I recently spent a pleasant afternoon visiting the Newport-based lettercarver and artist Brooke Roberts on site at the Groton School in Groton, MA, where he was adding an inscription to the wall commemorating distinguished alumni located in St. John's Chapel. The account goes back to John Howard Benson's stewardship of the John Stevens Shop (c. 1940), and while other shops and sensibilities are represented in the limestone brickwork, for the last 30 years Brooke has been holding the line beautifully against sandblasting and the typographically ill-advised.
I live about a half-hour from Groton and was long overdue for a visit, having first learned of the inscription gallery years ago when I read the Typophiles' Chap Book John Howard Benson: Life and Work. There's a photograph in the book of a job JHB did in the mid-forties that depicts a masterful navigation of architectural joinery, which in lesser hands may have proven disruptive to the layout's flow. Of course JHB nailed it and scrutiny of the result never fails to impress.
On the morning I arrived the school's endowment was undergoing a weight-loss program as construction crews hammered various buildings into shape in time for their fall semester close-up. By comparison Brooke's staging looked like an architect's model, but there was no question that the most demanding renovation on campus was taking place inside St. John's Chapel.
It's a dimly lit sanctuary that does not reward amateur photography, and I was not intrepid enough to take advantage of what little good light the stained glass windows allow. But a photograph can't capture, in a glance, the experience of being present before the dense, whispering volume of inscriptions.
To begin a new memorial, Brooke carefully resurfaces the rough-hewn limestone with an angle grinder and then finishes it with a file. Here I was glad to be of use as I followed the movements of his grinder with a vacuum extension to manage the dust. This process will allow for a clean, legible transfer of the layout and ultimately a sharper delineation of the carved line.
I took a walk around the campus to give Brooke the space to concentrate on transferring the layout and after about an hour slipping through construction sites and wandering around the library I returned to find him ready to begin carving. Limestone is much softer a material than slate and the technique required to carve it effectively is sort of a controlled backing-off from the stone. It offers very little resistance and a sharp tungsten carbide chisel can easily plunge through the carefully established planes. But these were my concerns, not Brooke's. This being his umpteenth rodeo, he dispatched the work with an enviably nonchalant dexterity, and soon a line of carved shapes emerged beyond the swing of his mallet.
It has been a while since I had the opportunity to observe another lettercarver at play, and I'm grateful to Brooke for inviting me up to Groton to see how it's done. Architectural site work is a heightened realm of engagement in the life of a lettercarver and the tranquil atmosphere of St. John's Chapel provided an interesting contrast to some of the stories Brooke told about major, and at times majorly stressful, jobs in DC and elsewhere. Sometimes the planks on the scaffold narrow to a tightrope as passers-by stop to watch and the wealthy donors, accustomed to perfection, wait for the work to be done. Brooke is stepping off the wire and away from the craft by choice to focus on his first love, painting. How fitting that one of his last carving jobs would be here at the Groton School, among his first institutional clients.
It is thrilling to consider that someday it will be me on the scaffold, balancing and swinging and whistling. The memory of this afternoon will keep me grinning until I get there.