The renowned artist and writer was known for his distinctive engravings – always inspired by nature, he left a lasting legacy of timeless beauty
Our local church in Winterborne Tomson boasts a plaque engraved by Reynolds Stone in memory of AR Powys – the architect who was responsible for saving it from ruin in the 1920s. The distinctive style of engraving always impressed me, but I only paid more attention when my wife visited the house and garden at Litton Cheney where Stone lived for well over 20 years until his death. She spoke of its magical and ethereal qualities, and the beautiful unspoiled countryside of the Bride valley surrounding the house that had clearly so inspired him.
Named after his ancestor, the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, Stone spent his childhood in Bridport, and was educated at Eton, where his father taught. He went on to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he read history. With no clear idea about a career, he drifted into a two-year apprenticeship at the Cambridge University Press, where he was taught to appreciate letter design. An accidental meeting with Eric Gill led him to wood engraving and, after a spell at another printing firm, he became a freelance wood engraver, astonishingly without formal training.
A hidden fame
He married photographer Janet Woods in 1938 and in WW2 worked as an aerial photographic interpreter for the RAF.
In 1953 the couple moved to the Old Rectory at Litton Cheney in West Dorset.
His work as an engraver and his expertise in lettering brought him many commissions – and considerable success – with a broad range of clients.
Reynolds’ designs were everywhere in post-war Britain: many have observed that you may not know his name, but you have certainly seen his designs.
If you travel with a UK passport you would have seen his royal coat of arms. He engraved the Royal Arms for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 and the official coat of arms for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
If you read the Times before 2010 you would be familiar with his masthead clock face design – and you might have paid for it with a £5 note in the 1960s that was designed by him too (below). The distinctive Dolcis shoe shop sign was created by him. He carved many remarkable memorials in stone, including those to Winston Churchill and TS Eliot, and for Westminster Abbey to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
Reynolds Stone’s forte was white line lettering. Interestingly, unlike many of his contemporaries, the war did not change his approach to design.
He engraved dozens of bookplates (for Benjamin Britten and Hugh Trevor-Roper among others), most with the flowing Italianate swirls and flourishes that were distinctively his style. Engraving wood blocks is not easy, but Stone dismissed the difficulty, observing: ‘It’s rather like rowing. You have to put the oar in at the right angle.’
His work depicted the countryside, with its woods, glades, churchyards and ruins. His daughter Emma said: ‘The [Dorset] landscape seemed to suit his vision – the soft rounded hills and secret valleys, the lush greens, and perhaps above all the trees which feature so prominently in his engravings’.
Reynolds was partly inspired by Samuel Palmer, and was certainly no modernist. Among his best regarded work was his set of engravings, The Old Rectory, published in 1976. He illustrated many books, such as Herman Melville’s Omoo.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, another famous Dorset resident, wrote poems to complement a collection of his wood engravings called Boxwood. In his later years he illustrated A Year of Birds, a book of poetry by his friend Irish Murdoch. He also designed typefaces, including Minerva and one named after his wife, Janet. His skills were much in demand. Penguin’s head of typography Hans Schmoller said: ‘he might almost be described as the Engraver Royal’.
His prodigious output included writing – he wrote regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and The Listener – and he was also an accomplished watercolourist.
An eclectic society
The Stones’ home attracted many distinguished literary and artistic figures. Kenneth Clark, John and Myfanwy Piper and John Bayley were special friends, and Benjamin Britten, Freya Stark and John Betjeman were regular visitors. A photograph taken at Little Cheney of the Admiral of the Fleet Charles Lambe playing a duet with painter John Nash reflects the eclectic company the Stones kept.
His Dorset garden was a particular inspiration. His son Humphrey said in his 2019 memoir, Reynolds Stone, (Dovecote Press) that the ‘magical garden became his whole world. Here he could find the necessary solitude to pursue perfection in all he did.’
Reynolds had a protective passion for woods and wild things – never picking a wild flower and avoiding daisies when he mowed the lawn.
In her memorial address, Iris Murdoch said: ‘Good art shows us reality, which we too rarely see because it is veiled by our selfish cares, anxiety, vanity, pretension. Reynolds as artist, and as man, was a totally unpretentious being. His work, seemingly simple, gives us that shock of beauty which shows how close, how in a sense ordinary, are the marvels of the world”.
Reynolds Stone, who died in 1979, was awarded the CBE in 1953. His work survives in the timeless appeal of his designs.
North Dorset CPRE