Renton’s memorial headstone, which he designed himself
Opening in Suffolk this Friday is a free exhibition showcasing 50 years of work by the late, great lettering artist, designer and engraver Michael Renton – a collection that was nearly destroyed after he died unexpectedly in 2001.
His Hands Magic is the first major retrospective of Renton’s work and includes a vast range of lettering, illustrations, engravings and calligraphy, as well as original designs for his own memorial headstone (pictured top) and signage for Winchester Cathedral, plus sketches and notes recovered from the barn in Sussex where he worked for 30 years. The show was organised by Harriet Frazer and curated by John Nash and Simon Langsdale.
Born in London in 1934, Renton enrolled at Harrow Art School in 1949 and was introduced to lettering by George Mansell, the former partner of lettering artist Percy Smith. In 1951, he joined London engraving firm S Slinger Ltd on a six-month trial and stayed for five years, before setting up his own workshop in rural East Sussex in 1963.
While he initially specialised in wood engraving and signwriting, Renton earned most of his income through memorial work and letter carving. He also produced illustrations for books, book jackets and record sleeves and worked closely with Memorials by Artists, an organisation set up by Harriet Frazer as part of the Lettering and Commemorative Arts Trust, designing several memorials and the woodblock for its logo.
Cover design for Renton’s book, Portrait of Rye, a collection of wood engravings
Town Hall and St Mary’s Rye illustration, 1975, from Portrait of Rye
In 2001, however, he died unexpectedly aged just 67. While moving out of his studio and into a new flat in Winchester, he collapsed and was taken to hospital, where he began to recover but later contracted an infection and died on July 15. As Renton died without a will, and with no living relatives, his work was at risk of being thrown away, but was rescued by Nash (who knew him) and Gerry Fleuss, a calligrapher and chairman of the Edward Johnston Foundation.
“Michael’s death was shockingly unexpected…his Albion press remained at the Granary [his workshop], along with most of his correspondence and job files, boxes of engraved wood blocks, masses of engraved prints, proofs and sketchbooks and in one of the nearby machine sheds on the farm, dozens and dozens of books.
“Eventually dates were sent for clearance of both the Granary and his flat, which presumably would have meant most of Michael’s work going for landfill. I enlisted the help of Gerry…and we were able, in three or four trips, to record and remove a great deal of beautiful stuff and take it to the Foundation’s archive in Ditchling. By necessity, we concentrated on artefacts having to do with lettering, leaving watercolours and drawings etc behind. A number of framed prints went to a gallery in Fulham, and the press was bought by typographer Justin Howes, in an attempt to go some good way to paying the solicitor’s fees,” he explains.
Much of Renton’s archive now resides at the Edward Johnston Foundation (of which Nash is a member), where it can be studied by visitors alongside work from John Woodcock, Irene Wellington, Wendy Westover, Ken Breese and others. “Michael was a prime example of a craftsman whose work was part of, and lent beauty to, the daily life of those around him – work not primarily meant to be hung on gallery walls. As such, the archive of EJF seems an appropriate place for it,” he adds.
Fressingfield wine label design
Nash first met Renton in the 1980s – “I can’t claim to have known him well, [but] I was an acquaintance and admirer,” he says – when he was studying studying brush-lettering part time at City & Guilds of London Art School.
“My teacher was Bob DuVivier, who had worked with William Sharpington, the finest London signwriter of the period…more than once, Bob mentioned a former star pupil, who was also a master wood engraver; this man showed up at the school one day to talk about his work and show slides, and that’s how I met Michael,” he explains. “In 1989, I wrote an article about ‘English Brush Lettering’ for hte journal of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, and spent some very pleasant pub hours picking Michael’s brains [and] would meet him occasionally after that.”
Record cover for The Sun & The Moon, and original drawing (below)
Although he never visited it while Renton was alive, Nash said his workshop was remarkable – accessed by a 25-minute walk from the nearest bus stop (Renton had no car), it was housed in a two-storey brick outbuilding set into a hillside on a farm, owned by a family who allowed him to stay there for free. “One end of the small space was taken up by a gigantic drawing board; at the other end, a ladder led up to a sleeping platform. Much of the remaining space was taken up by drawers, filing cabinets and shelves full of books and classical music tapes. The lower level, which looked as though it might once have been a sty, was the letter carving workshop and the printing office,” he explains.
Advertising sign from Renton’s workshop
Renton working on a wall tablet memorial in his Suffolk workshop
In showcasing Renton’s work, he hopes the exhibition will highlight the diversity of his archive and his astonishing artistic talents. “Michael never had students or workshop employees, so he can’t be said to be ‘influential’ in the way that Johnston, Gill, Percy Smith…and Irene Wellington were. Nor was he necessarily the ‘best’ engraver, lettercarver or pen letterer among the immensely talented craftsmen who sparked the English typographical and calligraphic renaissance of the 1940s and 50s, but he was unique in the number of things he coud do extremely well.
“As I hope the exhibition will show, he was equal to the finest as a calligrapher, wood engraver, signwriter, painter, printer, lettercarver, illustrator, letter designer and commercial artist, as well as being able to draw and paint with great skill. He was perhaps most outstanding as one of the last expert practitioner of wood-engraved lettering in the tradition of Reynolds Stone and Leo Wyatt,” he says. “Michael, like many others, carried on the Johnston-Gill tradition [of letter carving and design] – in his case, on a remarkable number of fronts, and in some very original ways.”
His Hands Magic opens at the Lettering Arts Centre, Snape Maltings, Suffolk IP17 1SA on April 3 until June 28. Admission is free. For details, see letteringartstrust.org.uk
Illustration for the Folio Society’s edition of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, published 1980
Sussex Craftsmen book jacket design, 1991
Memorials by Artists logo, designed by Renton