A woman of letters
Harriet Frazer’s motivation for setting up set up the Lettering Arts Trust was born out of a desire to preserve a disappearing skill and her own personal tragedy.Tessa Allingham went to meet her at Snape Maltings
In the churchyard of St Mary’s in Thornham Parva, near Eye, there’s a small gravestone. It marks the place where Sir Basil Spence OM, architect of Coventry Cathedral, and his wife, Joan, are buried. There’s nothing flashy about the flat pale grey limestone, simply cut with architectural notions – sweeping arcs, criss-crossing lines and sharp angles – around the names and dates. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, the work of a patient, careful, supremely skilled artist.
It was made by Gary Breeze, a lettering sculptor based in Diss. I see another of his designs again a few weeks later, this time decorative and displayed on the walls of the Lettering Arts Centre at Snape Maltings, home to the Lettering and Commemorative Arts Trust (LCAT). This piece is a moving extract taken from a young girl’s diary from the 1920s. The letters, cut with flowing precision into slate, capture the power of the sea and the writer’s passion for sailing, evoking a moment in time when billowing sails and wooden keels would have been a common sight for a child growing up, as this one did, on the Suffolk coast.
I look at the piece in the company of Harriet Frazer, the trust’s founding director. It’s no wonder she’s drawn to it – the words are those of her mother, Anne Gathorne-Hardy, then aged just 14 but precociously knowledgable about the boats she watched near her Snape home.
Harriet pulls herself away to settle into a squashy sofa by a library of books on letter-carving and tell me about the project that’s absorbing her, co-curator Breeze, and the rest of the trust’s small team – preparation for a key exhibition, entitled Masters and Apprentices: the Transfer of Passion. It is the trust’s first in the Snape space it has occupied for the past year.
“I’m hoping the exhibition will give visitors a clear view of what we do,” she says, “that we’re as much about preserving letter-carving skills, making sure this neglected skill is passed on, as we are about helping people with commissioning work.”
The exhibition features the work of seven apprentices and their masters, tracing the long process of learning and teaching. Six are officially former apprentices and now run their own workshops, while the seventh is half-way through the two-year programme. The trust has been running apprenticeships in various formats since 2002 with several years of funding from the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and, more recently, the Radcliffe Trust.
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The exhibition will also explain the broader remit of the trust, its role as a hub for lettering artists, connecting them with clients wanting a unique piece of decorative art or an exquisite memorial.
It’s an organisation born of a tragic event, the death 25 years ago of Harriet’s stepdaughter, Sophie, aged just 26, who Harriet had brought up from a young child. “When Sophie died our family found the process of finding an artist, and dealing with the regulations surrounding what can and can’t be put in a churchyard, a minefield,” she says. “Where do you begin? I set up Memorials by Artists to help people by introducing them to a suitable artist and producing an illustrated guide on commissioning a unique memorial.”
A shift some years later broadened the scope of Memorials by Artists (which comes under the LCAT umbrella), to include letter-carved decorative pieces.
Now, clients can tap into the trust’s network of 70 or so artists to find the right person for their particular need. “We know most of our artists really well, their personalities, their style of work and it’s important to us that we help to enable a good collaboration between artist and client,” Harriet explains. “We help deeply bereaved and often confused people to create a lasting memorial to the beloved person they have lost. We sometimes help with the wording, sometimes suggest ideas and always give reassurance. We urge people not to hurry; the stone will be there forever and it needs to be right.”
Hilary Meynell is often the first trust person a client speaks to. “Quite often families will have some ideas, but many don’t know where to begin,” she says. “We listen and eventually try and put them in touch with the most suitable artist. The process can take months; quite often clients stop and start. The longest commission took eight years the family was in such grief.”
Hilary is hopeful that having the Centre at Snape Maltings with its displays, educational workshop space, and small shop selling prints, books and decorative objects, will increase the amount of non-memorial work undertaken – at the moment it accounts for barely 10% of commissions. “Visitors will see there’s more to lettering than just a gravestone. It can create a beautiful object for the home or garden too.”
Harriet and I walk round the display one last time. However many times she looks at the works, she says they take her breath away. Others seem to have had the same reaction – several pieces have a red ‘sold’ dot next to them. We pause by Breeze’s piece of her mother’s writing. For sale? “It’s not going anywhere,” Harriet says, firmly. “It will stay here always.” That seems so right.
Masters and Apprentices: the Transfer of Passion is at the Lettering Arts Centre, Snape Maltings, until June 30. The centre is open Friday-Monday.