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Lida Kindersley: a life engraved in stone

There’s a small drama going on as I arrive at Lida Kindersley’s letter cutting workshop. Her son Vincent has cornered a mouse in the front porch and is trying to catch it so he can set it free outside.

Plans such as tempting the mouse into a bucket or carefully lifting it out in a child’s fishing net are considered. Meanwhile the workshop’s cat, a ginger tom called Lemon, is snoozing obliviously on a chair.

“We don’t want to wake the cat up and let him kill the mouse,” says Lida.

It turns out this humane approach encompasses all the work that happens here in the Cambridge workshop based in a converted schoolhouse. With many of their commissions being gravestones or memorials, Lida spends much of her day talking to bereaved people and intuiting what design and style of lettering would be right for them and their loved one.

Lida Kindersley in her stone cutting workshop . Picture: Keith Heppell. (46957246)
Lida Kindersley in her stone cutting workshop . Picture: Keith Heppell. (46957246)

“When someone comes to me and wants a stone to commemorate a person they really loved - and why would you go to the trouble of getting a stone otherwise? - then cutting those letters has huge meaning and I try to work out what style of lettering would represent them best,” says Lida.

“And usually by the end of our meeting I have a clear idea and I can draw the design for them.”

The famous Cardozo Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge was a joint venture between Lida and her late husband David Kindersley, who had been trained by Eric Gill and whom she met when David was 61 and she was 21. They began their collaborations in 1976. These include the magnificent memorial to the Abbots of St Albans carved on Welsh slate on the ground in front of the altar in the Abbey; the hand cut and handwritten inscriptions for the Ruskin Gallery in Sheffield, and the British Library Gates.

Now Lida has written her autobiography, called The Alphabetitican and the Rabbi, which reads as a conversation between her and friend Dan Cohn-Sherbok. In it she reveals how she found her lifelong passion for letter cutting and fell in love with David Kindersley the day she met him at a conference.

Lida Kindersley in her stone cutting workshop . Picture: Keith Heppell. (46957242)
Lida Kindersley in her stone cutting workshop . Picture: Keith Heppell. (46957242)

“I went to study art at the Royal Academy at the Hague and I had one particular teacher who came in and snapped the chalk in half and wrote his name using the side of the chalk. I was gobsmacked and I thought I wanted to be able to do that. That is so simple.

“I told him that is what I wanted to concentrate on and he said if that's what I really wanted to do I needed to meet the right people. He introduced me to David Kindersley at a conference and that was it.

“I fell in love with David at first sight, which was a bit scary because, like a dog, I followed him everywhere. It wasn’t a choice. I still can’t quite say what that was but I knew that’s where I was going. He was physically very attractive, but I may already have been in love with what he stood for and his work. Or maybe I knew what I was looking for in my life and he was just that shape. It might have been a David-shaped hope in my life. I don’t know. But all of a sudden that was it.”

She then spent the next few months trying to persuade David to take her on as an apprentice at his workshop. He eventually relented and when his marriage broke down he and Lida became a couple.

“He was a married man. He’d had two failed marriages and the last thing he wanted was some young thing pushing him into something and then leaving after three years,” says Lida of David's hesitation to start a relationship with her.

Lida with Emma Thompson (46912583)
Lida with Emma Thompson (46912583)

“When we did get together he said he just didn't dare (make the first move) because it was already too beautiful. We were working together and loved chatting together about the same things. It was all so complete and so right and he thought if I lose this I will fall to bits. He was 61 when I met him. I was 21. For me it was a big adventure but he had to consider if he wanted to do this again when he had already been married twice.

“But neither of his wives were letter cutters and that is what David was, day and night he thought about nothing else and neither did I. He would wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and we would discuss it, get all excited and write it down and wake up brimming it with ideas. That is what I really missed when he died because now it was all down to me.

“I remember standing in the studio and crying and thinking this is too big. I can’t run the business and cut and design and I’m a foreigner here. I didn’t feel like an enabled woman yet. I was a child of the sixties.”

In fact, months before his death in February 1995 David had laid down his drawing pencil and told Lida he wouldn’t design any more and that he was handing the baton to her. He had full confidence in her abilities.

The couple had three sons, Paul, who is an artist and filmmaker, and Hallam and Vincent, who both work with Lida as letter cutters. David is buried in the churchyard next door to the workshop, which is a former school house. Lida is now happily married again to Graham Beck, whom she met at a friend’s dinner party, and runs the workshop together with him.

Lida and her assistants make letters in stone, glass, metal, paper and wood, including headstones, commemorative plaques, heraldic carving, sundials, typefaces, bookplates and lettering cut straight into buildings. It’s all done by hand from drawing the letters to chiselling the stone and gilding or painting the letters.

Carving a quotation in Cumbrian green slate for Madingley Hall, Cambridgeshire. Copyright: Kindersley Workshop
Carving a quotation in Cumbrian green slate for Madingley Hall, Cambridgeshire. Copyright: Kindersley Workshop

She is responsible for the commemorative stone on William Blake’s grave, the memorial for Stephen Hawking at Gonville & Caius College, and was in the middle of a plaque for a college library when we met. She has made commissions for actors Emma Thompson and Michael Palin but will only name clients if they have agreed to it.

In the company’s archive room, which has shelf after shelf of white boxes, they keep meticulous records of all correspondence with customers going back decades.

“We’ve had offers from libraries who say they will look after the archive but I can’t let them because some of this can’t be made public,” says Lida.

“People often write to me in the very raw stages of grief when they want to commission a gravestone. I wouldn’t let anyone see such personal records.”

Fifteen years ago, Lida survived breast cancer but says surgery left her unable to lift heavy stones. However, she still designs and cuts letters as well as overseeing her apprentices.

She has no intention to retire any time soon, but Lida says: “When the time comes I hope I will have the grace that David did to recognise that I need to stop”.

The Alphabetitican and the Rabbi is available from kindersleyworkshop.co.uk/shop.

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