Saturday, 11 August 2012

Harold Curwen goes to night school

The real problem with research is this: you can't research everything. So even a writer as well-informed as Alan Powers has this to say about Harold Curwen's studies in the new lettering, '...he spent a year studying calligraphy with (Edward) Johnston at the Central School in London...'

A year to most of us would mean just that, a period of continuous study. The truth is Johnston's class, Writing and Illumination,  took place weekly, on a Monday evening, between 7 and 9.30 pm. And this would all be inexcusable pedantry on my part except for this: we now forget how important evening classes were for vocational study for men and women from all backgrounds. Night school was the popular term and many people who attended gained qualifications necessary for them to succeed. Some years before Harold Curwen attended the class at the Central School, Alan Seaby had to take all his early art classes in exactly the same way. His father had died young and he had to help support the family as a pupil-teacher. It wasn't untill he had passed national examinations at evening classes held at Reading School of Art that he won a place at the University College there. Night school was a way up for all kinds of people.

All that the courses at the time Curwen was at the Central School  had  in common with provincial evening classes was the time of day. By 1908, the year Curwen left, even that was changing. Sidney Lee's class had moved to an afternoon. As for other staff,  Edward Johnston was fast becoming the leading figure in the revival of British lettering, Eric Gill was teaching design for monumental masons, Noel Rooke was kick-starting modern wood-engraving in the book-production department. It was not so much a matter of how much time you spent there, as how you learned. JD Batten famously went into Johnston's class one day asking if any student could cut lettering in stone and Johnston had put forward Eric Gill who he went on to describe as 'the stone-mason who is cutting the tomb-stone for Mr Batten'. (Batten was forty-five at the time).

This infectious egalitarian spirit was the order of the day. Distinctions between teacher, artist and student were discouraged. Much was down to the forward-looking ethos formed by the co-principal, William Lethaby. He had taken on Frank Morley Fletcher to teach woodblock after he had produced only one colour woodcut; Johnston had hoped to gain a place at the school as a student only to be told he would be taking the class. (Admittedly, Lethaby went on to play for time until Johnston had gained experience, but he had a true instinct for the kind of teacher he wanted: the ones who would teach students to innovate because they themselves were still learning). It was a remarkable place to work and study because of this and the students saw themselves as pioneers. Batten's own third colour woodcut, The Tiger, and in many ways the most effective one he produced, was made during the Wednesday classes with Fletcher. (The second image is a 1927 colour woodcut designed for Curwen by Eric Ravilious).

Curwen himself had already spent time at a Leipzig music printers before moving onto Regent St. Once he had taken over at the Curwen Press, the effects of those early days became obvious. Gill produced what I think is the most memorable of the Curwen unicorns and the list of young designers who were employed by the Plaistow works includes the most diligent of the period: Claud Lovat Fraser, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious. This was one magic link between arts and crafts and modern design as we know it.

Incidentally, some of the original images you see here are still available. Harold Curwen's children's book for Puffin will cost a few pounds and the Ravilious image comes from the first Woodcut Annual edited by Herbert Furst, which comes complete with handblocked cover by Paul Nash and Gill's unicorn on the back fly-leaf. Finally, Batten's Tiger has come up on ebay within the past three years, though I very much doubt the next time it will still be £60, or so. Someone had a bargain. Sadly, it wasn't me.

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