Ralph Beyer: Letter-cutter, sculptor and teacher

Thursday 27 March 2008 01:00

Ralph Beyer was a carver of inscriptions, a sculptor and a teacher of typography and lettering. He is best known for the eight "Tablets of the Word" that dominate the nave of Basil Spence's Coventry Cathedral as one of the most ambitious epigraphic projects of modern times. Beyer was one of the few British letter-cutters to work in an entirely modernist spirit in a field that since the 1980s has become increasingly dominated by the eclectic and the decorative.

His intellect and aesthetics were formed in pre-war Central Europe. Beyer was born in Berlin where his father, Oskar Beyer, was a writer on art and religion and the author of many books, including two important studies of the early Christian symbols and inscriptions in the Roman catacombs. In Berlin, and subsequently in Potsdam and Dresden, Ralph Beyer's parents moved in a circle of artists, architects, designers and theologians. As a young boy he was conscious of his father's work on Egyptian, pre-Columbian, African and Oceanic art, sculpture and architecture, all illustrated in Oskar Beyer's Weltkunst (1923), an important comparative study.

At a young age Beyer was introduced to the New Typography movement, the New Photography and the products of the Bauhaus; and he was particularly fascinated by the innovative lettering and calligraphy created by his father's friend Rudolf Koch at his Offenbacher Werkstatt.

Ralph Beyer's education was mostly radical and experimental. By 1932 his parents were living a communal existence on the Baltic coast with the architect Bernhard Hopp and the theologian Gottfried Schmidt and their families. One of their planned collaborative projects was a translation of the New Testament into contemporary German.

This idealistic, cultivated life was shattered when Hitler became Chancellor. The Beyers departed for Crete in the summer of 1933 where Ralph was taught by his father. The family moved on to join the Bruderhof in Lichtenstein and finally Ralph was sent to the trilingual progressive Ecole d'Humanité in Switzerland where he decided he wanted to be a painter. Instead he was sent to England in 1937 under the guardianship of another family friend, the architect Erich Mendelsohn, to work as an apprentice with Eric Gill at Piggotts in Buckinghamshire.

Although Beyer was only 16, Gill immediately gave him challenging work. Beyer found England puzzling and Gill's neo-medieval way of life a surprise – though he saw the sense in Gill's robust teaching methods and enjoyed studying Gill's small Henry Moore sculpture and reading his copies of Circle magazine.

After six months Beyer escaped to the Central School in London, lodging with his mother's cousin Margaret Lowenfeld, the eminent child psychologist. He was taught by John Skeaping and attended life-modelling classes given by Henry Moore at Chelsea School of Art. After the war he collaborated with Moore, cutting lettering for the Northampton Madonna, the Dartington Hall Reclining Figure and a memorial to Edith Sitwell at St Mary's, Weedon Lois, Northamptonshire.

In 1940 Beyer married for the first time (aged only 19). That year he was interned as an enemy alien and sent to Huyton Camp near Liverpool. This turned out to be an intellectually stimulating environment where he was to meet the choreographer Kurt Joos and Nikolaus Pevsner. He was soon released and drafted into the Pioneer Corps, finally working as an army interpreter in Germany where he found his father, brother and sister "in a pitiful state" outside Berlin and was given the shocking news that his mother (who was Jewish) had died in Auschwitz.

After serving in the Army for six years he returned to art school for a couple of terms, taught briefly at St Christopher's School, Letchworth and worked in Cambridge for the ecclesiastical builders and carvers Rattee and Kett (1950-53) and then, more fruitfully, spent a year at David Kindersley's workshop before setting up on his own.

In 1953 Beyer saw examples of David Jones's painted inscriptions in Nicolete Gray's Architectural Review article "Theory of Classical" and a year later his father's second study of catacomb inscriptions was published. Inspired, Beyer began to evolve his own informal approach to carved lettering. This was seen to great effect in his collaborations with the architects Maguire & Murray, at the Royal Foundation of St Katherine, Butcher Row and at St Paul's, Bow Common. The bold cast concrete lettering for the St Paul's church porch that declaims "This is the Gate of Heaven" had a particular poignancy in what was a deprived area of east London.

In 1956 Beyer embarked on the Coventry Cathedral commission where his contributions included monumental letters cast in bronze set into the cathedral floor, a typeface for signs and notices and the eight nave inscriptions carved in situ, at first in freezing conditions amid building works, on Hollington stone panels measuring 15 feet by six feet. Although Spence's cathedral was criticised for its conventional Latin cross plan, Beyer's Tablets of the Word reflected post-war ecclesiastical interest in the early church and today they remain strikingly innovative examples of lapidary art.

In the early 1970s he completed another large-scale commission for the Paul Tillich Park in the historic utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana, carving quotations from Tillich's writings on boulders and the Ten Commandments on panels in the Waddams Chapel. His inscriptions in Turkish and German at the Maguire & Murray KITA day-care centre for children in Berlin-Kreuzberg (1985-87) were of particular personal importance, being a kind of homecoming for which he evolved a special child-friendly relief lettering in plaster.

Throughout his life Beyer continued to make sculpture, sometimes combined with lettering, as at Hull College of Technology (1970). He also carried out the innumerable small commissions – memorial stones, plaques and signs – that are the usual work of the letter cutter. This more modest kind of work was informed by a passionate interest in typography. He believed in clear communication and avoided prettiness. All his inscriptions were, therefore, powerful and unadorned and his memorial stones in particular were unflinching, meeting death head-on. He was an inspirational teacher of typography and letter forms at Reading University from 1968 to 1986 and at the City & Guilds of London Art School from 1983 to 1994.

Beyer knew how to make words communicate partly because he was a great reader and he always read the best. Some of his most moving work was made for his own pleasure – in the form of carved inscriptions from the writings of Saint-John Perse, Rainer Maria Rilke and Rabindranath Tagore.

Time spent with Beyer and his wife Hilary at their house at Teddington was always an uplifting experience. Beyer's manner combined fierce intensity and delightful humour. Casually but stylishly dressed, fond of wearing an anarchist beret or a cloth cap, his persona was perennially youthful, even boyish. In his company it seemed conceivable that the battle for heroic modernism in art and design might yet be won, with a fairer society just around the corner.

Tanya Harrod

Ralph Alexander Beyer, letter-cutter, sculptor and teacher: born Berlin 6 April 1921; married 1940 Anne Poole (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved), 1960 Hilary Reynolds (two daughters); died London 13 February 2008.

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