Letters to yourself: Michael Renton
Art, to Michael Renton (1934 – 2001), was a living rather than a way of life. Born in London in 1934, he attended Harrow Art School but left before finishing his studies.
When he discovered the art of lettering at an evening class by William Sharpington, he found his path. This was during the last two years of his five year apprenticeship at a firm of commercial engravers. During his time there*, he studied at evening classes and became increasingly interested and involved in lettering and sign writing.
*The biography of Michael Renton published in 2015 contains a delightful account by Renton of his time as an apprentice to Mr Slinger.
By 1963, after two years National service, a year back at the engravers firm and a few years working as a freelance lettering craftsman, Renton set up shop in Winchelsea, near Rye. From there he moved to Rye Mars, then to Brook Granary near Icklesham where he worked for 20 years, primarily as a wood engraver and sign writer.
Probably one of the very last wood engravers in England to come into the art through a commercial apprenticeship, Michael Renton made a virtue of the precision and cleanliness he had as a letter carver and sign writer to create precise and perfectly cut marks as a wood engraver. His work has a precision to it which also reflects his skill as a draughtsman. As he wrote ‘the difficult thing about drawing from nature is how to get beyond it […] it cannot be an end in itself’.
Simon Lansdale discusses Renton’s interpretation of the ‘atmosphere’ in the biography His Magic Hands: ‘The depiction of weather is […] a defining feature of his wood engravings. From rain lashed market squares to billowing clouds […] to the deathly stillness of a churchyard at dusk, his ability to convey atmosphere and a sense of place can pull the viewer into the scene’.
You can really see this weather in West Wind, (1985), with the scudding clouds behind and quivering tree in front of the Oast houses. Similarly with the huge sky in the flat landscape of St Thomas à Becket Church in Fairfield, Kent (1975).
The four images above came from the Renton estate. He very rarely numbers or titles his works, but the three landscapes have his initials and year engraved into the image.
Renton was a founding member of The Guild of Sussex Craftsmen. As John Nash wrote of him: ‘his talents were enormous and his hands magic’. His Hands Magic became the title for his 2015 retrospective biography, published to coincide with an exhibition of his work.
In 1989 he took part in an exhibition in Chichester Cathedral with John Piper, Craigie Artisan, John Skelton and others. He illustrated several books, most notably Thoreau’s Walden for the folio society in 1980 and Malcolm Saville’s Portrait of Rye. He was an enthusiastic member of both the Double Crown Club and the Society of Wood Engravers. He loved discussing his craft and was skilfully conscious in his vocation as an artist craftsman. He was also deeply religious and his Anglican Christian belief was similarly deeply felt and considered.
The Alley Street in Rye is one of the illustrations in Portrait of Rye by Malcom Saville, published in 1976. You can see a few more examples of these illustrations in the group of images below.
At Rye Marsh Farm, Renton lived in a ‘Looker’s Hut’ out in the dyked flat lands, and cycled the half hour into Rye or to the Bridge Inn for his evening drinks.
Moving ‘West’ to Winchester, he lived in more restricted accommodation, but his work as a stone carver took a greater prominence. He developed the lettering for Winchester Cathedral, for the internal directional signs and in stone. He attended service at the Cathedral very regularly and presented a scruffy figure, unconcerned with how he looked, but he was a man of great kindness and integrity. Renton died on St Swithen’s day, the 15th July 2001. Saint Swithen is the patron Saint for Winchester Cathedral.
He created the letterhead for Memorials by Artists, a charitable organisation helping people through the commissioning of memorials and the rules and regulations for churchyard rules for such work, that was set up in 1988 by Harriet Frazer.
In a letter to Harriet Frazer (published in the 2015 biography) he writes ‘it has been suggested that the commissioning of a memorial can be part of the “healing process”. The implication that the maker of memorials might be exercising a genuine ministry to the bereaved is inspired and inspiring though the idea may not be at once familiar to everyone.’
Prompted by the example of Eric Gill, Michael Renton carved a memorial stone for himself for the Memorials By Artists exhibition in 1998. It reads:
Remember MR Maker of memorials to several others and of this one to himself. He included on the back of the memorial stone a ‘Bunch of Tools’ that he used in his craft, and inscribed the Nicene Creed around the edge. After his death in 2001, John Nash added Michael Renton 1934 – 2001 to the back of the memorial stone.
He was not, perhaps, the most well known or dramatic of artists, but these quiet wood engravings reflect a master artist craftsman and his trade, and are beautiful little scenes.