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Ligatures to Lichen: Gravestone Letterforms

Posted in Events, Exhibitions, Special Collections

LSU Graphic Design Professor Lynne Baggett describes her research, the focus of a new exhibition at Hill Memorial Library, “Letterform Characters: From Stone Carver to Type Designer,” on display through February 17, 2018.

What is your background?

I am originally from Manchester, England, and received my graphic design education from Stockport College and the University of Derby. I worked in London after graduation in 1988, and practiced as a graphic designer for 5 years before taking an opportunity to teach as Visiting Artist at The University of Southern Mississippi (1993), and The University of Tennessee (1994). I began teaching at LSU in the School of Art (Graphic Design area) in 1994.

I have received several accolades for my research with incised typographical letterforms: A Mississippi Artists’ Fellowship; LSU Research Grants; A Craft Research Fund grant from the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design, Inc., NC; Design Awards from local professional associations such as AIGA/New Orleans, and the Advertising Federation of Greater Baton Rouge; and I have presented my research at various conferences for professional organizations (AIGA/ATypI/TypeCon/AGS). My three-dimensional, type inspired artwork has been exhibited in Alabama, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and in the United Kingdom. I currently serve on the board of the Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS).

When did you become interested in gravemarker letterforms?

I had been to the Priory Church of St. Mary and St. Michael in Cartmel, Cumbria, many times, but a trip in 1998 with my husband (also a graphic designer/artist) is particularly significant. I spent considerable time closely examining the uniqueness of the lettering within the stone grave markers and wondering how to incorporate them into my own work. Through various grants, stipends and sabbaticals, I was able to travel to similar sites within the British Isles to discover other examples. Thus, for the past 20 years I have gathered photographs, rubbings and even three-dimensional castings of letterforms to use in my own creative work and feature in professional presentations. It was through the professional presentation and lecture circuit that I came to realize the value of this research among scholars and enthusiasts across multiple disciplines including typography, gravestone studies, and popular culture.

How does your research contribute to existing scholarship on gravestone design and iconography?

Both past and present scholarly research on 17th–18th century gravestones from Great Britain and its American colonies is focused on the origin of the incised stone with importance typically placed on the epitaph, visual motifs, and social context, rather than toward the design characteristics of the stone carvers’ incised lettering. There are very few gravestone studies scholars who discuss the visual attributes of the stone carvers’ lettering, and those who do, are distinguishing one stone carver from another.

Observations of stylistic tendencies of individual hand-crafted incised letterforms can reveal much about the stonemason’s unique and independent creative voice. These often naïve letterforms are frequently dismissed as “crude” and unfavorably compared with those examples attributed to the established “professional.” Many rural stonecutters of the day practiced their craft unaware of such conventions, and as a result, their work appears less constrained and more susceptible to idiosyncratic influences. They are unique to a region and reveal a style established by the stone carver that expresses artistic individuality, beyond the reach of influences developing in large cities (Boston or Charlestown, Massachusetts). It is my belief that many of these innovative rural creations resulted from a combination of the following circumstances: the stone carvers remote location; lack of formal training (being unaware of typographic conventions including spelling that were developed for the written or printed word); and the unforgiving nature of the medium of stone.

My background in typography provides an opportunity to communicate this research to a diverse field of scholars, students and enthusiasts by introducing appropriate terminology to describe artistic methods and materials and the history of graphic design and typography in an appropriate context.

Lynne Baggett researching gravestone letterforms. Photo courtesy of William Baggett.

Lynne Baggett researching gravestone letterforms. Photo courtesy of William Baggett.

How do you incorporate your research into your graphic design courses at LSU?

As a graphic designer there is no escaping the use of typography within a design (or using the correct terminology for parts of a letterform). I have taught both letterforms and typography classes and always with a focus on historical research. One also hopes to introduce the traditional skills of the lettering artist and stone carver to bridge the gap between old and new technologies. In recent years my colleague (Courtney Barr) and I have devised a project to encouraged students to look beyond the computer for inspiration, to observe type in the environment and then develop those forms by hand to produce a digital rendering of their own letterform characters for use as a possible typeface design. Although typeface design is quite a lengthy undertaking, students learn the process and the tools in order to understand contemporary methods for developing their ideas.

With very few stone carvers still practicing this craft, the tradition should be rightfully acknowledged within studio arts education among the disciplines of graphic arts, typography, and design history.

Internationally renowned typographer Matthew Carter will speak on campus on November 15th (“Bruce Rogers’ Centaur Type”). Can you talk about your work with Carter on the gravemarker project?

The idea for the project began at an ATypI (Association Typographique Internationale) lecture presented in Brighton, UK, by my husband, William, and I in 2007, which featured research on grave markers from the British Isles c16th-18th centuries. Further discussion with Sumner Stone and Matthew Carter at the conference revealed a mutual interest; in particular, the documentation of idiosyncrasies that exist in incised letterforms, and their historical significance within typographic design history. During our correspondence I realized there was a need to share and discuss research and images through a blog such as the one developed for this exhibition Ligatures to Lichen. Matthew had taken many photographs in the Massachusetts area and was kind enough to supply a selection of those images for use in the blog. Additionally he directed me to other sites of interest that he had photographed a number of years ago. It is fortunate to have such a record of those early stones as many have since succumbed to vandalism or the elements and are in poor condition.

How does the Rare Book Collection in LSU Libraries Special Collections complement your research?

The evolution of typographic conventions grew steadily with the development of the printed page during this early period; however, there remains a parallel but entirely separate universe of letterform design created by the rural stonemason.

By exhibiting my own photographs of carved gravestone lettering alongside selected printed works from the LSU Libraries Special Collections, I am able to compare the unique visual and aesthetic characteristics of incised letterforms with those typographic conventions found in printed material of the period. This approach provides both cultural and historical context, laying the groundwork for discussion on the derivation of the incised letterform, and the recognition of its significance within the broader realm of typography.

A review of early books from the archives that fall within the same time period as my research reveals some clear conventions of style, yet there were many incised letterform examples that were not evident in printed material of the time. For example, the incised sans serif letterform is one such oddity seen in stone carving in the 16th – mid 17th centuries. It is innovative because the sans serif typeface used in printed material was not acknowledged (in type history journals) until 1816. I have documented at least three sans serif inscriptions that predate those in print by some 150 years.

What do you hope scholars, students and the general public will gain from viewing the exhibition, “Letterform Characters: From Stone Carver to Type Designer?”

There were many objectives for the project, but the most important was to find a venue that would accommodate an audience from a wide range of disciplines and to communicate my research in a language that is easy to understand for a novice of typography.

Another goal was to acknowledge the significant contributions that early stonemasons made to letterform development within a historical context and provide a greater reference of influences and styles used during this time period. For those in the creative arts, I hope to inspire audiences to consider further study of hand crafted letterforms as a resource in the pursuit of creative image making and type design.

With the exhibition opening, the blog will be launched as a public platform. I hope to encourage participation from a broad audience to augment scholarship and to continue to foster dialog in this collaborative environment to provide a valuable public resource.

Visit ligs2lichen.wordpress.com to dig deeper into Lynne Baggett’s research of gravestone letterforms.

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