Interview: P R O F E S S O R M I C H A
E L T W Y M A N
Michael Twyman, recently retired head of the Department of Typography and
Graphic Communications at Reading University, will serve as scholar/guide on this
year's Legacy of Letters Tour of Rome & Florence, September 12-22. This
conversation with Garrett Boge recounts his extensive teaching career and the celebrated
vacation courses to Italy that he led for nearly 30 years.
First things first -- please introduce yourself in general terms and in any personal terms
you care to.
I was born in outer London in 1934, which happens to be 100 years after the year in which
William Morris was born and Alois Senefelder died. I refer to these men because they
represent the two strands of my professional life: typography and books, and the history
of lithography. My father was a schoolmaster and my mother (now 97) what was in those days
dismissively called a 'housewife'.
World War II I was evacuated to Broadway in the Cotswolds, an experience that left me with
a lasting affection for mature buildings and landscape. After the war I returned to
bomb-scarred London where I went to Sir George Monoux Grammar School in Walthamstow. While
there I worked reasonably hard, played a lot of sport (soccer, cricket, and athletics),
and developed a special interest in art.
this stage I was introduced to lettering by my art master, Frank Wood, who was something
of a specialist in heraldry. He taught calligraphy in the style of Edward Johnston and
what was called 'block lettering' (done on graph paper). While still at school I became
moderately skilled - for my age - as a letterer of notice boards and posters. Mercifully,
none of this work survives, but what I produced was - as I now know - essentially in the
Johnston/Gill sans serif tradition.
big decision at the end of my school days was whether to go on to university to study
geography or to follow an art course somewhere. The latter would normally have meant going
to art-school, but I had set my heart on university. The compromise was to choose one of
the three university courses in England then offering degrees in art. My professional
advisers thought I should go to art school. I decided otherwise, and this decision, for
better or worse, has been pivotal in my life. I applied to Reading University, was
accepted, and started my course in 1953. There I met my wife Pauline (Nin), and also
gradually developed an interest in typography and lithography.
course at Reading involved a wide range of activities over the first two years, including
drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, lettering (called 'Roman lettering'),
typography, and the history of art. All students were required to take two other subjects
in their first year, and I chose Geography and French. In addition, I began to learn some
Italian on a voluntary basis. After the second year we had to specialize, and my interests
took me in the direction of what was somewhat disingenuously called 'Advanced design and
book production'. This involved me in printmaking (mainly lithographs and
wood-engravings), typography and, to a lesser degree, lettering. It was at this stage that
I became heavily involved in making colour lithographs and also began to read about the
history of letterforms, printing, and book design.
graduated in 1957 and was then awarded a University Research Scholarship to undertake work
on the history of lithography. (I should add that the programme I set myself has not yet
been completed, even though I have worked steadily in this field for over 40 years!) I was
a full-time research student at Reading University for one year before going up to
Cambridge University to follow a postgraduate course in education. The latter qualified me
to teach, and at that stage I expected to spend my working life as an art teacher in
schools. Shortly after this time I married Pauline (née Andrews). She has spent most of
her professional life as an art specialist in primary and secondary schools, and in
continuing education. She continues to paint and to exhibit her work, which is based on
observation. We have three children, all in their thirties, and six grandchildren.
Please outline for us the genesis and evolution of the Department of Typography and
Graphic Communications at Reading University and your role with it:
While I was at Cambridge - much to my surprise and delight - I was invited back to teach
at Reading by my former professor of art, J. Anthony Betts. The job I was offered was to
take over from the person who had taught me typography, William McCance. I took up my
appointment in 1959.
of my initial job at Reading involved teaching the history of art to first-year students.
I was not qualified in the normal sense of the word to do this, but did not regard the
task as a burden as I had developed a real interest in the subject, and particularly in
Italian Renaissance art. I owe this interest in art history to Professor Leopold
Ettlinger, who allowed me to attend a couple of his vacation courses in Italy (Rome and
Florence). This was the beginnings of a love affair with Italian art and architecture that
has never waned. Later on, it also provided me with the idea of running similar courses on
inscriptional lettering in Italy. But that is to get ahead of my story.
the first few years of my teaching at Reading I approached typography much as I had been
taught it. In this period I also worked as a typographic designer and produced and
exhibited prints (mainly lithographs and lino cuts). I even sold prints and had a London
agent. But in the 1960s it became clear to me that the subject I had been appointed to
teach (Typography) needed a more rigorous approach, similar to what some of the best
architectural courses offered at the time: a blend of practice, theory, and history. With
this in mind I devised a course which was called 'Typography & Graphic Communication',
the structure of which still survives. After a long and hard struggle, this course was
established in 1968. Successful students gained a BA honours degree in Typography &
Graphic Communication and, as far as I am aware, this was the first such university course
anywhere in the world. The course attached importance to studying theory and history
alongside practice: these studies were held to be valuable in their own right, but they
also underlined the belief that typographers need to be readers in order to practice well.
