|A Verra Guid Eye
Twice a week or so in the Pre-Dip year we went to Bath for classes at Sydney Place. Andrew Wilson taught lettering there and also Bath architecture. He was a slightly intimidating figure at first acquaintance. Must have been 70-odd, tall and straight with an accent from Northern Ireland which took some time to get used to. I soon got to know him better and it turned out that he was an extremely nice man with a heart of gold behind his gaunt exterior. He was of the old school and slightly out of many people’s range of experience which made it difficult for some to appreciate his qualities. But I had been at public school and was used to being taught by all manner of eccentric people. Andrew had some very outspoken and revolutionary political views which he was eager to express, including one where he maintained that it would be in the best interests of the UK to become a colony of the USA! Andrew had been a student of Edward Johnston the type designer along with Eric Gill of Sans repute. Andrew knew what he preached!
Our first task with Andrew was to draw a Trajan Roman alphabet. This turned out to be a major undertaking. I didn’t find it particularly difficult, mostly a question of hand-eye coordination, but some people never finished an alphabet or even got past the letter G which was supposed to be the most tricky letter.
On Tuesday evenings, at 7 o’clock in the music room at the Court, Andrew Wilson held lectures on the History of Lettering. We had to take notes and write everything up for next week’s lecture. Andrew was a stickler for punctuality and woe betide anyone who arrived late. Peter Town was late once (and only once). He put his nose round the door about half a minute after the lecture had begun. The response from Andrew was, “Goo ooot!” which Pete didn’t understand at first and stood gawping for a while. But “Goo ooot!” meant “Goo ooot!” which signified that if you were late you just had to borrow someone else’s notes for the writeup! Latecomers were simply not allowed in. If for some reason you had to make an entry to the room where Andrew was teaching you had to be very careful to knock and wait patiently for a reply, otherwise the response was sure to be “Goo ooot again and rrap the dooor!”.
The architectural drawing classes were more fun. Andrew walked for miles with us around Bath, showing us the sights of the town and then we had to sit down and draw some noteworthy building or other. I remember I once chose an extreme perspective viewpoint of a building and was rather pleased with the result. Andrew came and looked over my shoulder and said, after pausing for a slightly unnerving half a minute, “You’ve got a verra guid eye!”. That was about as much praise as anyone could expect to get from Andrew Wilson!
Andrew sometimes invited us to teashops and cafés when the weather was cold. And sometimes it was bitter. Once or twice I sneaked off to an off-license with a friend of mine to buy some miniatures of whisky to keep us warm! At lunchtimes most of the Sydney Place gang used to go out to the Crystal Palace, that pub just down the hill from the Abbey, for a pint and a pie. The landlord there was a fat and cheerful red-faced man known as Bert. I went back there in ’98 but the place had changed a bit, gone more up-market and not as cosy as of yore. And Bert has probably long since left to meet his fathers!
As to the lettering side of Andrew’s expert teaching, the knowledge I gained from it came me in very good stead many years later. I was called upon by Agfa-Compugraphic to help them with the design of the two special characters in the Icelandic alphabet, Š, š (eth, the voiced th-sound as in then) and Ž, ž (thorn, the unvoiced th-sound as in thistle), in many of their digital type fonts. I had become quite proficient in drawing them in the pre-computer days and had issued an instruction sheet for the benefit of Icelandic designers. The lower-case š can be particularly tricky to draw, especially in fonts having a large x-height. Somehow the people at Agfa had got wind of this and I spent many happy days rummaging through their fonts and drawing the missing letters. As far as I know thorn is only used in Icelandic these days, but you can see a version of it on some of the old plaques on the walls in Bath Abbey in words like Ys and Yt (abbreviations for this and that. It’s the Y in Ye Olde, the thorn having been mistaken for a Y in gothic lettering. And eth is only used in Icelandic and Faroese, though I have occasionally seen it used in old maps in England. And there’s one in the Bayeux Tapestry - See if you can find it!