Edward had a knack for wrapping parcels using ordinary string and brown paper. The result was an elegant object, well made and well-proportioned but still mysterious and seductive, even dangerous, as if the subversive and surreal were not ready to submit fully to the rational.
I met Edward when, at Anthony Froshaug’s urging, I joined his evening class in experimental typography. He was not an impressive man to look at: small, thick-spectacled, somewhat dishevelled, quiet-spoken, hard to understand until you got on his wavelength … But there was a sparkle in his eyes and a humorous twist to his mouth, and a keenness to know what you had to say for yourself that was immensely encouraging. You knew this little guy wasn’t going to steamroller you into his way of thinking, or overwhelm you with his erudition (though he had plenty of that). For all that reticence, he cast an inexorable spell: by the second installment of his evening class you were dead keen to win, and to retain, his approval of what you were doing. As for his own teaching input: it was subtle, sotto-voce and considerate in every sense. Above all, it was fun.
I met Edward after his retirement when he became a patron of the Cambridge Darkroom Gallery. I always found him a quiet and unassuming man, which belied his enormous knowledge of art, craft and poetry. He played a key part in the Gallery’s activities; his ready wit and strong opinions on far-ranging subjects made him a pleasure to talk to and to work with.
Edward Wright, artist and designer, travelled light throughout his life. His small Cambridge terraced house was delightful in its sparse and simple furnishing and single range of bookshelves.
A short, bristly haircut and a shy, self-deprecating manner added to the monastic impression.
His subjects: human communication, the mundane, the street. His manner: sparing, self-critical, yet the work had vigorous attack and full conviction. His typical method: assemblage, with what was to hand. To quote Brecht:
If there were a wind blowing
I could hoist a sail.
If there were no sail
I should make one out of sticks and canvas.
For a proud man Edward was remarkably humble: he would entertain even the most inane idea offered him seriously before rejecting it. That is what made him such a great teacher. The humility went with a stunning, feline grace: his austere outward appearance belied it in a way – but when you saw him dance, it came into its own.
Edward was not the sort of typographer who regarded individual letter forms as a precious jewels to be polished and placed in a tiara. To Edward, each letter was a living form to be explored and shaped to suit a particular need or belief, in the same way an African carver would search out the core spirit and life-force in a piece of wood.
Edwin Taylor – friend and ‘companion of the road’
Edward Wright was a one-off as a designer.
Though essentially an artist he had a thorough understanding of the nature of design, and as a practitioner was able to extend its repertoire. He had a keen intellect and was also a leading thinker in the field at a time when modernism was finding its way into British typography. His approach to design was always innovatory, but his contributions to the Working Party on Typographic Teaching revealed that he believed design education needed to establish its own disciplined identity.
He was a great dancer, in a Latin American way. He and his improbable wife Kitty gave great parties. And generally, Edward was very un-English and exotic in a time of drabness – around 1960. He had all-over short hair, very unusual. His cultural references were almost entirely to things outside this country and his work was unlike what others were doing. He wasn’t really a designer – design was just one of his interests, just one of the skills he practised. His ‘This is tomorrow’ catalogue had no precedent and no direct influence. But it is one of the most memorable pieces of design made here.
After his exhibition opened he went away. Coming back to London, he was legendarily greeted by Germano Facetti at the railway station. Germano foolishly presented him with a far from friendly review of the show by Lawrence Alloway. It was reported that Edward, not surprisingly, had a seizure.
Edward’s influence at the Royal College has not been properly recognized. When he was teaching there he seems to have initiated the fashion for collage, and this was taken up not just by designers such as Alan Fletcher but certainly by painters – Richard Smith and Robyn Denny. Denny designed an invitation card for the ‘Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract’ exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in a sort of Abstract-Expressionist typography which is very Wrightian.
Things I learned from Edward:
1. Always carry something of your private desires into your public work.
2. Keep a good head and a sense of humour.
3. Know the past, it informs your present.
4. Improvise. Why wouldn’t you?
‘I am not saying I wish to go there. There is saying to me, “Come”.’ (Edward Wright in 1977)