Ralph Beyer really was a remarkable letterer and to a large extent one of a kind. The influence of his German parents just before the Second World War was considerable, and the rather peripatetic childhood that he had resulted in experiences that affected his later work.
This new book by John Neilson focuses on Ralph Beyer’s inscriptions, but it is so much more than just this. It would be impossible to write about this remarkable man without touching on his time with Eric Gill, the influence of Henry Moore, how David Kindersley helped and very much more.
Because war was imminent, Beyer was sent to the UK from Germany when he was 16 years of age leaving the rest of his family behind, and one of his uncles arranged for him to go to Pigotts to work in Eric Gill’s workshop. Beyer seemed to find the rather traditional atmosphere restricting, and the contradictions of no electricity but a phone, and doing everything by hand but using a car rather strange. He was asked to draw a Roman Capital alphabet with a pencil. Eric Gill then used a red fountain pen to improve the letters as shown here.
It was the inscriptions at Coventry Cathedral where Ralph Beyer showed his great prowess. The mediæval cathedral had been bombed and almost destroyed in the Second World War, and the architect Basil Spence was chosen to design a new, modern one. His aim was to have a up-to-date building but incorporate many craft skills in a more contemporary way, and certainly Beyer’s inscriptions fulfil that role. He took on other lettering in the Cathedral and also carved the shell shape into the boulder of rock from Bethlehem to make the font.
It would be expected that work would come flooding in after the publicity of his work in Coventry Cathedral, although not everyone was in favour of the differing shapes and sizes of the letter-forms, but this didn’t happen and for some time his income, and the support for his family, was rather precarious. Beyer did, though, cut the letters for the National Library of Scotland.
And for this he was helped by his assistant Peter Foster (shown on the right here). Sadly neither the lively coat of arms, nor the name are there now after a refurbishment programme.
Ralph Beyer cut letters in a rather unusual way. Rather than position the chisel with the corner in the central part of the letter, he placed it on the outer edge and cut from there.
His lettering, though, continues to inspire, and to help the reader focus on the text in a new way.
And one of my favourites, the lively lettering for the Thames Chamber Orchestra, shown particularly well against a red background.
This book by John Neilson captures the spirit of this great letterer, it explains Ralph Beyer’s background and influences and the way in which he made his work all his own. It is a terrific tour-de-force and gives inspiration to calligraphers, type designers, logo designers (use hand-drawn lettering!) and letter cutters. It is highly recommended.