Speaking Volumes: Love and Joy about Letters

March 6, 1998

Speaking Volumes on Ben Shahn's Love and Joy about Letters .

My choice is a book I have never owned. I have not even seen it since 1980. Love and Joy about Letters written and illustrated by Ben Shahn was published in New York by Grossman in 1963. There used to be a copy in the library at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, but that was stolen by one of my students, who apparently coveted it even more than I did. I only have a dog-eared photocopy of the text, but it is still inspiring.

I was a painting student at Camberwell in 1966 when Robert Medley was head of department. He gave Ron Kitaj his first teaching job, employed Frank Auerbach, Patrick Procktor, Euan Uglow among others.

In those days students were required to study a subsidiary subject and it was assumed that the painters would take printmaking. To everyone's surprise, I chose lettering which was taught in the graphic arts department. The staff there were equally surprised but pleased - the whole of Camberwell subscribed to the supremacy of fine art and to capture a painting student, even for one day a week, was quite a coup. I do not know exactly why lettering appealed to me, I enjoyed all sorts - graffiti, hieroglyphics, Islamic calligraphy and classic Roman letters.

The teaching focused on craft skills, which were not my strength, and my strained and scrappy pieces of painted lettering were excruciating. I continued doggedly until Vernon Shearer, head of graphic arts, showed me Love and Joy about Letters. Everything changed.

Shahn, a social-realist painter and graphic designer, was born in 1898 to a Jewish, Lithuanian family. He emigrated to New York and, in 1912, became apprenticed to a lithographer's shop, where he studied lettering. He describes in Love and Joy about Letters how he had to draw the letter A hundreds of times before the foreman would accept it and allow him to proceed with B C D and so on. There is also the delightful story of the secret of the glass of water. "Imagine", the foreman said to Shahn, "that you have a small measuring glass. It holds, of course, so much water. Now you have to pour the water into the spaces between the letters and every one has to contain exactly the same amount whatever its shape".

Much later, Shahn began to use words and letters as part of his paintings, for their beauty and for their meaning, frequently using Hebrew letters. He also loved hand lettering by amateurs and sometimes incorporated these signs as part of his paintings such as "We Don't Know Where Mom Is, but We've got Pop on Ice". All conventions are broken, letters are thick where they should be thin, thin where they should be thick, serifs are added where they do not belong and left out where they do. Shahn developed an alphabet based on this folk art that he used for several projects. He wanted to confound the experts, but was amazed to discover that other artists were using it. An editor friend of his, speaking at the American Institute of Graphic Arts said: "Shahn is a subversive! He has subverted you all. You all used to have some sense of letters and lettering; now you are all using that alphabet!" He certainly subverted me. Letters could escape from their set lines, could be almost illegible, convey emotions, create dramatic compositions, in fact be an abstract, visual art comparable with painting. Content and form came together in large, decorative pieces of work and I soon discovered that lettering was a different type of drawing.

Staff in Camberwell's graphic arts department were intrigued by my work and very supportive. Before I graduated from the Royal College of Art I was asked to return to Camberwell and teach lettering to foundation students, which is how my career in art and design education began - senior lecturer, principal lecturer, director of the Camberwell Press, dean and professor.

If the student who made off with Camberwell's copy of Love and Joy about Letters discovers his or her conscience, please contact me. If anyone else knows where a copy could be found, I would love to know.

Eileen Hogan is emeritus professor, Camberwell College of Art and Design.

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