Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Stephen Harvard Memorial Lecture

Since I joined Facebook in January I've rather let the blog go to seed. In with carefully chosen photographs and pithy captions, out with carefully chosen photographs and dilatory ruminations. I'm returning now to this format, however, because last Thursday was, if this is even possible, Too Awesome for Facebook. The occasion was the Stephen Harvard Memorial Lecture at Dartmouth College, this year delivered by David Godine on the subject of The Stinehour Press.

A word about Stephen Harvard then a word about The Stinehour Press. Stephen Harvard was a prolific, visionary type designer, calligrapher, lettercarver and illustrator, etc., whose work spanned centuries and various technologies in pursuit of ideal alphabets. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1970 and until his tragic death in 1988 he epitomized the trailblazing spirit of the Bridge Person, a term he coined to denote those who enrich themselves with a thorough understanding of the tradition and tools of their trade and seek to infuse new technologies, in his case the computer and the digital types he designed for Adobe, with ancient principles. I'm not qualified to judge how successfully he crossed that bridge because I've pitched my tent on the side of the river strewn with hand tools and metal type. I have no love for the computer. But I have always admired the scope of his program and, as one of the few moderns equally dexterous with a comp stick, broad-edged brush, and a mallet and chisel, he continues to be an inspirational figure to me.

At the time of his death, Stephen Harvard was Vice-President of The Stinehour Press, founded in the early fifties by another Dartmouth alum, Roderick Stinehour. For over fifty years a distinguished printer of books and ephemera in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, The Stinehour Press has long been the benevolent paterfamilias at the head of the New England book arts' dinner table. Stinehour inherited a typographic legacy burnished in the first half of the 20th century by printers like D. B. Updike, Bruce Rogers and Fred Anthoensen, and thus refracted that influence to many smaller outfits and individuals who made it their own and then passed it on. I consider myself very lucky indeed to have cultivated friendships with many people involved with Stinehour, including Rocky himself, through my six-year association with John Kristensen at Firefly Press. Thus the event at Darmouth was much more than a retrospective of the life's work of one man, though in substance it certainly was that. More accurately, it was a family reunion. For the Stinehours this was literally true.

People from all over New England and beyond descended upon the Baker-Berry Library for an afternoon of repaying in full the promise delineated in The Stinehour Press's motto: Haec Olim Meminisse Juvabit. Loosely translated from Virgil's Aeneid: In time to come you will enjoy recalling these things.

The Stephen Harvard Memorial Lecture alone was enough to drag me out of bed at 6:30 in the morning on Thursday to make the two and a half hour drive to Hanover, New Hampshire. But there was an additional element of association sweetening the anticipation leading up to the day's events. In 1969, the year before Stephen Harvard's graduation, the English printer and lettercarver Will Carter visited Dartmouth as an Artist-in-Residence. His Rampant Lions Press, later augmented by the involvement of Will's son Sebastian, was one of the shining examples of mid-20th-century English fine printing. Despite the rarified nature of many of their book projects, they always seemed to have time for the occasional wedding invitation or business card, jobbing work that other too-self-important luxury typographers tend to sniff at. Thus the range of Carter and Son's work is remarkable, often incorporating hand lettering into title pages and book jackets. While at Dartmouth, Will Carter was commissioned to design a proprietary typeface for the College, appropriately named Dartmouth, to be used in various circumstances in a range of materials. I was delighted to find that it is still in use, from lettering on napkins to helpful signage above the entrance to a parking garage.

Besides two dedicatory inscriptions in slate by the entrance to the Hopkins Center, he also contributed 14 teak panels featuring a lovely italic with a tasteful deployment of swash. Carter was equally at home carving letters in wood and stone.

Unfortunately the slate has not weathered as gracefully as the teak, owing largely to slate's receptivity to nicks and scrapes, and in some cases outright vandalism.

So, by a clever twist of fate on the 44th anniversary of Will Carter's own lecture as Artist-in-Residence at Dartmouth, I found myself at Rauner Special Collections in Webster Hall poring over his paper trail. An all-too-brief detour, I'm afraid, but I did manage to track down two articles written about his visit in the student newspaper, as well as an alphabet carved in wood for Rudolph Ruzicka and the blocks used in the printing of Carter's Caps.

Though I purchased a few knives a while back with the vague ambition of giving it a shot, lettering in wood does not itch my fingers the way lettering in stone does. No surprise then that I've always chosen to climb rocks instead of trees. As satisfying as it was to inspect the Ruzicka alphabet and marvel at the delicacy of the Hopkins panels, it wasn't until I sought out the gravestone Carter carved for Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth College, that I felt a kindred closeness to the man and his work. I left Rauner with directions to Dartmouth Cemetery but no idea as to the location of the stone. But it didn't take me long to find it, a simple headstone in Vermont purple slate overlooking the original monument in faded marble.

The chippy finish to the v-cut suggests speed as among the carver's top priorities. For a man used to English limestone and Welsh slate, the fussy Vermont purple, which in my experience resolves nicely if you're not in too much of a hurry, may have left something to be desired. Still, it is a vigorous and handsome display of Carter's Caps, a master's heroic signature in a field of anonymous chicken scratch. I attempted to make a rubbing of the Wheelock stone without much success, but what I have will at least serve as a souvenir from an enormously gratifying lettering treasure hunt.

