Lida Cardozo Kindersley: the spirit of the letter

Lida Cardozo Kindersley: " l want to get through to the whole essence of life and I want to touch it.''

For Lydia Helena Lida Lopez Cardozo Kindersley cutting letters in stone is more than simply a craft. "It's a physical thing spiritually done," she says. She explaines her philosophy to Eric Bignell.   

Sometimes a consummate craftsperson produces a piece of work that makes that elusive transition to art. It could be a painting. It could be a chair. In the case of Lida Cardozo Kindersley it is lettering. 

What exactly is art is something that has occupied the minds of philosophers for millennia. For Lida art is defined by the Arts & Crafts movement. "It's a physical thing spiritually done," she says. "You can't produce art without knowing a craft. Although not all craft is art.

"There are very good stone cutters who don't necessarily produce art. Art is touching on the spiritual; there's a sensitivity you have to work towards. We have somewhere to make sense of the body and the spirit. That becomes a very complicated discussion. I want to get through to the whole essence of life and I want to touch it. That's so exciting – and so shocking in a way, but a positive way. That's really the underlying force of it.

"But even if you don't reach the heights of spiritual perfection, to be a good lettercutter is a good life; a worthwhile life ."

Lida has a direct lineage back to the early days of the Arts & Crafts movement and carver / lettercutter Eric Gill through her late husband, David Kindersley.

Gill turned to lettercutting in 1902 after studying the subject in his spare time under Edward Johnston, a pioneer of the revival of lettering, at the Central School of Arts & Crafts while articled to an architect.

Kindersley was a pupil of Gill's before World War Two and Lida was a pupil of Kindersley's before they married in 1986.

The Arts & Crafts movement at the turn of the 19th-20th century was a reaction to mass production of goods and the modernist movement in art that held art was for art's sake and should have no practical function.

The philosophy of Arts & Crafts is that the work should have integrity. It should be produced by the hands of craftspeople; cleanly, simply and honestly, without the use of decoration to hide imperfections in materials or forms.

"The Arts & Crafts idea of doing it perfectly is paramount," says Lida. "Function and beauty are everything."

She sums up the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop approach in two words: rhythm and form. Form is taught and rhythm comes from within.

The true spirit of Arts & Crafts is more strictly adhered to in this workshop than in most others. There are no air or electric tools, just the gentle tap of hammers on chisels.

"Machines don't breath," says Lida, with an accent that betrays her Continental origins. The material into which the inscriptions are being cut is frequently Wincilate or Burlington slate, from Wales and Cumbria, respectively.

"If I were God I would have laid clown slate for lettercutters," she says. "It's so perfect. You can really show off on it."

Some lettercutters have taken the view that once they have marked our the letters the actual cutting into the stone can be left to others. It is not a view shared by Lida Cardozo Kindersley, who has been running the workshop in Cambridge since David Kindersley, 40 years her senior, died in 1995. As she wrote in Letters for the Millennium, a book she jointly authored with Emma Lloyd-Jones in 1999: "The incisive moment is exactly when the act of creation is balanced between past experience and future vision."

She adds now: "When you hit the chisel you need bravery. There's no delete button. You cut and you have to go for it. That's really quite something." And for Lida, the act of cutting is fundamental to design. She marks out letters on the stone before she starts to cut and she always shows clients the work at that stage for approval. But she believes the final element of design is the cutting, which has to be performed by hand.

The lack of machinery in the workshop is not just about a belief in the importance of using hand tools. "There's a very specific reason for not using machinery," says Lida. "It would upset the peace of the workshop."

The importance of the workshop itself was emphasised in a book co-authored by David Kindersley and Lida, Letters Slate Cut, first published in 1981 and revised in 1990. ln the introduction they say of the workshop: "It is in many ways like a temple, a place of rethinking and dedication, echoing each passing day and adjusting to the demands of its hitherto unknown clientele."

They go on to talk about the roles of workshop, material and client in the creation of finished work. It is a trinity still fundamental to the Cardozo Kindersley philosophy. "There's the hammer and the chisel. Between them are your brain and the person commissioning the work. Our clients inspire me above anyone else. I can't work with an e-mail. If I'm producing a headstone I've got to know something about the person who's being commemorated."

