An Interview with Gertrude Carrier
This piece is a draft of an expanded transcript of an interview with Gertrude Carrier as tape recorded by her students, Moira Collins and Judith Chambliss in 1978; further transcription came from an enhanced sound tape in November, 1994. The tape was transcribed by Ellen Mott-Jablonski, CSR?a long time CCC member and friend of Gertrude Carrier. Some of what transpires in the interview is unclear, however it gives a glimpse into the life and times of Gertrude Carrier. Interviewers' voice appears in bold letters.
. . .we knew Ernst Detterer, and we knew the people at the Art Institute. Stanley Morison came over from the British Museum and wrote that book and wrote several books, and came out with the Incunabula that was supposed to be of interest to Mr. Ricketts. But, you see, he was not interested in printing. He was interested in writing, and Mr. Ricketts, while he did admire Johnston and Morris, he really was not so carried away by those two people as he was by people earlier. And pull that chair up.
Where did Mr. Ricketts learn?
Where did he learn?
He was self-taught after that.
And he started that scriptorium all on his own?
More or less. Yes. And he started? Mr. Ricketts was a bookkeeper. And he gave that up.
Where did you find out about him?
I answered an ad in the Chicago Tribune. And I was hired. And he told me about himself. He told me about his career. He was an old man when I worked for him. "Old." He was about 65 years old. He was ill. He was already not as well as he had been. And his daughter, Julia, was especially gifted. She worked out at the studio in Wilmette along with this?well, those two. They did most of the lettering on the charters and diplomas and that sort of thing. And then there was a woman, Esther, who did the tinting on some of the things. And at the studio in Chicago, here in the Scriptorium I was supposed to be working on the book that Mr. Ricketts was going to put up. You know. About, I think, in 1900 or a little bit before that Shaw, who had been Curator at the British Museum, had got out a beautiful book about the ornaments in the British Museum. And they were very, very?it was a very handsome publication. And it was an extremely expensive book. And Mr. Ricketts planned to put out something similar. But his was supposed to be more?his criticism of the Shaw publication was that it was too scattered. That a series of alphabets would have been more helpful and more to the point. And the alphabets that I was working on were 12th Century, 13th Century, pre-Renaissance, Gothic. And there were some Merovingians and the Lombards, of course. And these were to?I was doing the drawings. And they were supposed to be sent back to the British Museum to be colored by a lady who knew and worked with Mr. Ricketts there. And this book, I don't know whether it was ever published or not. It was an ambitious undertaking. And I think it probably went by the boards.
Was it finished, though? I mean, was the content actually finished?
Never as far as I know. Those plates on which I worked weren't finished. They were supposed to be sent. But they were cancelled. But they were very, very exact. And they were done on vellum.
These were the sketches that you had done?
These were your drawings?
Is there any chance that that would be with the Ricketts collection?
I doubt it. I doubt that very much, Moira. You see, the things that Mr. Ricketts had that are considered his collection were his manuscripts that he had collected over a period of years. Now, he was not interested?I remember one time when Mr. Morison was here. And he was all hot and bothered about a Geoffroy Tory that had come to light. And it was supposed to be just the thing to have. Well, Mr. Ricketts was not so enthusiastic. He was not interested in just collecting names. If Geoffroy Tory had been the artist or the scribe for a very beautiful manuscript, that would have been very much more to the point as far as Ricketts and his collection was concerned. His was a collection for?his collection was choice in that it was top in execution and in script and all. But not necessarily famous in that it was done by a person well known; but in that it was beautiful. You know, like you see. Well, now, like the Ponti Book of Hours. You surely have seen reproductions of that. Mr. Ricketts wouldn't give that room. It would never meet with his standards. So, and I think that had a? I think his taste and his selectiveness had a great impact on me at that time because I was a young woman, just through school. And some of the things that I saw in manuscripts I didn't think were?well, I got quite upset when the whole thing was crooked and the page was crooked. I always felt there was no need for that, that if they had set their work up properly the stuff would be straight. (Laughter.) And these things I think had been innate in me, the fact that if it isn't? I don't know. It's hard to explain. Because I've heard people who get very excited about things that I don't think are that good.
Where was Mr. Ricketts' taste in manuscriptsÉ
I don't know. He didn't ever go into that.
Now, his collection is the basis of the collection of the Newberry study group?
No. No. Not that. The collection that the Newberry has is his collection of ___; the writing books, the writing instruction books, the manuals. The collection at the Newberry does not include his manuscripts.
Where are they?
Well, when he died they went to his daughter. And later I heard that his daughter had a son who was educated in Indiana. That university that's down there, downtown.
