Papers of and about Mervyn Cecil Oliver

Scope and Content

Lettering sheets, roughs, trials and photographs of work by MCO, along with articles, lecture notes and CVs by MCO and testimonials about and tributes to MCO.

Administrative / Biographical History

Mervyn Cecil Oliver (MBE, ARCA, FRSA) was born on 3 March 1886. He trained in two crafts – as a silversmith and enameller, and later as a calligrapher and letterer.

In 1900 at the age of fourteen, MCO was apprenticed to Barkentin & Krall, 290 Regent Street, London, as a designer of (mostly ecclesiastical) metalwork. He then worked as an assistant designer to the Artificers' Guild 1907-09, and as drawing master at the Grammar School in Soham, Cambridgeshire.

While at Barkentin & Krall, he was very near to the original Central School of Arts & Crafts, where W.R. Lethaby was Principal and Edward Johnston had started teaching in 1899. He attended the art classes at the Central School three evenings a week, it was there he met Lethaby, Charles Spooner and other men who were pioneers of the new craft movement, and from them learned about the Royal College of Art. Between 1911 and 1915 he was a full-time student at the Royal College of Art. He financed himself by winning three Evening Scholarships at the Central School. In Edward Johnston's lettering class he met Eric Gill, Noel Rooke, Louise Powell and other lettering craftsmen.

MCO had considerable influence as a teacher. He was an excellent draughtsman and considered the habit of drawing an essential part of creative activity. He taught at the Chelsea School of Art, Central School of Arts and Crafts, the Institute at Hampstead Garden Suburb, the School of Building, Brixton, Hornsey School of Art and St Martin's School of Art. His pupils included Irene Base, William Bishop, Heather Child, William Gardner, Freda Hands, Harry Meadows, Pat Russell, John Shyvers, Lewis Trethewey and Pamela Wrightson.

MCO was elected an early member of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, which was founded in 1921, and by 1924 was serving on the Committee. He was also an elected member of the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society and the Red Rose Guild of Craftsmen. He exhibited work regularly for some years with all three.

He lived almost all his life in London, and was teaching there when he died on 7 December 1958 at the age of sixty-two.


The papers were arranged/listed by Heather Collins on behalf of the Crafts Study Centre in December 1994 and were given the reference code '10/'. They were renumbered with the new reference code 'MCO' by Greta Bertram in 2021, with minor adjustments to the arrangement of sub-parts.

  • MCO/1 Lettering sheets
  • MCO/2 Articles, lecture notes and CVs by MCO, and testimonials about MCO by others
  • MCO/3 Transparencies of early alphabets, and sheets showing the development of letters in various alphabets from the Egyptian hieroglyphs
  • MCO/4 Letter from Graily Hewitt to MCO and draft response
  • MCO/5 Obituary and tributes by members of the SSI to MCO, January 1959
  • MCO/6 Photographs of memorial tablets and other commissions by MCO
  • MCO/7 Roughs and trials by MCO

Access Information

Archive material may be viewed by appointment only.

Other Finding Aids

A handlist is available on request.

Archivist's Note

This entry was compiled by Greta Bertram, Curator, March 2021.

Conditions Governing Use

Written permission must be sought before any archival material is published.

Appraisal Information

None timetabled.


None expected.


Farleigh, John (ed). 1945. Fifteen Craftsmen on their Crafts, Sylvan Press. [MCO contributed to the essay on 'Writing and Lettering']

MCO contributed to the section on 'Calligraphy' in 'Modern Lettering & Calligraphy' edited by Rathbone Holme & M. Frost, Studio Publications, London & New York, 1954