A lot of lettering is for memorials, which gives the artist-craftsperson an unusual and special relationship with the client. "You get very involved," says Lida. "Just recently I had two people come in who wanted a memorial to their grown up son. I said: tell me about him. And the man burst into tears. He said they would be back.

"He rang two weeks later and told me they had been talking about their son, which they hadn't done since he died. The whole family had not dared to talk about the dead son. These sort of things, if you can work with it, are very beautiful."

Whether it is Eric Parry, the architect who commissioned the award-winning Bath stone sundial on the side of a new building for Pembroke College, Cambridge, or someone wanting the number '27' carved on a plaque for the front of their house, clients go to the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop because they want the best.

Lida: "They come with enormous openness. You get put into the position where you think: I'm going to do my best; I'm going to produce something really special."

There has been a succession of people working with Lida at her Workshop. Each year she takes on a new apprentice and they stay for a minimum of three years. Some stay longer, but most go off and start their own workshops, so she is effectively creating a perpetual stream of new competition. It does not worry her.

"David always said the more people involved in lettering the more people will want it because they will see the difference and they will want the difference."

The newest recruit is Emi Sato, a Japanese calligrapher who worked in a craft shop in Japan. It was there she learnt about the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop.

Last year's apprentice is Fergus Wessel, previously a potter, and the third year apprentice is Noel Cribb, whose father was apprenticed to David Kindersley and grandfather was apprenticed to Eric Gill.

Also in the workshop is Annika Larsson, a Swede who started as an apprentice four years ago and has stayed on. One of Lida's three sons, Hallam Kindersley, is following in his mother's footsteps and spends two afternoons a week in the Workshop, although, at 15, he is still in full time education.

The workshop also has a manager, Graham Cannon, and a project manager, Sarah Charlesworth. And Graham Beck, a surveyor who Lida married in 1998, now runs the business, which leaves Lida more time to cut letters.

In order to keep all hands busy a steady stream of work needs to come through the door. And it does. The Cardozo Kindersley name and reputation is an undoubted plus in that direction. Keeping the name in front of people is achieved in a variety of ways, not least through exhibitions.

Because the name is famous, galleries want the work in their exhibitions to draw people in. Because the work is seen in exhibitions the name remains famous. At the moment there is an example of Cardozo Kindersley lettering in 'The Chosen Letter' exhibition at the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield. From 8 May to 1 June there will be three further examples in 'Stone Words' at Wolseley Fine Arts in Notting Hill, London. They will move on to Harley Gallery in Worksop, Nottingham, from 14 June to 11 August.

Not that Lida much cares for exhibitions. "Exhibtions become too precious, isolating your work. But it's part of life. Our big exhibitions are the graveyards and the world outside where the work is seen."

She recalls how once she was with David Kindersley fixing a slate gravestone into a north London cemetery amid a sea of 2ft 6in black granite memorials. "I said to David: what's the point? He said: it's a sea of misery with one little finger of hope."

Clients themselves are an important part of gaining future business. All companies should understand the importance of word of mouth reference and Cardozo Kindersley's clients tend to be society's more influential and well connected people.

Then there are the lectures Lida gives and the books she has been involved in writing, spreading the philosophy as well as the craft of fine lettercutting.

In 1989 the workshop even set up its own publishing company, Cardozo Kindersley Publishing, that has so far produced eight books. Lida has two more on the way, one about the letters of the alphabet and one about apprenticeships.

And if you have seen the work and read the book, you might like to wear the T-shirt, so Lida set up a business called Cardozo Sanluis Designs with Mercedes Cowan Sanluis, selling Cardozo Kindersley merchandise such as scarves, tea towels, T-shirts and ties featuring lettering by Lida.

"To get enough work we have to be very high profile to let people know we are here. We have to have plenty of work because the only way you can perfect your art is by doing it."

These days the apprentices at the workshop are paid. When David Kindersley was learning the craft from Eric Gill it was Kindersley who had to pay for the privilege. And although Lida did not actually pay to learn the craft from Kindersley, it was on condition that she earned her keep and she had to rely on her father for an income.

Lida was 20 when she went to work with David Kindersley. She had became aware of him while she was studying graphic design at the Royal Acadamy in her home country of the Netherlands. She first met him at the International Typographic Club in Poland.

"I completely fell in love with him," she says.