David Godine's lecture wasn't due to begin for another four hours, so I explored Dartmouth Cemetery for any other noteworthy inscriptions, perhaps a second stone by Carter. (No such luck.) On campus maps the cemetery is a gray void, a kind of cartographic act of forgetting, and the grounds do have a pleasantly overgrown and neglected feel to them. In practice it is mostly a sobering cut-through for students on their way to and from class or a place where local pets go to donate fertilizer. The day was cool and gray, not ideal for photographs but perfect for wandering and wondering. A few stones stood out, literally.

One side of the cemetery features a series of terraces, each with a single row of memorials connected by a steep flight of stairs. As I walked the rows I looked specifically for clean, dark slate, which in New England always has a chance of having been carved by the John Stevens Shop. A trip to Sleepy Hollow in Concord, MA, a few weeks prior proved this theory with suitably gorgeous results. The last stone on the bottom terrace satisfied that criteria, so down I went.

At the risk of overstating its significance, to me this stone represents the confluence of all the rivers of influence which flow through my ongoing education as a lettercarver. Dickerson was carved by Stephen Harvard, probably fresh off his year of working under Fud Benson at the John Stevens Shop after having been introduced to lettercarving only a few years before as a student at Dartmouth during Will Carter's Artist-in-Residency. Bringing it all back home. The technical polish of the inscription owes a lot to the maniacal standards established by the Bensons, but the lettershapes are uniquely Harvard's own. They certainly are not Will Carter's. Where his are robust and full-blooded, Harvard's Caps are delicate almost to the point of fragility, somehow anticipating pixelation, or letters made of light instead of ink. The ornament of a branch laden with apples rusticates the tone of the overall design, warming the stone, altogether fulfilling what seems to me the basic requirement of every memorial: to touch the sacredness of a life.

This particular memorial belongs to Albert Inskip Dickerson, a former Dean of the College, and his wife Lucia Weimer. Since Harvard carved so few gravestones, maybe no more than half a dozen, this one carries an added burden of poignancy. On the back of the stone, the inscription would have one believe that Lucia, born in 1907, was still alive, a hale 106, the space for the year of her death left blank. But she died in 2004, outliving her husband by 32 years and her carver by 16. As with Wheelock, so with Dickerson: a man's deepest ideas there for anyone who cares to think about them, or think along with them.

Head a-swim, stomach empty, I ventured into Hanover for some lunch. Friends and fellow lecture-goers began to arrive and a few of us met up for a tour of Left Bank Books, then pizza and beer at Molly's. After driving solo up the backroads of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, followed by the hush of research at Rauner and Dartmouth Cemetery's solemn meditation, I strode back into society welcoming a chat. The display above at Left Bank Books heightened the feeling that we were there to participate in something special, a day of honoring a man, Rocky Stinehour, to whom all of us owe something and many of us owe quite a lot. The same can be said about the debt typographers and book-lovers in general owe to the man giving the lecture, the independent publisher David Godine, who reserves so much space on his list for books related to printing and the graphic arts. We packed the Main Hall of the Baker-Berry Library.

Godine's lecture was an engaging mix of greatest hits, personal favorites and admiring tangents on some of the people who contributed to the greatness of The Stinehour Press. Many of Godine's early attempts to marry the principles of fine printing to the prices of unlimited editions were shepherded through the Press by Rocky and his right-hand man, Freeman Keith. Though he eventually had to abandon letterpress as an economically viable means of printing his books, Godine followed Stinehour's example in at least one important respect: by always giving the readers more than they paid for. I like to say that while you can't judge a book by its cover, you can judge a book's cover. The sensitive design and quality of materials found behind a Stinehour spine or a Godine dustjacket are a refreshing break from the persistent indifference shown these matters by contemporary publishers in general, the result, in my opinion, of too few Bridge People.

After the lecture we filtered back into the lobby of the Baker-Berry for a reception. From the students' perspective we probably looked like a weird, old, tweedy flashmob that wasn't dancing. I had a chance to catch up with Christopher Stinehour, Rocky's son and a lettercarver visiting from Berkeley, CA. I first met Chris over three years ago when he gave a talk at the Society of Printers about his work, just as I was on the verge of buying my first mallet and chisel. Like Stephen Harvard, a close friend of his, Chris Stinehour studied briefly under Fud Benson at the John Stevens Shop. So equipped, he carved the sign outside the Book Arts Workshop in the basement of the Baker-Berry.

Eventually the crowd began to disperse, some to the highway, others to their hotels, while an exultant dozen of us marched over to Murphy's for dinner and a beer. The drive home passed by in a weary blur, the day's events already a dream flickering in the windshield. I never got a chance to meet Stephen Harvard or Will Carter, who died in 2001. But now I've gotten to know some of the works of each man, in the context they intended: out in the world, doing a job, sharing meaningful information preserved in beautiful letters.