The University of Indiana in Bloomington?
That's it. And I think?now, I'm not positive about this. But I heard that the collection went there, the manuscripts. They have, in that auditorium there, they have a gallery. Were you in that place?
Well, they have a gallery. They have beautiful paintings in there. That university is a very fine one. Anyway, that's where I understand they are.
So those manuscripts that you were using are there?
As far as I know. As far as I know. Now, whether she has given all or not, but his work, his collection was exquisite. And it was. If it was a 13th Century Book of Hours, it was a key 13th Century Book of Hours. It was exquisite in thought, in execution, in writing, in binding. It was perfect. He would not buy it if it weren't.
Was he independently wealthy?
I don't know. I don't think he was a poor man. But I wouldn't say he was a rich man, not rich in the sense that Morgan, who was a good friend of his, was a rich man. Mr. Morgan was president of the First National Bank at that time. They were very good friends.
In other words when he was collecting, it was possible to purchase?
Oh, yes. You see, this was back in '24, '25, in through those years. And there again, you see, since '25 and even in the Depression years, you might still go abroad and find these things. But after the Second World War, people were awake and they knew. And you, right now, you go to Park Bernet and you bid for these things. And even in that other place in Paris these things run into the thousands. Mr. Ricketts didn't pay that much money. He didn't have that much money.
Did the Scriptorium do well financially?
Were there other scriptoria?
No. And Mr. Ricketts was really tough.
How many people were employed in the Scriptorium?
Well, in the offices downtown it was I, myself. And I was there with him during the years I worked with him. I was the one in that office. And out in the studio in Wilmette, Bondy?that was his name. And Esther. I don't think I ever heard her last name. And his daughter. And I think they had one other part-time worker. So there were four in that studio. James Hayes used to work. I donÕt know whether he worked with Mr. Ricketts or not. But I know he knew Bondy.
Do you mind if I ask how much you were paid?
$25 a week.
Was that a fairly good salary?
That was decent. It wasn't anything? Remember, I was just out of school, Judy. But what he required in his ad? was a student. IÕm trying to remember what the hell that was worded. I don't remember the words. But I was fluent in German and I had a writing knowledge of French. And I had a fair knowledge of Latin. These three languages were all?they all helped because there were people who were much older than I, had wider experience. And there was one woman who was Swiss, a sweet lady who was a very fine miniaturist. And Mr. Ricketts chose me above all those people to come to work. It was considered quite something to work in Mr. Ricketts' Scriptorium.
There was a lot of competition?
Yes, there was. He had a great lot of people who answered that ad and who came to him. And I don't think I appreciated until quite some time later just how fortunate I had been to be selected. I knew that there were others that had been interviewed and were supposed to come there and all that. But young and stupid, I wasn't impressed.
Did you learn a lot from him, or did you just learn a lot from doing what you did? He didn't actually teach you?
He didn't really teach in the sense that he said hold it this way and do it this way. He just said I want this and I want that. And you? it should look like this and it should look like that. And he did show me how to do certain strokes with the pen. But other than that, he, there wasn't very much teaching.
Well, you had already had a course at the Art Institute. Right?
Well I had that first year class with Mr. Tibbs, Bart Tibbs. I found out later?and somebody said he was living still and he was in California.
What was Mr. Tibbs trying to teach you?
Well, frankly it was rather boring.
We won't make a judgment.
Please don't. Because it was the one class that I cut whenever I could. Don't tell him that. (Laughter.) But, you know, I did not go to the Art Institute with the idea of doing any lettering. I went to the Art Institute for the purposes of learning drawing and design. That was my reason for going. Lettering was the last thing I would have thought of. And it just seemed that?and I think that's probably why getting the job with Ricketts didn't overly impress me.
What made you decide to keep a job like that?
Well, my dear, jobs were not so easy to come by. I had worked my way through the school. And I was still working at my night job. And? fellow students had gotten jobs at Field's. And they were running their little legs off with samples. And that didn't appeal to me. I wanted to be through school and sit down at a drawing board and design a palace. And, you know, how many people do that? None. So Wally said to me one day, he said you? you couldn't even get a job in the art field. He said you better just stay on and see if you can't. So came the Sunday paper and this ad, you see. And that's how I got it?you had to write to the post office box. And it said your handwriting will be?will have some influence, or something like that. In other words, write so somebody can read it. Well, that wasn't difficult. There was another thing that had bearing on my selection. Mr. Ricketts said my handwriting was excellent. And that was untrained. But that's all.
How long were you there?
About two years.
And then you went into free lance?
