This is the project blog of a practice-based PhD study called The Trinity Chapel Lettering Project that aims to research the 1764 lettering designs of the Benefactors’ Boards in the Trinity Chapel, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK.

The intention is to develop a practice-based research methodology that allows access to this subject material, its various contexts, and its subsequent translation into digital formats as a family of opentype fonts. The contribution to knowledge of this critically-reflective process will be disseminated by documenting and publishing the material itself, the contexts of its generation, with an accompanying discursive interrogation of a design process.

The lettering on the Benefactors’ Boards is in a remote corner of the De Montfort University campus and not generally open to public view. It is signwriting in its purest form, over 250 years old, executed by hand during the reign of George III. The boards are large (1420mm w x 2200mm h), relatively chemically stable (although not climate-controlled) as they are mounted out of direct sunlight on internal walls in a cool interior, and so generally very well-preserved.

Preliminary Data Collection and Proposal

Some initial photography (47 exposures) was done in July 2011 and the idea of doing a project exploring the lettering has germinated since.

An assemblage of this initial photography was made to visually explain what-it-is-that-makes-it-so-interesting. As a visual précis of the subject it is derived from the ‘joiners’ style of photocollage by David Hockney. It features roman and italic brushed lettering styles closely related to the Transitional Style epitomised by the printing types of John Baskerville (1758). The lettering shows archaic characters such as the long s, ligatured and swashed forms, variable spacing arrangements, and some beautiful numerals and individual character constructions not seen elsewhere. This collage became the cover sheet of the project proposal submitted in January 2017.

Trinity Chapel project cover

The researcher was interviewed on Thursday 9th March 2017 by the supervisory team of Dr Tracy Harwood and Professor Sophy Smith in the Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University, and subsequently enrolled on the doctoral training programme (DTP) in the IOCT April 1st 2017.

Initial Data Collection

After consultation with the management of Trinity House and the preparation of a risk assessment protocol for working at height, the initial data collection began on July 31st 2017;

As the location photography shows, a scaffold mini-tower was used in conjunction with lighting softboxes, tripod and DSLR camera. The lighting control was problematic and blackout cloths and polarising filters were used to kill reflections on the glass panels in front of the boards themselves. Although the project has attracted no external funding to date, the data collection photography expenses amounted to;

Mi Tower Hire – £200
Canon EF 100mm F2.8 USM Lens – £459
Canon EF-S 18-135mm IS STM Lens – £379
Canon EOS 750D DSLR Camera – £479
Canon LP E17 7.2V Battery Pack – £65
Mellowlite 40 x 120 Strip Softboxes x 2 – £144
Jessops spotlights and stands – £150
TP2500 CamLink Tripod – £50
Vodafone VFD500 Android Smartphone – £15
Canon Camera Connect App – £0
Gaffa tape – £2
Blackout material – £6
Window cleaner and cloth – £0
Total: £1949


Over a thousand exposures were taken over seven days, focussing on the lettering from all six boards (tables). Examining the boards closely allowed some hypothesis-forming because not all the boards are lettered or spaced to a uniform standard and there is a significant amount of variation in the construction of many standard characters. The working hypothesis is that the signwriters worked with apprentices (‘boys’) who were learning their craft on the job and paid at lower rates. There is also evidence of some damage and a botched repair job performed at the bottom of Table 2 at a later date.

Quantifying the data

Linear measurements, line, word and character counts were performed;

dimensions 1420mm w x 2200mm h
lines 33
words 277
chars 1170


dimensions 1420mm w x 2200mm h
lines 35
words 342
chars 1349
* tables 2 and 3 are bolder, slightly condensed and tighter spaced than table 1
**bottom two boards (planks) replaced and lettered at a later date by another hand – the style is modern rather than transitional with a vertical stress and far greater stroke contrast (the thicks are almost fat face), various characters i.e. g are structurally different from their counterparts on tables 1, 4, 5 and 6


dimensions 1420mm w x 2200mm h
lines 35
words 331
chars 1492


dimensions 1420mm w x 2200mm h
lines 35
words 312
chars 1356
*lettering style consistent with table 1?


dimensions 1420mm w x 1960mm h
lines 34
words 343
chars 1356
*lettering style consistent with table 1


dimensions 1420mm w x 1960mm h
lines 34
words 438
chars 1349
*lettering style consistent with table 1


Distinguishing features of the Trinity Chapel Boards lettering

italic J
italic S
italic T

roman long s (in all instances)
roman g
italic long s (in all instances)
italic g
italic h
italic k
italic p
italic s
italic t
italic y

long s + h
long s + h (italic)
long s + i (italic)
long s + t
t + long s
long s + l (italic)
Th (nested)

1 (in all instances)
4 (in all instances)

‘Printers Fist’ – pointing hand line 6 of Table 1
Shilling symbol s (in all instances)

st (long s + t)

In particular, the shaping of the italic y is strange – more like n than u-with-a-tail-on-it. The first stroke is a downstroke, full width, but the second stroke (thin) is a sharply-angled flick up and to the right where it then turns to become the third (final) downstroke which is the tail of y, full width but tapering to the terminal. This inverts the interior space of the y and gives it a pinched look with a lot of tension in the form. Questioning this with a signwriting colleague, he answers that it may be a house style of the signwriters to distinguish their work from competitors (Tom Smith of Devonport New Zealand, personal communication, September 9 2017).

