Ralph Beyer and Coventry Cathedral

When I was writing about the St John’s Bible last week I was reminded of the typography of Coventry Cathedral and wanted to post a couple of pictures of it then, but I wasn’t immediately able to find decent pictures. I’ve had a proper look round, done some more research and found some pictures and I think given the history of the cathedral it’s an appropriate post for Easter Sunday, with themes of rebirth and all; Following the destruction of St Michael’s Cathedral (and much of the city) in a Luftwaffe attack on the 14th of November 1940:

…the then leaders of the Cathedral Community took the courageous step to build a new Cathedral and preserve the remains of the old Cathedral as a moving reminder of the folly and waste of war. From that point, Coventry Cathedral became the inspiration for a ministry of peace and reconciliation that has reached out across the entire world.Wikipedia: Coventry Cathedral

The new Cathedral was designed by Sir Basil Spence (who also designed my alma mater, Sussex University), with stained glass by John Piper and Keith New, the great tapestry by Graham Sutherland, sculptures by Jacob Epstein and John Bridgeman, the Great West Window by John Hutton and last, but absolutely not least, lettering and carvings by Ralph Beyer. It’s this lettering that fascinates me, and it’s strange that there are so very few pictures of it.


Some of the Tablets of the Word by Ralph Beyer. Picture from the QTVR movies in the Virtual Tour. There is also a picture from 1962 on the Time Life website here.

When I was looking for pictures I revisited the Cathedral’s website (which for some reason has no photo gallery) and realised that it’s possible to get some decent pictures out of the well-intentioned but bizzarely designed ‘Virtual Tour’. So with one exception (below), that’s where I got the pictures here. I don’t like being negative, but that virtual tour really could have a better user interface. It dominates and detracts from the movies, which are presented at a size that’s far, far too small - the content and the Cathedral deserves better than that.


Detail of one of the Tablets of the Word by Ralph Beyer. Picture by Herry Lawford on Flickr.

How Beyer came to be chosen for the Coventry Cathedral project is interesting, and includes a fair few other famous names and some remarkable coincidences. I have to quote fairly liberally from his obituary in the Times, or I’d just be rewriting it:

In 1937, aged 16, Beyer visited England where, on the recommendation of Mendelsohn, he spent six months as an apprentice to Eric Gill. Like Gill, and doubtless enthused by him, Beyer was fascinated by the qualities of carved stone, by simple sculptural forms and especially by letterform. Ralph then studied in London, at the Central School of Arts & Crafts and at Chelsea School of Art where he met Henry Moore, for whom he worked briefly before being interned as an enemy alien at the outbreak of the war.The Times

While in the internment camp, he met and befriended the young Nikolaus Pevsner, who had started work on An Outline of European Architecture and would later write the Pevsner Architectural Guides.

Encouraged by Henry Moore, Spence decided that, the Sutherland tapestry apart, the dominant decorative feature of the interior of the new Coventry Cathedral should be lettering rather than narrative sculpture. He knew he was looking not simply for a craftsman but for an artist capable of making a truly distinctive contribution. It was Pevsner who suggested that Spence should meet Beyer, to learn how he might approach a project which was to become the defining challenge of his life.The Times

The Independent has a more extensive obituary, and highlights a good point about the style of the modern Church of England being inspired by the early church, which I think is what reminded me of this work when looking at the St John’s Bible:

Although Spence’s cathedral was criticised for its conventional Latin cross plan, Beyer’s Tablets of the Word reflected post-war ecclesiastical interest in the early church and today they remain strikingly innovative examples of lapidary art.The Independent

Beyer also designed a typeface for use on hymnals and other publications. The cathedral website makes good use of the typeface using Flash, and using browser zooming and screenshots I’ve assembled the text at right and top right. Of course that’s no substitute for the real typeface; I’d like to see if there’s a lowercase, other weights or styles, what the rest of the numerals look like, and how it’s kerned.


Further use of the Beyer face behind the altar, and at right more influences from the interest in the early Christian church, with the Chi Rho symbol, denoting Christ.


The inlaid lettering by the Great West Window. Finding clear pictures of this is nigh-on impossible, and I’m tempted to turn up with my camera and tripod and make my own. As it is, here’s a closeup.

It’s worth reading both obituaries, he had an interesting life and career: The Times Obituary, The Independent Obituary.

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