Then I went into free lance.
Did you leave there because you felt like you had learned what you wanted to learn and thenÉ
No, I wanted more money. If I had?see, I was still working with my night job. And I felt if I could somehow get more work, more money from the day job, I could give up the night job. But they wouldn't give it to me. They gave me?I was offered a little more, but it wasn't as much more as I felt I needed. And I was really pulling my weight. Along with the work, along with the drawing and all, I had the office work, at which I think I acquitted myself fairly well. There was typing and letter writing and stuff of that nature. And, writing in two other languages. That wasn't?people don't come by that so quickly. So I let that be then.
And at that time was there much calligraphic activity going on in the office?
I really don't know, Judy. I wasn't that much interested.
You launched out on your own?
That's right. And besides, again, it was not the lettering as such. It was the designing, again. It was the form out on the page; it was the layout of the pages and all that that interested me far more than just the actual formation of letters. It would almost be like in the old times. They'd want you to do the whole page. And they'd say, "Letterer! Come letter!" Yes. And make sure it's square and even.
So, when you were doing free lance work, then, is that the sort of work?
Yes. See, I wasn't doing it. I was doing layouts, and lettering was incidental. Lettering was important; vital even to the design. But the actual page layout was the thing that concerned me. And I didn't really use much penwork. I used the brush.
You mean brush in the sense of painting?
Painting the Letters in when I needed to. Occasionally?well, I did use pen. ButÉ
Well, did that, then, change much over the years, the amount of calligraphy you used, the lettering that you would do?
No, the lettering stays more or less constant in that sense, that it was layouts, title pages, book plates, and such things. And then, well, then when those things came along, then that was lettering, full page lettering, and then the illumination. And poems and things of that nature that were house blessings and all that stuff that people were bringing in. The Oath to Hippocrates and Ode to the Nightingale and all things that I did. I can't remember over how long really.
Then your knowledge of, say, vines and the historical aspects of calligraphy, manuscripts, did that just all develop through your own personal reading and interest?
To a large extent, Judy, really. Yes.
Almost like, you know, a sideline.
Yes. And in between, you know, there would be up to date stuff. Art Deco and Art Nouveau and all this other stuff. You know. Plates and completely?Well, there was a lot of advertising. And the years were full of it. A lot of the historical stuff was very valuable. It was a background that I had. It was a background that I had developed over the years. But this was all applied to modern stuff. Like the historical motions and things of that nature. That, there it was lettering. And that Victorian, all this Victorian stuff that I did there, which? well, I shouldn't say it, I suppose.
You mean jobs like (____) would that be??
That is a job in small change. And those letters are terrible.
You had done it small and they had blown them up?
I did those to size. And I gilded that thing by hand. The letters are just 22 or 24 inches. That was the first job that confronted me when I got there. They had these letters sketched. And they were?no one letter went with any one other letter. You know, there were two L's, so they were alike. And there were two R's. And there were two I's, and they were alike. But something very strange had happened to the N. It just wouldn't fit. And so? well, anyhow, those letters all had to have some surgery. And they had to be made a certain height. And they were. And they were all supposed to then be brothers. And eventually they did belong to the one word. Then the screens were cut, and they had to be printed in three colors. Then there was supposed to be a gold line in there, which I did flat. But anyway, I did it. It was burnished with a?it was gold leaf. Well, then they came along and they said it had to have a frame. That frame is 18 feet long. And they wanted gold leaf. So, I built it that way. Somewhere somebody went to a lumberyard and bought some broad molding. And I said in order to?for the thing to be weather tight, it would have to be oiled. It would have to have linseed treatment of some sort. Eventually that was done. I think I used about five coats of gold leaf, which really isn't bad because? And, you know, then it was varnished. And now that was done in '63 or '64?'63. I went there in October, Ô63. And in December of '63 Milan threw that big party. And that thing had just been finished. And against my wishes they tied it against the wall because it hadn't yet been varnished. And I was going to spoil the gold. And that party was in December of '63. And after the party it was varnished. And then that was hung up down here on Rush Street in the old __. And it survived the fire. And Mr. Mason took it out to his home in Wheaton and saved it until he opened his shop now. And now we're at '78. And I don't think that it had anything but one more coat of varnish. And look at it. It's still up.
The sign's still up?
We should take a picture. And take a friend.
Yes. And it's printed on masonite.
In Wheaton? That's where he did live. I don't know whether he's still there or not. I think he came in ______. And whether he sold the whole thing, he had a maitre-dÕ in there? Is that going?
Well, you can turn it off now.
Are you going to say something compromising?