A love of letters

We all need a hinterland – territory beyond the world of work. Mine is lettering.

When I’m not writing, I’m painting letters. I forget about choosing words and think instead about the curves of an S or the strength of an H. There’s no clattering keyboard, just a fine watercolour brush and a sheet of paper.

My love of lettering may have begun when I was nine and tried designing my own alphabet. It certainly links to an old, richly-toned wooden cigar box in which my mother kept pens and nibs (plus a picture of Frank Sinatra) from when she worked in the drawing office at Portsmouth Dockyard in the 1950s.

At school, the writing sometimes mattered more to me than the words. “Are we meant to be doing this exercise in rough or neat?” I once asked a bemused English teacher. “Just use the writing you’d use for a note to the milkman,” he said.

I learned to write fast for exams: a side of A4 in 12 minutes. Painting letters, I might get two, three or four done in that time. My sable brush rests on my middle finger alongside a small bump that appeared years ago after endless essays.

By the time I was writing for a living, handwriting had no relevance at all but it did get me my first freelance job. I chatted with my prospective client about writing styles and the value of grammar, but we truly bonded over a love of pens.

My interest in lettering re-ignited a while later and after a few courses at West Dean College, followed by the inspiring and generous mentoring of Sue Hufton, I find there is little else I’d rather be doing in any spare moment. It feels like an apprenticeship, this learning from masters of their trade. I have to focus in a way I’ve rarely focused before.

Podcasts are perfect company; football commentaries less so. Hoping against hope that Portsmouth will cling on to a 1-0 lead at home against Barnsley is not a recipe for a steady hand and flowing, expressive writing. Learning about the Battle of Trafalgar, Jeremy Thorpe or the Watergate Scandal on The Rest is History is, on the other hand, pretty much ideal.

Lockdown meant more time lost in letters. It’s when I designed the artworks for my first two products, mugs that celebrate the beauty of the South Downs. I’d tramped most days past Piglegged Row or Lostlabour Copse; I’d gazed up at Lambdown Hill and wondered about the origin of Halfmoon Piece. Another excuse to put brush to paper.

My two designs – Chalkpit and Nightingale – have been faithfully reproduced by a Staffordshire pottery onto fine bone china mugs. Both mugs are stocked by the South Downs National Park shop in Midhurst. You can also buy them by clicking here