continued to run this course until the year before I retired from full-time teaching in
1998. By this time I had been teaching at Reading for almost 40 years. A lot happened in
this period in response to technological changes, and significant changes came also with
the establishment of an independent department of Typography & Graphic Communication
in 1974, and with the building up of a flourishing research school (with around 20 PhD
students each year).
own personal development at Reading records a PhD on 'Lithography 1800-1850' in 1966; a
Personal Professorship in 1976; and an Established Professorship in 1985. I now have the
status of Emeritus Professor (which doesn't mean much!). Needless to say, I sat on
countless committees. My greatest professional satisfaction lies in the setting up of both
the course and department at Reading; the many generations of students I have been
fortunate enough to teach; and the commitment of colleagues with whom I have worked.
For those unfamiliar with your work and writing, can you describe your specific area(s) of
While at Reading my own research and scholarship has taken four main directions:
The history of lithography. This has led to numerous articles and six books, among them
'Lithography 1800-1850' (OUP, 1970), 'Early lithographed books' (Farrand Press, 1990), and
'Early lithographed music' (Farrand Press, 1996).
Nineteenth-century jobbing and ephemeral printing. This is represented by articles and two
books: 'John Soulby, printer, Ulverston' (1966) and 'Printing 1770-1970' (E& S, 1970;
reprinted The British Library, 1998). This work continues through the editing of Maurice
Rickards' 'Encyclopedia of Ephemera'.
Printing techniques and processes. This field overlaps with a & b, but is different
from them in that it has led to works of a more general and non-specialist kind, in
particular work for several encyclopedias, the 'Shorter Oxford English Dictionary', and,
most recently, 'The British Library guide to printing: history and techniques' (British
Theory of graphic language, often as it relates to education. This work is represented by
many articles and contributions to conferences.
this time I have given numerous lectures in various parts of Europe and North America on a
wide range of topics. My fields of interest range from children's handwriting,
inscriptional lettering, printing processes, type design, typographic design, book design,
and typographic theory, through to Neurath's Isotype (International System of Typographic
Picture Education) and pictorial language generally. For the last six years I have taken a
regular set of classes at the Rare Book School of the University of Virginia.
What role did the study of inscriptions play in the program at Reading?
In short, the answer is that it plays a very significant part. My own interest in the
subject began with my first trips to Italy in the mid-1950s and this experience convinced
me of the importance of such studies. Looking back - which I am now inclined to do from
time to time - I realize that one of the more sensible things I did early on in the
development of the Reading course was to invite James Mosley to teach, on a part-time
basis, something we called 'History of letterforms and typography'. This course has been a
great success, and still runs. It was clear to me, even in those days, that James was too
important a figure to leave out of the plans I had for Reading.
as the Reading programme developed, I was able to incorporate elements of the study of
inscriptional lettering into art history vacation courses run by the Fine Art Department.
In those days these courses were run by Dr Jennifer Montagu (who has subsequently
established a world reputation as an art historian). Finally, in the early 1970s, I
managed to get two vacation courses established for students on the new BA course in
Typography & Graphic Communication: one to Italy (to study inscriptions) the other to
Northern Europe (to study early printing and modernism). Both continue. The reactions of
students to these courses over the years have convinced me that - despite the costs and
intense work involved - they provide an indispensable element in Reading's typography
programme. There is really no substitute for seeing real inscriptions in context: the
whole experience demonstrates in a heightened and specific way the part played by
lettering in the past.
What is your experience with 'lettering', per se; and how was 'lettering' incorporated
into the program at Reading?
I would say that it permeates most parts of the programme. All students are required to do
a certain amount, but others can take it much further. Students practice lettering in all
kinds of media, including cutting on stone, and a few ex-students now work professionally
as lettercutters. We are fortunate in having Michael Harvey to teach the practice of
lettering, and Christopher Burke and Gerard Unger to teach type design. Practical work is
examined as a whole through a display of course work, which may include lettering.
Theoretical and historical parts of the programme are examined through written papers (one
specifically on letterforms and typography), and by means of a dissertation. Over the
years scores of undergraduate dissertations have been written on aspects of lettering
(some of which add to knowledge in our field).
I know that you are on the board of the Association Typographique Internationale; can you
describe your responsibilities with ATypI or what you consider to be your area(s) of
I see my role as representing the disinterested enthusiast.
What other professional associations do you maintain?
