Peter Saville on Tony Wilson's Headstone

Pin It
Anthony H Wilson, Manchester
Anthony H Wilson, ManchesterDesigned by Peter Saville

Graphic design legend Peter Saville speaks exclusively to Another about the headstone he designed for Tony Wilson...

“It was the first time that I had ever been to a burial. I realised during Tony's memorial service, which was held in a remarkable little church in the centre of Manchester called The Hidden Gem, that there was a coffin there. There was a coffin there – with Tony in it. That was quite odd and quite upsetting. I had known him for such a long time and he had played such a pivotal role in my life, so that was strange. Then we went to Southern Cemetery in Manchester where his coffin was lowered into the ground and I had quite a profound feeling about it. It is one of those moments that you have either read about or seen in movies many times, but it is quite odd when it happens for real and with someone you are close to.

So that is how I got to Southern Cemetery, which I knew of but I had never visited before. It is very large and quite beautiful. I started to look around at where Tony was and began to think what would be appropriate as the headstone. So the awareness was there from the beginning, but it was not something I had done before and there was quite a lot to find out. The plot that they had allocated for him was in a very central location and was surrounded by Victorian and early twentieth century headstones. They were large and quite monumental and all very traditional. So from the beginning I had to think about what would be appropriate.

I went back on quite a few occasions. In fact, I went back later that day after the burial. I bumped into Alan Erasmus who was very close to Tony. He had the same thought that I had – to come back later after everyone had gone. So it was there that I chatted with Alan, which I had not done for twenty years. For some years I have had the role of creative director for the city, so I was back in Manchester almost every week. Quite often I would go by the cemetery and think about what to do.

I had never done a headstone before, so I had to go and find out the rules. Fortunately, next to Southern Cemetery are two monumental masons and after a recommendation I went to McGarry Memorials. They told me the rules and regulations. The size of a new headstone is absolutely pre-determined by its location in a cemetery. Fortunately, because the plot was in an older part of the cemetery it was possible to have a height of five feet.

"I felt an enormous responsibility, because it would be there for eternity. There is a permanence to it and that was a little intimidating"

I felt an enormous responsibility, because it would be there for eternity. There is a permanence to it and that was a little intimidating. It took a while at the beginning, but I didn’t let that bother me. I knew that when it was done that it would be there for a long time and I wanted to be fairly certain, at least from my point of view, that when I went back and saw it I didn't have any misgivings about it.

By its very nature, it would involve other people. The first was Ben Kelly, who was the architectural designer of the Haçienda and the Factory office. Ben's knowledge of materials made it essential for me to work with him. Other people that I worked with typographically, such as Paul Barnes and Matt Robertson who wrote and designed the Factory Book for Thames & Hudson. Various people contributed and so it felt inclusive. Finally there was a design but it probably took a year to get there.

I knew from the outset that I wanted it to be modern and not traditional. Also I wanted to be certain that if I went back in six months, or six years, that it would still look good. It is modern and it is minimal. The instinctive contrast was to use a traditional typeface and classic stone-cut lettering. Matt challenged that preconception and we eventually chose a modern font called Rotis, which is the font used for the last Factory logo-type. It is a modern typeface based on classical proportions.

I wanted it to be an object of art in the spirit of Factory. That is what it had to be. It was going to be a Factory work and probably the last... With ornate nineteenth century headstones around it I felt it had to be completely different and at the same time in keeping. I was looking at all the different types of stone and at first, I was certain that it would be some choice of exotic marble. Then I saw a highly polished black granite – almost like black mirror and I kept on coming back to it. Then when I stood there at the site, I imagined this black obelisk, that is there and not there, reflecting everything that is around it. I thought it was quite appropriate because Tony was a larger-than-life individual who was about other people. He catalysed the work of others and enabled them to realise their potential. To mirror all around began to seem so appropriate. His monument is a reflection of a world around him."

In 1978, Peter Saville designed the launch poster for The Factory, a club night held at the Russell club in Manchester, run by Tony Wilson. The post-modern design arrived at the club later than expected, two of the bands had already played their sets, but this work, which was inspired by an industrial warning sign he had stolen from a door at college, marked the first instalment of a long-term partnership with Wilson, who founded Factory Records a year later. It also ignited Factory's unique numbering system, in which all consequent art works were archived, beginning with the seminal poster, known as FAC-1. Saville then went on to design all of Factory's releases, from Joy Division's debut studio album, Unknown Pleasures, to New Order's iconic 1983 album, Power Corruption and Lies.

Tony Wilson's death in 2007 marked a sombre moment for independent pop culture. Saville was asked by Wilson's family to design a headstone for his burial plot in Manchester's Southern cemetery. The process took three years and resulted in a beautiful design that captured the spirit of Factory Records and of course, Tony Wilson. It was numbered FAC-501, marking the last ever Factory art work. Here, Saville talks AnOther through the design process and capturing Wilson's unique spirit.

Read about AnOther's top 10 iconic gravestones here.

Text by Isabella Burley