Obituary: Nicolete Gray

Nicolas Barker
Thursday 12 June 1997 23:02 BST

Nicolete Gray's life was marked by many and diverse achievements, but it is as the historian and advocate and exponent of lettering that she will be chiefly remembered.

She was born in 1911, and christened Nicolete after Aucassin's beloved, in a poem that must have appealed strongly to her father, Laurence Binyon. His life and work, too, reached into many fields: his career at the British Museum included pioneering studies on the English watercolourists and on Blake, and an even more adventurous exploration of Oriental art, but he was more famous as a poet. His work may seem superseded or out of fashion today, although his translation of Dante is unsurpassed. He had never been afraid to swim against the tide, and this gift, and much else, she inherited from him.

Although he was almost 42 when she was born, they were very close, and from this affinity came an empathy with his generation, and with artists and writers of a still earlier age. He had shared the poetic experiments of Robert Bridges and Gerald Manley Hopkins, and knew Eliot, Pound and Wyndham Lewis when they were young; among many artists whom he knew, Charles Ricketts and Will Rothenstein were particular friends.

At the time of her birth the family home had been in Tite Street, in Chelsea, where Oscar Wilde once lived and had his house decorated by his friend and neighbour Edward Godwin; both were a ghostly presence now, but unforgotten; John Singer Sargent still lived in the street. The world of museums, literature and the arts was her first education, but she did well at St Paul's School, from which she got a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford to read History in 1929. Her enthusiasm for what she liked and admired and the energy with which she pursued it had already spilled over into other activities. She took the younger Paulinas to museums and galleries, organised outings to ballet and theatre, and stood for Labour in the school's mock elections.

These interests were broadened and enlarged at Oxford. Early medieval history became her special subject, and St Augustine brought her to Roman Catholicism in 1931. Next year she got a scholarship to the British School at Rome to study early post-classical inscriptions in Italy. With Diehl's Inscriptiones Latinae in hand, she wandered from place to place, making squeezes, papier-mache moulds, from the stones, which gave her a direct feel for the three-dimensional quality of lettering that lasted the rest of her life. The Paleography of Latin Inscriptions in the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Centuries in Italy was not, however, published in the British School's Papers till 1948, because in 1933 she returned home to marry Basil Gray, who in 1930 had joined her father's department at the British Museum and become close to him (and her) through the great Royal Academy exhibition of Persian art in 1931.

Bringing up a family of five in the house on Campden Hill, west London, in which they went to live could easily have been a full-time occupation, but Nicolete Gray found many other things to do. She had always taken a direct and practical interest in the work of contemporary artists. She had known Barbara Hepworth early on, from whose husband, John Skeaping, her parents commissioned a bust that captures her youthful vitality. Her savings went on pictures, including a watercolour by Paul Nash.

Just before she went to Oxford she met Helen Sutherland, the far-sighted patron of so many contemporary artists and musicians, who became a friend for life, and through her she met David Jones. Jones's passion for lettering equalled her own, and it is possible to detect a mutual influence in the work of both. After she went down, Lady Margaret Hall commissioned a portrait from Jones and bought other paintings, at her instance, as did Campion Hall from Ben Nicholson, another close and lasting friend.

For a year she was art critic of Life and Letters, and in 1936 organised the exhibition "Abstract and Concrete", first at Oxford, then at Liverpool and Cambridge, and finally at the Lefevre Gallery in London. This not only provided a major showing of the work of Nicholson, Hepworth and another friend, Henry Moore, but also introduced foreign abstract and Surrealist artists, with sculpture and constructions by Alexander Calder, Gabo, Giacometti and Moholy-Nagy, as well as paintings by Kandinsky, Mir and Mondrian (one of whose works she bought). She also found time to contribute two chapters, as well as much informed criticism, to Basil Gray's highly original The English Print (1937); Helen Sutherland's copy is inscribed "from the authors".

This in turn led to XIXth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages (1938). It is hard to overestimate the importance of this book, small and sparsely though efficiently illustrated. At a time when Victorian printing was regarded with contempt and neglect, she viewed it with a trained epigraphist's eye and an inherited sympathy for the period. The book also played a major part in rousing interest in "English Vernacular", the native originality of script and decoration expressed in tombstones, pub signs and the like.

