The art and craft of lettering flourish in Britain today thanks to a pioneering line in which Michael Harvey, who died at the age of 81, was an important link between a generation of students of ‘Eric Gill and a generation with a more experimental attitude. His own work combined freedom and discipline, and his successive phases of activity, in printing, publishing, architecture and the fine arts, helped to broaden the field of applications of letters of character.
Born to Roman Catholic parents Leslie and Betty in Putney, southwest London, Harvey failed to excel at Ewell Castle School, near his family’s home in Epsom, Surrey, and left at age 15 without passing final exams. He had started very early to imitate Disney figurines and to draw bombers on take-off, and joined Drawing & Tracing, a company offering these services to engineering companies, before undertaking national service (1950-52), where he modeled and painted signs in Gill Sans, a typeface designed by Gill.
He found Gill’s autobiography in the Leatherhead Public Library and was struck by his call to live independently as a craftsman. Harvey decided to make lettering his main activity. In 1954 and 1955, he spent summers with Gill’s first apprentice, Joseph cribb, in Ditchling, East Sussex, then flew to Dorset when his teacher and mentor Gordon Smith, at the Epsom and Ewell School of Arts and Crafts, told him that Reynolds Stone, the prominent woodcutter who had himself briefly been a pupil of Gill, wanted an assistant to carve letters on gravestones and similar commissions.
Harvey married Pat Hills, his boss’s niece at Drawing & Tracing, in 1956. After a winter in a cottage on the farm, they found an apartment in Bridport, Dorset, and he walked the seven miles to the Stone’s house in Litton Cheney on a drop-handle bike. At first, he briefly adopted a blazer and tie as a courtship strategy, but soon ditched them in favor of long hair, beards, and sandals. He loved the simplicity of Bridport, with its beautiful buildings and boats, and stayed there for the rest of his life.
To earn more, he worked nights to design book covers for major London publishers. Stone recommended Harvey to Rupert Hart-Davis and he took his portfolio around others, finding work with Heinemann, Chatto & Windus, Michael Joseph, Collins, Hamish Hamilton, Methuen, Cambridge and, in what he called “The most fruitful relationship”, the Bodley Head, with John Ryder as artistic director. Among Harvey’s 1,500 titles, there were Graham Greenethe cartoons of Bodley Head, and Montaillou and other works of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie for Scolar.
Berthold Wolpe, who began designing for Faber and Faber in 1941, defined the pattern of bold handmade book covers, in which Harvey developed a personal style that transcended Gill’s restrictive influence, often using outline letters , with a suggestion of shade. His creations are distinguished by their precision, their whimsical invention and their controlled energy, perhaps a reflection of the jazz music that Harvey loved and which served as the backdrop to his solitary work.
Harvey’s teaching career began at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in 1961, the year he stopped working for Stone. He stimulated student creativity in the old-fashioned curriculum, but subsequent reforms took students too far away from practical experience for his liking. He returned to teaching at the University of Reading in the 1990s, prompting students to move away from their computers to draw on a large scale and work with type.
In 1966, Harvey’s Zephyr The typeface was released in Metal by the Ludlow Typograph Company, and in the 1980s he designed fonts for the exclusive use of the Tate Gallery (never implemented) and for the Bodley Head, before launching more completely in the creation of commercial characters. Ellington (named after Duke Ellington) was a versatile design for the Monotype Corporation which he started in 1983 and took seven years to complete. Harvey was elated when it was used for a headline, “1001 Nights of Erotic Pleasure,” in News of the World. He adapted Ellington as a sans serif face called Strayhorn, named after Ellington’s longtime musical arranger, Billy strayhorn.
In 1990 Harvey was invited by the senior designer of the software company Adobe to contribute to their line of digital typefaces and learned to design on the computer. Many fonts subsequently flowed, often identifiable by the names of their jazz players. He had fun conceiving of the practical as the playful and, in 2000, he created Thin fonts with Andy Benedek to market their creations.
Carved lettering commissions continued in the background and Harvey gained wider fame with the majestic capitals of the National Gallery staircase Sainsbury Wing in 1989. In 1970, the Scottish poet and artist Ian hamilton finlay had called him out of the blue and invited him to collaborate on printed and engraved versions of his terse and witty texts. Harvey’s Hand stands out among the many good scholars and illustrators who have contributed to Finlay’s Garden in Little Sparta / Stonypath and to the posters and printed maps of his Wild Hawthorn Press.
Harvey’s genius personality, his handsome Gothic face framed in wavy white hair and his neatly trimmed beard, have illuminated gatherings of printers, publishers and designers such as the Double Crown Club and the Wynkyn de Worde Company. He expanded his range to include digital color prints from Bridport, published as a book of postcards, and watercolors. He has written a number of books, including Adventures With Letters (2012), which he designed and published as an account of his life and work, accompanied by witty and typically unassuming commentary. In 2001, he was appointed MBE for services rendered to art.
Pat and their three daughters, Catherine, Rachel and Georgina, survive him.