Michael Harvey’s Teaching Notebooks 1983–1995, part 1

The last time that I talked to Michael Harvey was via a series of email exchanges in the fall of 2012 in connection with his autobiography, Adventures with Letters: A Memoir*. Earlier in the year I had orchestrated a preview of A Life with Letters, its original title, in Codex 2 and for Imprint; and in September I had reviewed  the book upon its publication for Eye magazine (no. 84). Michael’s response to the review was succinct but satisfying: “What a good piece!” He was surprised and gratified that Eye allowed my references to jazz, something that was dear to his heart, to remain even as they requested I trim my original text.

It was in the course of reading the chapter on teaching in Michael’s memoir that I recalled how much I had always enjoyed seeing his teaching notes. I don’t remember exactly when I first saw him preparing such notes, but I know that it was while we were traveling on a train together, perhaps from Dorset to London or maybe in Europe during an ATypI conference (either 1993 Antwerp or 1996 The Hague). Michael wrote and drew in small, unlined notebooks without any preliminary preparation, using either a ballpoint pen or a fiber-tipped pen. His commentary or ideas were always in black, but his drawings—of all manner of lettering—were often in colors of varying hues, apparently depending either on what he had  available or perhaps on whim, as well as black. I marveled at how beautiful the pages were, how neat and yet unstudied they were.

I think the notebook pages encapsulate Michael in many ways. They are precise but casual; concise but rich. In them his thinking about letters (and designing with letters) is boiled down. In his notes for a workshop in Washington, DC in 1987 he compares Jane Austen’s writing to English lettering (which, I would argue, included his own work):

Jane Austen’s writing the epitome of good English—clarity, well-formed sentences, elegance etc. English (British) lettering legible, well-shaped letters, elegant.
Sense Respect for language,  the meaning of words. Words organised [sic] into articulate groups.
Sensibility classical, well-proportioned letterforms. Subtle spacing, refined.
British To attract a large audience!

In the chapter on teaching in Adventures with Letters, Michael reproduced seventeen pages of his teaching notes, most of them from his classes in the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading. Seeing them got me excited and I asked him in the spring of 2012 if he would be willing to scan all of the teaching notes that he had so that I could post them as a blog on my website. He readily agreed and I am sad that it took his passing to spur me to finally carry through my idea. At least they will serve as another tribute to Michael.

Michael’s notebooks served as summaries of his thinking for a given class or workshop as well as thumbnails for his demonstrations. He referred to them as he effortlessly drew letters on a blackboard with chalk or on large sheets of butcher paper using markers. The letters were inscriptional, calligraphic and typographic. Some were dimensional with shadows, outlining and shading. Others were stencilled, decorative or cameo. Sometimes his letters were accompanied by accomplished drawings of the tools involved in their making: chisels and mallets; knives and gravers; pencils, pens, brushes and markers.

Michael Harvey teaching Letterforms class at Department of Typography and Graphic Communication, University of Reading (n.d.).

Michael Harvey teaching Letterforms class in the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication, University of Reading (1990s).

The notebooks are reminiscent of the books that Michael wrote:

Lettering Design: Form and Skill in the Design and Use of Letters (London: Bodley Head, 1975)
Creative Lettering, Drawing and Design (London: Bodley Head, 1985)
Carving Letters in Stone and Wood (London: Bodley Head, 1987)
Calligraphy in the Graphic Arts (London: Bodley Head, 1988)
Creative Lettering Today (London: A. & C. Black, 1996)—a compilation of the three previous books.

Like them, they are a seamless integration of text and illustration. But the handwritten nature of the notebooks makes them feel more organic and intimate than the typeset books.

Reproduced here are notebooks from 1983 to 1995. There are none from his years teaching at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design and none from his final years at the University of Reading from which he retired in 2001. The first notebook is from Chicago Calligraphy ’83, the third annual American calligraphy conference. It was Michael’s first workshop in the United States. (I had brought him to New York a year or so before that to lecture on his life as a book jacket designer, but not to teach lettering.) He was a huge success and thereafter he became a fixture at the conferences for the next decade plus. The remaining notebooks are principally from other workshops for American and Canadian calligraphic societies. But there are also some from workshops in England and Italy, from talks he gave at ATypI conferences, and from his early years at the University of Reading.

CHICAGO 1983 : Chicago Calligraphy ’83
Selected pages from Michael’s notebook for a week long class in designing book jackets.

Chicago Calligraphy 1983#1

In Michael’s notes on the possibilities of designing book jackets note the final one: “CHOICES—To find the most suitable or appropriate form—what looks & feels right.”

Chicago Calligraphy 1983#4

Chicago Calligraphy 1983#5

Chicago Calligraphy 1983#6

Michael’s examples came from real jobs. TP is from a logo he designed for the Thimble Press while Signal was the title of a publication he lettered for. The book titles are ones that he had done for various publishers (e.g. Machado de Assis for Bodley Head).

