Michael Renton

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The Independent Online

Michael Renton, designer, engraver and lettering craftsman: born London 1 January 1934; died Winchester 15 July 2001.

Thinking of Michael Renton, a phrase of H. D. Thoreau's comes to mind: "No introduction would serve to introduce him, more than if you introduced a woodchuck to your neighbour."

Like Thoreau's French-Canadian woodchopper, he lived the life of the self-contained, solitary workman, disregarding politics and fashion, absorbed in what W. R. Lethaby termed "the well doing of what needs doing" – which to him meant depicting, whether on wood, stone or paper. He was self-effacing to a great degree, and (I suspect) rather enjoyed presenting himself to the world as a country bumpkin – a bear-like, shambling man with a variety of floppy cardigans, a sudden gap-toothed grin, and a bald pate which remained uncovered in the worst of weathers. But his talents were enormous and his hands magic.

He became supremely accomplished in drawing, pen lettering (he wrote a vigorous italic hand), printing, signwriting and brush lettering, letter carving and wood engraving, and was a master – perhaps the last – of fine engraved lettering in wood in the tradition of Reynolds Stone and Leo Wyatt.

Although private, he was not secretive; he was the most sociable of drinking companions, and everywhere he went he made friends. I doubt that he had an enemy in the world.

He was born in Park Royal, north-west London, in 1934. He never knew his father; he and his mother moved to London during the Second World War, settling in Harrow. In 1949 he found himself at Harrow Art School, where he was first introduced to the rudiments of lettering by Percy Smith's former partner George Mansell, who taught there once a week.

In 1951 the prospect of National Service loomed. Desperate to find employment, young Renton saw an advertisement in the News Chronicle which read, "Boy wanted, keen on drawing"; upon ringing the number he found that he had reached S. Slinger Ltd of 105 Horseferry Road, one of only two surviving commercial engraving firms, and that what they really wanted was an apprentice to learn wood engraving.

He agreed to a six months' trial period, after which (if, as it was put, "we get along") a deferment from National Service would be arranged. They did get along, and he embarked on an apprenticeship of five years. Already in his mind was the idea that "I might eventually use wood engraving in my own way for more imaginative purposes".

Then as later, he was suspicious of Art – "I was interested in illustration, engraving, etc as a living, but not as a 'way of life'." He did feel the need to improve his drawing. The City and Guilds Art School in Kennington offered evening classes at one pound apiece; Renton started life drawing classes there in 1954 and was soon drawn to the lettering class offered by William Sharpington three evenings a week.

Having already read Edward Johnston's and Graily Hewitt's handbooks, and grappled at Slingers with adapting a Reynolds Stone design to a letterhead, lettering became his primary interest, and he began going to Sharpington on Tuesday evenings.

At City and Guilds he had his only training in letter carving from Henry Wilkinson, who worked in association with Sharpington's workshop. In 1956 he finished his apprenticeship at Slingers and was away for two years on his long-delayed National Service; in 1959 he returned to work for the firm for one year (it closed down in 1966) before setting up on his own, partly as engraver, partly as freelance lettering craftsman (mainly signwriting) for Sharpington. In 1963 he was finally able to realise his long-held ambition of setting up a "country practice", moving to Brook Granary, Icklesham, in East Sussex, in fairly remote countryside near Winchelsea.

Here he remained for some 30 years, working mostly on his own, dependent on buses and trains and other people's vehicles since he himself didn't drive, always quietly humorous, always busy. At first he set up as wood engraver and signwriter only (witness his beautiful lettering on the shopfront of the Martello Bookshop in Rye) but in 1970 a commission from a local architect brought him back to letter carving, and it was letter carving – mostly memorial work, interspersed with some larger projects – which supplied much of its income, such as it was.

Clients included the Church of England (he was a committed, if quiet, Anglican), the City livery companies, Glyndebourne and the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. His wood engravings illustrated such works as Thoreau's Walden (for the Folio Society, 1980) and private press books; he designed book jackets and produced a steady stream of beautifully flourished bookplates. His Christmas cards which he designed, engraved and printed himself were a special delight.

Given his relative isolation, he was a surprisingly faithful member and supporter of the Double Crown Club, the Society of Wood Engravers and the more recently formed Letter Exchange; he was also a founder member of the Guild of Sussex Craftsmen and a mainstay of Harriet Frazer's Memorials by Artists since its inception in 1988.

Late (as it turned out) in his life he was much involved in the design of public lettering for Winchester Cathedral and was given a degree of freedom which pleased him greatly, enabling him to develop new letterform ideas he had long been hankering to try out. This association with the cathedral led, in 1994, to a move from Icklesham to a single room in a small housing estate in Winchester where he carried on engraving, writing and letter carving (though his hopes of finding a proper letter-carving workshop in the city remained unrealised). A Millennium font designed by him for the 12th-century church of Farley Chamberlayne, south-west of Winchester, was consecrated last December. It bears his 6in-high legend "A thousand years are but as a day in the sight of the Lord".

Michael Renton's shocking and unexpected collapse and eventual death in hospital leaves a gap in the dwindling ranks of those multi-skilled British lettering craftsmen (as, for example, Kenneth Breese, Sidney Bendall, John Woodcock, Michael Harvey) who remain from the days when practical high-quality training in the Edward Johnston and Eric Gill tradition was readily available.

Given the almost total disregard for traditional craftsmanlike skills shown by the arts establishment and current educational authorities, it is a gap unlikely to be even partially filled in years to come.

John R. Nash