19 September 2022

A publisher’s nameplate in
Oxford shows the influence
of Eric Gill’s lettering

David Fickling Books commissioned the sculptor Bernard Johnson to design the nameplate in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Wandering around cities like Oxford and York in recent days, I stop regularly and often to photograph and step inside cathedrals, churches, colleges and other buildings of historical and architectural interest – in between necessary pit-stops in coffee shops, of course.

When I stop to read signs and nameplates, it is often simply to glean information about the buildings and locations where I find myself.

Normally, signs and nameplates are not of interest in themselves. Brass plates are usually functional and cast reflections even in the mildest sunlight, so they are often not worth photographing.

But, while I was strolling around the side streets of Oxford recently, my eyes were caught in particular by the nameplate at the offices of David Fickling Books at 31 Beaumont Street, on the north side of Beaumont Street, running from the Martyrs’ Memorial on Saint Giles to Worcester College.

This specially-commissioned stone engraving is the work of Bernard Johnson and stands in place of a brass nameplate. My first impression was of work strongly influenced by the clear lines and lettering of Eric Gill, and the second was of the creativity of a publisher who decided to commission this nameplate, which is a work of art in itself.

David Fickling Books are an independent house, although they been around for a while. For almost 12 years, DFB was run as an imprint – first as part of Scholastic, then of Random House. Since 2013, this has been an independent business, joining a companion company that publishes the new children’s comic, The Phoenix.

David Fickling Books Ltd has published several prize-winning and bestselling books, including Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, Bing Bunny by Ted Dewan, Pants by Nick Sharratt and Giles Andreae, Before I Die by Jenny Downham, Trash by Andy Mulligan, and A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton.

In his first job at Oxford University Press, David Fickling signed up Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke, and has published Philip Pullman’s books ever since, including the multi-million selling His Dark Materials trilogy.

Later, he set up Doubleday’s programme of original children's books. The launch list included Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson. He is the man behind both the Goosebumps and Horrible Histories phenomenon.

David Fickling commissioned the sculptor Bernard Johnson to design his nameplate in Oxford. Bernard Johnson also has a background in publishing. He was born in 1954, grew up in Ealing, West London, and studied at Selwyn College, Cambridge, graduating in 1975. He began a 27-year career in children’s and educational publishing in 1978, working with OUP and Lion in marketing and sales.

He recalls that ever since childhood, he has been interested in looking at things made in stone, and as a teenager he developed an interest in architecture and lettering. Discovering the work of Eric Gill, both as a type designer and a stone carver, was a major inspiration leading him to explore the work of other 20th century artists working in stone, including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth and David Kindersley.

He started stone carving as a hobby in 2000, and began training to develop this into a new career in 2003. He won a Queen Elizabeth Scholarship in 2006, and this funded skills development in design and letter-carving with one of Britain’s top master craftsmen.

He has worked as a professional stone carver since 2005 from his studio at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire, until December 2007 and at Park Farm, Kiddington, near Woodstock, West Oxfordshire, since January 2008.

From his studio, he works with sedimentary stones and with slates, combining stonemasonry with carving and letter-cutting to make unique, functional, and decorative items.

He specialises in creative lettering in stone and slate, and his work includes hand-carved memorials, headstones, commemorative plaques, architectural lettering, house names, sculpture and relief carving, garden features, sundials, stonemasonry and letter carving.

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