Tag Archives: David Kindersley

Roman Capitals

ada9a09acea936d776a6f55c82778c43_LLettering at the base of Trajan’s Column at one end of Trajan’s Forum in Rome is regarded by many as one of the best example of Roman Capitals. These majestical letters, with beautiful proportions, are one of the purest guides for any who want to study the proportions of Roman Capitals. On a recent trip to Rome, I was determined to take the best photograph I could of this block of lettering. For many years this Forum was closed for restoration (it is the other side of the road to the main Forum), but I had read that Trajan’s Forum was now open and so I could stand in front of the column and get a good shot.


Lettering at the base of Trajan's ColumnGood fortune was clearly not smiling on me, as when we were there it was closed yet again, with no date for re-opening, and this was the best photograph of the lettering I was able to get – not what I had planned at all, and only from a side angle. The letters are not narrow as they look here, but grand and rounded. Notice also the way in which a later roof for a porch of an access door has been cut into the last line of the lettering. Interestingly, which you may just be able to make out here, the height of the letters on the top line is greater than the next, and so on until the bottom line. This is because the letters were designed to be viewed from the ground, and by having larger letters at the top, they would look all the same.

Triumphal Arch of SeptimiusThere are examples of stunning Roman Capitals all over Rome (including all the modern street names). This is the triumphal Arch of Septimius, just across the road from Trajan’s Forum in the main Forum. It is best viewed, as here, by not going into the Forum itself, but climbing up the path behind the Vittorio Emmanuel monument. The letters were originally bronze and you can make out in close-up the small round darker areas which indicate the attaching pins.

Lettering on one of the tombs in the Via Appia, RomeUndaunted by inaccessibility to Trajan’s Column, I knew that there were really good examples of Roman lettering attached to the tombs along the Via Appia, some way out of the city centre and a long walk, but certainly worth a visit. This is just one example. The letters are beautifully cut in marble, and generally their proportions are good – although the letter N is rather too wide in most examples. However, spacing is not always as good as the letter-forms, lines 9 and 11 being examples of letters pushed too tightly together. David Kindersley, the great letter-cutter, used to say that a bad space is worse than a bad letter. See my Calligraphy Clips on spacing.

Pantheon, RomeThe Pantheon, the temple to all gods, has some majestical Roman lettering along the top of it. From this you can see how wonderfully clear the letter-forms are. We were standing quite a long way away yet it is clear that Agrippa was involved and it was made (FECIT)!



Rome street signEven road signs around building sites look good in Rome when Roman Capitals are used, but if we’re also looking at spacing, slightly blur your eyes. The ROM is fine, but perhaps the letter ‘A’ is slightly too far to the right. It is the ‘PIT’, though, in the middle of ‘Capitale’ which really stands out. The letters ‘I’ and ‘T’ need to be further to the right, and join up more with ‘ALE’. But this is being really picky when such a good use is made of this wonderful lettering style.


Diagram of Roman CapitalsSo what are the proportions for Roman Capitals shown in all these examples? Allowing for the fact that letters need to breath, and don’t always conform, generally speaking the letters in Roman Capitals are regarded as being based on a circle that can be encased within a square, as shown here. Obviously the letter O is that circle, and Q too with its tail (notice it poking out to the right). The letters C, D, and G are also formed from parts of that circle. You can trace them with your finger over the red lines.


Asymmetrical letters, then, are narrower, and the width of half of a square, as shown on the left of the diagram. These are B, E, F, J, K, L, P, R and S.

The odds are the letters I and W. Obviously the letter I is a vertical line. The Romans, very sensibly, had nothing to do with the letter W and it is an awkward letter. Nowadays it is regarded as two very slightly narrower Vs.

HCA Awards logoTo see how Roman Capitals can be made to sing, look at this wonderful example of lettering from Tom Perkins for the Heritage Crafts Awards. THIS is how Roman Capitals should look when they are made into a distinctive personal style.

But lettering should not have a rigid a straight jacket, but room to allow it to breath, so the letter R has a tail that sensibly extends beyond that half a square and the top bowl is larger than that of the letter P, the top and bottom bowls of the letters S and B are not equal in size, and so on. Studying the proportions of Roman Capitals is a good first step, but keeping rigidly to them is not the best second step!

Books you might find useful:

Patricia Lovett, The British Library Companion to Calligraphy, Illumination and Heraldry

Patricia Lovett, The Historical Source Book for Scribes

Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley, The Annotated Capital

Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley, Letters Slate Cut

Tom Perkins, The Art of Letter Carving in Stone

Edward M Catich, The Origin of the Serif

L C Evetts, Roman Lettering

David Kindersley Centenary Celebrations

David Kindersley letteringI happened to be waiting in Exhibition Road to go into the Victoria and Albert Museum many years ago, and noticed the letter-cut sign on the wall. The more I looked at it, the more intrigued I was. The lettering looked so perfect and so even; it was cut over two blocks of stone, and yet no letter was actually on the join. In addition, the steady diagonal on the right-hand side almost drew in to the lettering the obvious bomb damage. It seemed a supreme example of craftsmanship. I learned later when talking with David that, when he was approached to cut the inscription noting that the damage to the building was as a result of air raids, he was asked what sort of stone he wanted to cut the lettering on for it to be attached to the building; his reply was that there was perfectly good stone already on the walls!

IMG_0015David’s lettering was exceptional, his eye for design, and particularly spacing quite phenomenal (one of his quotes was on the lines of a bad space is worse than a bad letter). This year, 2015, celebrates his centenary and there are a number of events planned. For details see the Cardozo-Kindersley workshop website here. One major event is the exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum; this is on from 21st April to 14th June and coincides with more of David’s work at Kettles Yard, both in Cambridge. If you haven’t been to either then both are worth a visit on their own, but take in David’s exhibitions while you’re there!

wall picHis inventiveness and skill are shown here in a picture from the wall in the Cardozo Kindersley workshop – examples of lettering of various styles and designs, and beneath that a cupboard with the tools of the trade. David learned letter cutting with Eric Gill when the latter was based at Pigotts in High Wycombe in December 1934 starting when David was 19. His father, it was said, liked to do things properly, and so he paid for David to be apprenticed. Whilst with Gill, David worked on many important commissions.



IMG_0004When Gill died in 1940, David was asked to take over the workshop, but once he had sorted out Gill’s affairs, he set up his own workshop at Dales Barn in Barton. David was a leading figure in setting up the Crafts Council and became Chair, stepping down because of concerns of underfunding (’twas ever thus!). David’s lettering for the Ministry of Transport was widely praised, but in the end they chose a lower case monoline style for motorway signs. Yet his clear and readable letters are still seen throughout Cambridge and in other towns and cities which have an eye for good design!

pod57Many commissions flowed from the workshop in Barton and when it was moved into a converted infants’ school in Cambridge itself, not least the magnificent gates for the British Library, designed by David and his third wife, Lida. They are a fitting addition to a remarkable building.





IMG_0394The workshop is currently preparing for the exhibitions and centenary events and here is a selection of David’s work being considered for inclusion. Again it shows just how versatile and talented he was.

There is not only the exhibitions but also an evening at the British Library with Tanya Harrod, Fiona MacCarthy and Lida and Hallam Kindersley on Friday 12th June (tickets here). The London exhibition is at the Patrick Bourne Gallery on 15th June, with pieces of David’s work for sale alongside new pieces by the workshop. Then the Centenary Walk is previewed here, and also a wonderful set of playing cards with David’s work featured on the backs of the cards – a delightful video shown here.

All in all a great way to celebrate the life and work of such a wonderful man, a true Alphabetician!