After the Second World War, during which the family (the last born in 1943) absorbed most of her time, she published - and dedicated to Helen Sutherland - Rossetti, Dante and Ourselves (1947), a remarkable vision of the romantic imagination of the Pre-Raphaelites and its sources, which had an important part in rescuing them from oblivion; it was beautifully printed by Maclehose for Faber's.

The revival of interest in vernacular lettering that was one of the trademarks of the Festival of Britain brought her new appreciation and work. In 1953 Nikolaus Pevsner asked her to contribute articles on lettering for the Architectural Review. These in turn led to Lettering on Buildings (1960), published by the Architectural Press, and another piece of model book- production (Gordon Cullen himself designed the jacket).

This time her work was copiously illustrated, mainly by Architectural Press photographers but some by her daughter Cecilia. These photographs, with a text in which history and contemporary practice were neatly balanced, achieved her stated purpose: "to isolate the architectural letter; to discover the specific principles which apply to it and, in particular, its relationship to architecture itself; and to proceed thence to a general theory of the nature of lettering".

That remarkable objective was to find its fulfilment in her teaching at the Central School of Art and Design between 1964 and 1981. There, with Nicholas Biddulph, she set up the "Central Lettering Record", an archive of lettering, not merely drawn or printed, but in every medium, which grew from her own photographs (augmented by travels abroad with her husband). Her teaching, showing how every kind of model, historic as well as contemporary, could be used to train the eye and hand, was as lively and original as everything else she did, and captivated several generations of students; some of them came from Oriental countries, from whom she learned at first hand the nuances of Oriental scripts; to them she imparted her own unrivalled eye for beauty and detail.

In 1976 Faber republished her 1938 work in a splendid and much enlarged format, with many illustrations, under the title Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces. Ten years later A History of Lettering: creative experiment and letter identity followed, a credo about the artistic quality and communicative function of letters, deeply felt as well as vividly illustrated, which has become the textbook of its subject.

Gray was herself a notable exponent of lettering, beginning as a letter- cutter in the Fifties; among her more notable works are the wall of writers' names at the Stratford Shakespeare Centre, and Cardinal Heenan's tombstone, and a lunette over a door, in Westminster Cathedral.

Her long friendship with David Jones was commemorated by monographs on his inscriptions (1981) and paintings (1989). She also wrote on the other artists who had been her friends, and on Rouault and Sutherland. She arranged the Arts Council exhibition of Helen Sutherland's collection in 1970, and wrote the catalogue of what was in many ways a shared venture.

Nicolete Gray was the most exciting of companions, particularly on an "inscription crawl", and a lively conversationalist. I well remember, after she and Basil Gray had moved (in her case, back) to the Keeper's Residence at the British Museum, a lively discussion of the curious resemblance between Victorian text and display types and the fashions for men's and women's clothes - the one all severe black and white, the other all colours, frills and furbelows. I can still see, too, her face, at once beautiful and Victorian, full of vitality, as much so then as it was when, 30 years earlier, Steven Runciman met her catching every eye at the conference on Christian archaeology at Ravenna in 1932.

Something of this went out with the tragic death of her daughter Camilla, never to be forgotten by all who knew her, in 1971 in the Caucasus, but the well of wit and argument remained unquenched when, in 1979, she became the first woman member of the Double Crown Club, the club for printers, publishers and all involved in the graphic arts.

Stanley Morison, who had the greatest influence on the practice and history of lettering this century, had the surest intellectual grasp of the evolution of lettering over the centuries. Nicolete Gray had a similar grasp of its aesthetic and tactile formation. To her letter forms were a tangible as well as visible record of the past, reflecting the text in ways unconscious as well as conscious. To have charted that progress with a vision as clear in sight as mind is an enduring achievement.

Nicolete Mary Binyon, lettering historian: born Stevenage, Hertfordshire 20 July 1911; married 1933 Basil Gray (died 1989; two sons, two daughters, and one daughter deceeased); died London 8 June 1997.

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