Chicago Calligraphy 1983#7

Chicago Calligraphy 1983#8

Chicago Calligraphy 1983#9

The series of small lowercase ab monograms show Michael running through some basic possibilities: 1. italic forms where a and b have much in common; 2. roman forms where a and b contrast; and 3. modifications of the roman forms of a (tail deleted) and b (spur deleted) so that they harmonize yet retain some individuality. Below that he has roughed in some thick-and-thin to give the design even more personality.

Chicago Calligraphy 1983#10

The arrows indicate parts of letterforms that need optical adjustment (e.g. that horizontal strokes need to be slightly thinner than vertical ones, and that curves need to thin out at junctures).

Chicago Calligraphy 1983#11

I don’t know what the UL stands for. I assume the small image is a pawn, but perhaps it is a religious symbol.

These notebooks are from a series of workshops Michael taught on the West Coast of the United States and Canada in 1984. The topic was Creative Lettering. The workshops were sponsored by the Friends of Calligraphy in San Francisco, Valley Calligraphy Guild in Eugene, Write On Calligraphers in Olympia and the Westcoast Calligraphy Society in Vancouver.


San Francisco – Creative Lettering Workshop#1

“Drawing controls the edge of letters.” For Michael drawing was always at the heart of his work as a lettering artist, letter carver and type designer. He was not a calligrapher—as he was often at great pains to stress. But he could mimic calligraphy with great skill.

San Francisco – Creative Lettering Workshop#2

Stage 3 of the second day of the workshop involved drawing a capital alphabet. Michael has grouped the letters to bring out their common characteristics: the vertical/horizontal stroke group (I L E F T H), the diagonal stroke group (V W X Y K A), a group with vertical, horizontal and diagonal strokes (N M Z), the round group (O Q C G D), a group with curves (P B R S), and the difficult U J pair. (I don’t know why he did not include N, M and Z in the second group or split off Y, K and A to join them in the third group.) Illustrations of how some of these letters relate to each other are on the right-hand page along with suggestions for alternate forms of a few letters such as uncial E and curved legs for K and R and a double-curved tail for Q. The sketch of serif options is a theme that Michael constantly explored.

San Francisco – Creative Lettering Workshop#3 Some subtle adjustments to letters to change them from formal to informal.


Eugene – Creative Lettering Workshop#15

Michael constantly tinkered with the content of his workshops. Notice that he changed his mind about having the participants design a monogram. And this time he introduced a bookplate as a design assignment.

Eugene – Creative Lettering Workshop#2

Michael designed the logo for John Neal, Bookseller, a major supplier of calligraphic tools, materials and books.


Olympia 1984 – Creative Lettering Workshop#1

The B A M at the bottom of the right-hand page is typical of Michael’s lettering. He was always interested in negative letterforms as well as positive ones. Drawing letters from the inside out was one of his favorite exercises.

Olympia 1984 – Creative Lettering Workshop#2

Olympia 1984 – Creative Lettering Workshop#3

Michael’s experience as a lettercarver working in three dimensions always influenced his lettering. He was constantly fascinated by adding shading, shadows and outlines to letters to give them more body, more presence. Several variations in this direction are shown on the right-hand page. (The passport reference may be a note to himself prior to his travel from Olympia, Washington to Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada.)

Olympia 1984 – Creative Lettering Workshop#4

Olympia 1984 – Creative Lettering Workshop#5

During some of Michael’s travels he was asked to give a lecture to go with his workshop. Note the two English jacket designers that he cites: Berthold Wolpe (1905—1989) and Hans Tisdall (1910–1997). Along with Michael, they were the dominant figures doing handlettered book jackets: Wolpe largely for Faber & Faber and Tisdall for many publishers, but especially Jonathan Cape. Michael was a great admirer of Tisdall’s jackets and wrote about him for Baseline 37 (2002) and designed a typeface based on his distinctive lettering, Tisdall Script (Fine Fonts, 2006).


Vancouver  1984 – Creative Lettering#1

“Catich” on the right-hand page refers to Father Edward M. Catich, the signwriter turned priest who promoted the theory that the Imperial Roman capitals were written with a flexible, broad-edged brush prior to being carved into stone.

Vancouver  1984 – Stone & Letters#1

“Stone & Letters” refers to another lecture by Michael, this time on Reynolds Stone, his mentor. John Sparrow (1906–1992) was an academic and the author of Visible Words: A Study of Inscriptions in and as Works of Art (1969); SM refers to Stanley Morison (1889–1967), a patron of Stone’s; and David J. to David Jones (1895–1974), a poet and artist who had learned lettering from Eric Gill. For more on his visual work see The Painted Inscriptions of David Jones by Nicolete Gray (London: Gordon Fraser, 1980). “Hated change, especially to The / TImes… / Victorian / carving for SM” refers to Stone.

*Adventures with Letters: A Memoir by Michael Harvey (Bridport, England: 47 Editions, 2012) is available in the United Kingdom from Phil Abel at Hand & Eye Letterpress, 6 Pinchin Street, London E1 1SA. Email: phil@handandeye.co.uk; and in the United States from John Neal Bookseller at 1 800-369-9598 or johnnealbooks.com.