I have been an FCSD (Fellow of the Society of Chartered Designers) for many years, and
still am an FIOP (Fellow of the Institute of Printing). My professional roles are really
too numerous to list, but they range from Chairman of the Working Party on Typographic
Teaching in the late 1960s and to heavy involvement with the Council for National Academic
Awards in the 1970s and 1980s, through to my present positions. These include Chairman of
the Printing Historical Society, Chairman of the National Printing Heritage Trust,
Chairman of the Curatorium of the International Institute for Information Design,
President of the Foundation for Ephemera Studies, and a Director of the Board of ATypI.
You retired from full-time teaching in 1998. What does your 'retirement' actually
I have been travelling a lot. In many ways too much. This has kept me very busy and
prevented me from getting on with other things. I must learn to ration my time. Every trip
requires so much by way of preparation, and this often has to be done while the mind is
focussed on other things. (To rub it in, I am answering questions on Italy just as I'm
trying to wrap my mind around a set of talks in Virginia next week on lithographed music,
graphic language, and the history of printing! I'm not sure my mind is up to this.)
Reading, I have been re-appointed on a minimal part-time basis to do some teaching and to
continue to supervise some research students. I am also continuing for the foreseeable
future as Director of the University's Centre for Ephemera Studies.
Knowing you for a modest man, but under threat that I would find a way to get this
information through other means -- are there any awards, citations, or particularly
meaningful accolades that you have achieved in your professional career?
I don't usually go in for awards (fear of failure perhaps!). All I can claim is the Pepys
Medal for outstanding contributions to ephemera (1983); runner up in the Premio
Internazionale Felice Feliciano (1991) for my book 'Early lithographed books'; the
C.B.Oldman Prize of the International Association of Music Libraries and the Vincent
Duckles Award of the Music Library Association (America) for 'Early lithographed music'
As I'm working with you in the context of the Legacy of Letters Tour, and we're preparing
for the 1999 tour to Rome and Florence, let's return to the Italy study course you
designed at Reading. What year did you begin taking students to Rome?
From the early 1960s as part of the art history courses; specific inscriptional lettering
courses from the early 1970s. I can't recall the actual year we began.
What prompted this idea? Was this unique? It would NOT have been a common undergraduate
experience in the States in the 60s.
I believe that Italy study courses were more common in England than in America, especially
for students of art and architecture. And, as I mentioned, it was my objective to present
lettering and typography in the larger context of both fine and applied arts. The tour
courses, both to Italy and to the Low Countries, are appropriate extensions of the
classroom, and of course, became quite popular with the students and the accompanying
In your years of leading Italy tours, can you recount some of the most memorable
experiences you've had?
These relate to student hoaxes. The first of these was perhaps the most memorable, but the
others were good too. All of them depend on the boring predictability of our trips in
terms of scheduling.
we have always taken a long, brisk walk along the Via Appia to see an important Republican
inscription. The latter became impressed on student minds, not so much because of the
epigraphic qualities of the stone, but because of its distance down the Via Appia. One
year, I forget when, we undertook our familiar route march only to find that the
inscription in question had been wrapped in black plastic sheets and tied up with string.
Covering of such monuments - as recent visitors to Rome will have discovered - is not
unusual. But I should have been more suspicious than I was, because the plastic sheet
carried a label lettered: 'Vietato tocare' (not 'Vietato toccare') - Do not touch. In the
excitement of the inscriptional chase, there is little room for rational thinking! For a
moment we discussed what we should do: after all, we had walked miles, and there was no
one around. Or so we thought! At the very point of action, several heads emerged from
behind the bushes. They belonged to students who had been on the course two years before
and had fully anticipated the fragile state we would all be in. They had raised funds to
fly out, wrapped the inscription, and risked the hazards of clashes with those who
violated such monuments to entertain their clients: all for the pleasure of seeing the
expressions on our faces!
was the first of several such hoaxes, but accounts of the others will have to wait. Some
other memorable - and not to be recommended - experiences can hardly be mentioned for the
sake of the students concerned. But the pleasurable ones all have to do with student
enthusiasm for what one might assume would be regarded as stuffy old things from the past.
More specifically, I recall vigorous walks up the Via Appia, sun blessed picnics on the
Palatine, early mornings in the markets of the Campo dei Fiori, and quiet moments of
contemplation in Florentine cloisters.
What is your own personal favorite site in Rome, and why?
It has to be overlooking the Forum at night. My last excitement every trip, either
individually or with a few others, is to climb the steps of the Capitol, walk round to the
right of the Tabularium, cast my eyes over the floodlit ruins of the Forum, and ponder on
the passing of the years. Where else can one experience such a concentrated panorama of
What about in Florence?
Similarly, I'm in little doubt. The view over Florence from San Miniato, preferably as the
sun is setting, takes some beating. And it's better if it comes after a long up-hill
pilgrimage on foot (or knees!).
NOT a requirement on the Legacy of Letters Tour, I hasten to add! Thank you, Michael, for
sharing your backbround and some reflections on both Rome and Florence.
© 1999 Legacy of Letters