Kindersley invited her to drop by his workshop if she were ever in England, in the way English people do, without expecting the offer to be taken up.

But Lida did drop by. And she told him she wanted to study with him.

He said no, at 60 he was too old to take on an apprentice. She went back to Holland and wrote him many letters. He did not reply. She met him again at a workshop in Reading and finally, in 1975, he agreed she could come and work with him for two months.

She never left and 11 years later she became his wife.

In the Cardozo Kindersley archives are details of literally thousands of jobs, many of them on prestigious buildings, none more so than the gates to the new British Library adjacent to St Pancras railway station in London.

The Library itself was four times over budget and looked as if it would never be finished. In fact, it was never finished. The original design had it bigger than it is but the government, which was paying for it, eventually pulled the plug on it and insisted the work stopped in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, it does contain some exquisite workmanship, especially the much-photographed gateway. David Kindersley himself and five people from his workshop, including Lida, worked on the in situ carving of the red Corsehill sandstone of the gateway.

As in the workshop, cutting on site is carried our by hand, which prompted the clerk of works at the British Library to tell David Kindersley: "We have a really natty little tool for carving that." Kindersley was not impressed. Lida recalls: "David told him we actually liked doing it that way. In fact it was not so much slower than using power tools."

While they were cutting the letters into the stone there was a closed competition to design the iron gates that would hang on the stone frame. The Kindersleys were not included but asked the architect, Sandy Wilson, if they could submit a design.

Wilson said they could but they would not be paid for it.

"David and I worked together on the design. This closeness with David is what I miss most," says Lida.

There were constraints. For example, any spaces low down had to be too small for children to get their heads stuck into. They made a quick drawing of iron gates formed by the words 'British Library' and submitted it to Wilson.

Three months later they heard their design had been accepted.

"It's been the highest profile job we have done and I'm very proud of it, but what we are doing here every day is just as important," says Lida.

She says the workshop makes it possible to take contracts like the British Library and the Churchill Archives in Cambridge that they will be starting in August and which, again, the whole workshop will be involved in. Lida: "Because we are all from the same workshop we have the same way of working."

At the same time, being relatively small means they are flexible. So, for instance, when they received a commission from Great Ormond Street hospital in London for a 150th anniversary plaque that had to be ready for the Queen's unveiling on 14 February, Lida produced her design over Christmas, the hospital accepted it on 1 January and the workshop made sure it was finished on time.

"We don't hurry things, but if we have a time limit we will work through the night if necessary," says Lida.

Current projects, apart from the usual private commissions for gravestones, include making a memorial to William Hazlitt, the essayist, carrying a long inscription that was originally put on his grave but which mysteriously disappeared soon after his death.

The workshop will also be making a large 'noon marker' sundial in central London. A 'noon marker' indicates midday at various times of the year, such as the equinox and solstice. It will go on the wall of a building.

The Cardozo Kindersley Workshop also works internationally, mostly in the USA and Japan. Lida's clients have included an executive of Honda, a calligrapher who sent Lida an example of his brushwork in Japanese for her to produce in stone. She did, although it required some interpretation as the brush strokes could not have been cut just as they were on paper. The man was delighted with the work and sent her a letter of thanks and a bicycle... but no money.

After a while she approached a contact she had at Honda in Germany about payment. The executive was so embarrassed he jumped on a plane straight away and paid her in £10 notes he produced from a briefcase.

After more than 20 years of lettercutting Lida has many stories of the people she has worked with, but none reveal the slightest hint of disillusionment with her chosen craft. On the contrary, she still talks about lettering with an almost religious zeal. "There's nothing like it; sitting there with a chisel and hammer. It's what Patrick Barry would call his prayer."

She is referring to the Abbot of Ampleforth Abbey, Yorkshire, himself an accomplished lettercutter, for whom she and David Kindersley inscribed a slate for a building in 1987.

Lida is not of any particular religion but says: "I do have a strong belief that we must reverse the trend of our descent into materialism. This can certainly be done through working with our hands, honestly and deliberately.

"Lettercutting, which is a solitary action, is made valid by listening to what is wanted and creating it with all the force, brainpower and sensitivity we can muster. Only then will it be appropriate, truly beautiful and, therefore, stand up to the ugliness we see around us."