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Percy Smith studied lettering at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in 1900 under the tuition of Edward Johnston and later Grailley Hewitt who was especially interested in gilding, illuminating and decorative lettering. He took over the position of Grailley Hewitt in 1904 and took a number of classes, including typography. He was a contemprary of Eric Gill. He took a major part in the organisation of an Exhibition of Lettering at the South London Art Gallery, Peckham in 1913. While continuing with part-time teaching he undertook various types of commercial lettering and a small studio and workshop named The Roman Lettering Company at the suggestion of Mr. Ralph Knott, chief architect of the London County Council and was entrusted with the lettering of the newly built Town Hall -County Hall - at Westminster.
Before the war he also became involved in other aspects of lettering, in particular typographical work and worked closely with Messrs. B.T. Batsford, the publisher, assisting in the preparation of trade cards from eighteenth century and later, in 1910 was closely involved in the work Penmanship of the XVI, XVII, XVIII centuries by Lewis F Day. This and other such work was to be valuable as a basis for post-war work of this kind.
At this time he made brief visits to Brittany, Bruges and also Norfolk where he made a number of sketches and drawings. He turned to etching around 1910, possibly inspired by Rembrandt, and his first attempts were based on drawings made in Bruges in 1911 in 1912 - The Belfrey at Bruges; The Fish Market.
After volunteering for war service and being twice rejected on medical grounds, he was at last accepted for immediate war service in France with the Royal Marines and arrived at the River Somme late in 1916. His identity card records Percy John Smith as 'sapper' but he always referred to himself as a gunner. From the first he experienced both trench warfare and intermittent service with newest most powerfu naval gun, the fifteen inch Howitser, popularly known as 'Granny'. This gun made a deep impression on P.S. It was concealed as far as possible but had to be kept ready for firing, transported on a low trolley and needing twenty trained men to set it up. His attempts at sketching the gun were met with opposition and he was reported to his superiors as such sketches were 'suspicious' and considered spying activity. Successive appeals at last reached the General, himself interested in etching, and PS was able to continue with everyone else turning a 'blind eye'. His sketch became the basis for etchings of the gun.
During his service he received copperplates concealed in the pages of magazines sent to him and used them to make etchings from the sketches he was able to make from time to time. These sketches formed the basis for two series called Drypoints of the War printed at the Southampton Art Club while on leave at Eastney Barracks. His Dance of Death series includes: Death Marches; Death Awed; Death Ponders; Death Forbids; Death Waits; Death Refuses; Death Intoxicated. It was published by Colnaghi in 1919 and acquired by The British Museum, The V&A and also may be seen at Southampton Art Museum.
His book Sixteen Drypoints and Etchings of the Great War was published by Soncino Press in 1930. His work shows the massive destruction of Thiepval including The Church, Thiepval; Thiepval Chateau; Main Street, Thiepvl, Dugout Fires; Moonrise on the Somme; Solitude; as well as the Fifteen Inch Howitzer. Mr. E. S. Lumsden in his book The Art of Etching illustrates Death Awed and writes: This great etching sums up the whole horror of war. It is expressive of no one period.
After the war he returned to resume his former L.C.C. classes on lettering and to undertake various kinds of commercial lettering as in pre-war days. He was also becoming actively concerned with book production generally - typography, lay-outs, printers flowers. he was an advocate for the use of designs by contemporary British artists, becoming one of the ten founder members of the Double Crown Club, a club which aimed to exist for the purpose of exchanging ideas on good printing.
Another interest was The Art Workers' Guild - he was elected to membership of the Guild in 1921 as Calligrapher and in 1941 was elected as Master of the Guild. He was also elected Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers of Industry, 1943-1945.
In the early 1920's he pursued his interests in etchings, drypoins and lithography. 1922-1923 he visited the Bronte country around Haworth reawakening his feeling for Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights. In 1923 5 Drypoints entitled Wuthering Heights were published by Colnaghi.
Between 1923 aand 1936 a number of single subject etchings were published - Three Scythers, 1924; Saturday afternoon on the Portobello Road, 1925 and others including The Singing Beggar and The Dying Tramp, Age and the Child - all in the V&A.
Following a visit to Palestine in 1930 was the production of Twenty One Studies and Etchings of Palestine, Soncino Press, 1934
Other publications were:
Quality in Life, 1919
Lettering, a plea for its greater consideration, 1932
Lettering, a Handbook of Modern Alphabets, 1937
Civic and Memorial Lettering, 1946
Contributions to professional journals
This brief outline makes no reference to important inscriptional work - the Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Bridge, and calligraphic work - The Elgin Role of Honour, Ontario Cathedral. Unpublished stamps designed for the League of Nations; Portraits which include J.B. Priestly, Viscount Cecil and others including his own self-portrait. Also a series of original Christms cards.
Information provided by Marion Delf, the great niece of the artist's wife, Dr. Ellen Marion Delf Smith.