10 February 2010

The Planter Typeface

When I first arrived in the Annapolis Valley back in the mid 1990s and started looking into the history of the place, I was attracted to the work of a primitive stone cutter whose sandstone markers were found in many of the local graveyards. The decoration caught my eye first, but the lettering was what really hooked me.

Known only as ‘The Horton Carver’ (his name has not yet turned up in any period documents, such as invoices or probate records), his stones start appearing in the 1770s in burial grounds all around Nova Scotia’s Minas Basin – places like Kentville, Wolfville, Gaspereau, Chipmans Corner, Horton, Cornwallis, Onslow, and Londonderry, for example. Previous to this, if you were important enough (i.e., wealthy) to have your final resting place marked with a cut stone (instead of wood, or nothing), the stone was most likely carved in New England and imported. With the arrival of the New England Planters in the 1760s, the economy and population grew to the point where a local market for stone cutting evolved. You can read more about the Horton Carver and Nova Scotian gravestones in Deborah Trask’s excellent book Life How Short, Eternity How Long: Gravestone Carving in Nova Scotia (1978), or in her article “Remember Me As You Pass By,” which is available online. You can also see more Horton Carving stones by visiting the Farber Gravestone Collection website.

At any rate, I was attracted to the purposeful but amateur letterforms made by this local carver and started to hunt down and document as many of his stones as I could find. Most of Trask’s study has concentrated on the imagery, decoration and the text written on the stones, and less on the structure and form of letters themselves. Before long, I started thinking about making a digital typeface based on the Horton Carver letterforms, but there were many problems. I had to learn how to use the tools, for starters. While I had a significant sample to work with, many characters were not existant on the stones. And these letters were ‘purpose built’ for large size display, not for continuous reading at 10 or 12 point (which is my typographic neighbourhood). So I kept studying the stones, honing my skills and stewing over the Horton letters.

Last spring, Gaspereau Press was hired to design and print a small series of books for the Kings-Hants Heritage Connection, a group of local historical societies. Written by Julian Gwyn, the books commemorate the arrival of the New England Planters to Nova Scotia in 1760. These were the people the Horton Carver lived with and carved for. It seemed like the perfect excuse to invest some time on the Horton Carver project. Within a couple of weeks, I had completed a working set of capital letters and a rough draft of a lowercase roman. I decided to name the type Planter and use it to set the display headings in the Planter history books we were preparing to produce. It mated well with Adobe Caslon, which I used to set the body text.

These history books have been coming off the press this past week. The version of the Planter type I used in the books is still rather preliminary – as rough, illfitted and wonky as its handcut models, yet beautiful too. For all its imperfection, it was gratifying to see printed sheets coming off our presses that employed a letter which was first cut in sandstone with a chisel 250 years ago – and not in New England or Holland or Italy, but right here in this backwater place. And how many books can boast a type that is quite this apropos? It makes me grin to be able to carry on the work started by this unknown lover of letters, paying my small tribute to his craftsmanship.



Marie said...

I love the lettering on the gravestone.

Al Cooper said...

Oh, I like this a lot! How absolutely wonderful, thoughtful, creative and zany too, that you would find and do this.