in sync with the writings of Nicolete Gray. See her book Lettering on Buildings (London: The Architectural Press, 1960).]