The life – and character – of Berthold Wolpe examined in a new show

Designer and typographer Berthold Wolpe is the focus of a new exhibition at the Lettering Arts Centre in Suffolk, which aims to provide a more rounded exploration of his life and personality

While a broad selection of the hand-drawn artwork Wolpe created for various book cover projects will be included in the LAC show, it’s his distinctive character and habits that guest curator Phil Cleaver was keen to convey.

“The idea was to have an exhibition that reflected what he was like,” he explains. “It’s actually like trying to build an installation about him.”

Born in Germany in 1905, Wolpe came to London in 1935 having escaped Nazi persecution. He went on to design typefaces for Monotype (including his most famous face, Albertus), joined Faber & Faber in 1941 and designed a new masthead for The Times in 1966.

While at Faber, Wolpe created over 1,500 covers before retiring in 1975. In September last year, The Type Archive staged an exhibition of his work to celebrate the revival of five of the designer’s typefaces by Monotype.

Unlike the work-based show at the Type Archive, the LAC exhibition will feature a host of personal items owned by the designer, including some of his lettering tools and pens, his famous coat and glasses, alongside paintings and other artefacts from the Wolpe family’s collection.

Cleaver says that a door on which the artist Charles Mosley drew a cartoon of Wolpe smoking a pipe has even been recreated for the show.

The hand-drawn artwork Wolpe created for his Faber & Faber book covers – much of it previously unseen – conveys the skills and processes he honed after years of lettering practice. In many of these examples, black letterforms are refined with with white correcting paint, further evoking a sense of Wolpe’s own hand in the design process.

“When I looked at his archive, what struck me was [that] everyone’s seen those colour reproductions of Faber covers,” says Cleaver, “but no-one’s really seen the old-fashioned artwork. On scraps of writing paper, he hand-drew all those covers.” Ninety-two of Wolpe’s finished designs for the publishers cover the back wall of the show.

The overall aim of the exhibition, says Cleaver, is to “get a feeling of what [Wolpe] was like” and for it not to feel too overly ‘designed’ – “Berthold himself wasn’t like that.”

Cleaver has also produced a book in conjunction with the exhibition, which is full of stories and personal recollections about Wolpe. From designers David Gentlemen and Alan Kitching, to the Type Archive’s Susan Shaw, each insight offers a glimpse of his personality.

In Kitching’s recollection, the designer retells the story of how the two were working on a design on paper and he offered Wolpe a knife so he could make a cut – with Wolpe replying that one should “Never cut paper when you can tear”. Shaw writes that “Berthold did not care if you were man, woman or dog, so long as you were interested in printing and lettering”.

Cleaver’s aim in both the exhibition and the book, he says, is to convey as much of what Wolpe was like as a person. “I want you to leave having known the man,” he says.

Berthold Wolpe – The Total Man is at The Lettering Arts Centre, Snape Maltings, Suffolk from tomorrow until June 24. See letteringartstrust.org.uk

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