Having installed work in Oxford last week, me and my assistant Dan visited Coventry Cathedral on the way to another job in Liverpool. The cathedral is a place I have wanted to visit for years, primarily to see the lettering work there designed and cut by Ralph Beyer and his assistant Michael Watson. The current Cathedral was designed by Sir Basil Spense and built between 1955-62. It is situated right next to the medieval cathedral that was bombed in 1940. The first few photographs below (apologies for the quality, they were taken on my phone) show Ralph’s ‘Tablets of the Word’ which are White Hollington Sandstone (as opposed to the red of the exterior) measuring 15 feet wide x 6 feet tall.
There is a lot of debate about the quality of workmanship of these tablets. I have met Ralph and been to talks by him and I am still somewhat undecided. It is clear from these tablets that the design and layout are very free, and that is refreshing, and it is clear that the carving is far from perfect. From my formally trained point of view, with my makers eye they seem poorly carved and there is little consistency regarding the spacing and quality of line and depth of cut. However, I find them very powerful. Whenever I see Ralph’s work I find it challenges me. On one level I find myself reacting along the lines of “well, the spacing is shocking and the carving timid, inconsistent and poorly executed” and yet in a way this adds to their humanity. We are not perfect. I naturally carve quite deeply myself and am always striving to achieve a sharp definite outline and flow to my lettering, with no ambiguity. Had I carved these I wonder would they have been too overpowering, is the feeling of frailty in the making of these almost a strength. I am always in two minds about this with Ralph’s inscriptions, and yet having seen them in the flesh and stood on the concrete seating below (sorry!) to have a really good look up close (see below) I still come away feeling that they are moving despite the way they are carved. Are they rubbish or are they brilliant? On the whole I like the freedom in the design and the simplicity of the linear carvings, and like the overall ‘feel’ of them but the carving does bother me a bit if I’m honest, I can’t help that. I am really keen on them though. I know that Spense encouraged Ralph to make the lettering bigger and bolder after seeing initial drawings, and Ralph reluctantly did this, initially at least. Ralph says of the inscriptions that he wished “to evolve letter-forms and symbols in the language of the art of this century. To give letters, words, sentences a fresh vitality, greater force, and to express their meaning with the utmost urgency”. He was a modernist, in a way rebelling against the arts and crafts style, there are no intricate flourishes here, and yet we know he was inspired by the ‘naive’ early Christian graffiti in the Roman catacombs which had interested his historian father. I think these carvings work in an almost emotional way, despite my critical makers eye.
There are other works here by Ralph, a mixture of inscriptions and metal lettering set into the floor. See below for more pictures of these. It is interesting to me that there is a lot more ‘definition’ in Ralph’s floor pieces here, as the outline of the metal cannot be ambiguous in the way it is on some of the inscriptions. The two materials create a starker contrast. I particularly like the smaller stainless steel letters.