Research shows it is the same shape as the ending form of ‘n’ in Robert Granjon’s 1556 (roman) typeface Civilité – which itself was based on a popular writing style.


The other idiosyncracy in this lettering concerns the terminals of ‘s’ in all its forms (lowercase, uppercase and italics). There is little or no consistency in the terminal shapes; conventionally, if the stroke ends in a wedge serif or a ball at either end, then the other terminal follows suit and there is a homogeneity about the way the strokes end. This is standard practice with most typeface designs and lettering styles – however, the lettering on the Trinity Chapel Boards departs from this consensus and ‘mixes it up’ quite purposefully.


Archive Research

A visit was made 27 September 2017 to the Records Office of Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland to examine historical materials including the Duchy Grant and record-book of the Trinity Hospital, including the original lists of benefactors names and bequests. The sequencing of names on this list is identical to the order that the benefactors names appear on the boards. I surmise that the record-book (or a direct copy of it) formed part of the instructions given to the signwriters in 1764.

Also here, in the hospital accounts for building work dated 1738 is the confirmation that tradesmen working on the plumbing and flooring of the chapel were aided by apprentices who were paid at a lower rate. This might support the idea that the signwriters also practised apprenticeship schemes (direct corroboration of this is still being sought).

Theoretical Underpining

During October, in addition to an ongoing subject literature review for typographic revivalism, there is reading on practice-based research methodologies. A new title in the university library, Practice-Based Design Research (ed. Laurene Vaughan, pub. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) contains a chapter by Thomas Binder, who makes reference to Constructive Design Research (Ilpo Koskinen, John Zimmerman, Thomas Binder, Johan Redstrom, Stephan Wensveen, pub. Elsevier, 2011). The book contains a diagram about the relationship between an experiment, its frame of reference and the research question, which perhaps is ‘the kind of diagram that only makes sense to the person who drew the diagram’. However, the explicit label ‘design through research’ appears to fit the situated practitioner/researcher role in the exploration of the Trinity Chapel work. Further research delivers a paper The Role of Hypothesis in Constructive Design Research from a 2012 conference which is a response to the book. This is framed as a proposed bridging of a methodological gap in the ‘entrance level of constructive design research’. It contains another, better diagram in which the experiment itself is drawn as a drive wheel capable of informing both frame of reference and research question;


The authors go on to consider several models of Motivational Contexts, including the one that may be a close fit for the Trinity Chapel font project, ‘practice-based and artistically -inclined approach combined with a technological provoked approach’. This is subsequently discussed with Prof Sophy Smith as supervisor.

Continuing Subject Literature


At the very beginning of November a new book John Baskerville: Art and Industry of the Enlightenment (Ed. Caroline Archer-Parré & Malcolm Dick, Liverpool University Press) is launched by members of the Baskerville Society at the University of Birmingham. It contains a chapter by the calligrapher Ewan Clayton – ‘John Baskerville the Writing Master: Calligraphy and Type in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, in which Clayton argues that the context for the forms of Baskerville are not, as previously held, the graver and burin (edged metal tools capable of great precision in engraving), but the square-cut feather quill, a rather more imprecise writing tool, and handled more like a brush than a chisel. This has significant implications for the study of the Trinity Chapel lettering, because typographic history has traditionally been shy of contextual detail around the creation of Baskerville’s type. One of the starting premises for the study was that the printing type (from 1758) had informed the lettering on the boards in 1764. Could it be the other way around? That an ongoing tradition in what James Mosley  called the English vernacular letter (Motif 11, 1963) was the basis of Baskerville’s design for a printing type. A similar conjecture and the phrase English vernacular in the context of type design was later used by Alan Bartram (An Atlas of Typeforms, Lund Humphries, 1968).

Back to the Letterforms

From the initial data collection (above) comparison charts (paste-up boards) were assembled in October 2017 to show near-complete sets of the characters obtained in the photography. This necessarily includes variation of form for the lowercase and uppercase characters in both roman and italic styles and also the numerals.







These comparison charts should give some substance for the claim (above) as to distinguishing features amongst the characters of the Benefactors’ Boards, and definitely place the subject material in the middle of the Transitional Style, c.1760.


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