Friday, June 28, 2013

Calligraphic Time Travel

Most of my commissioned calligraphy work is for weddings, but I also love teaching calligraphy.


I’m also a bit of a nut when it comes to the history of my craft.

Although the focus of my classes is teaching others how to do calligraphy, I firmly believe in the importance of knowing when and where a style came from historically. 



A couple of years ago I decided to take a new approach and do a historic monologue for the history presentation in my Uncial calligraphy class.  I spoke as the voice of Bede, a monk, scholar, and historian from the 7th century—the time period of the particular Uncial script I was teaching.


But why stop there?  When asked to do a brief calligraphy demonstration at the art store where I teach, I decided to expand on the monologue idea.

Donning a bowler hat (thanks, Grandpa!) and fake mustache, I became Edward Johnston, the “father of modern calligraphy” who developed the Foundational hand, based on the 10th century Ramsey Psalter manuscript.  

But I also teach Italic…off went the mustache and on went the Renaissance scholars hat (did you see the teaser photo here last week?) and I spoke as Arrighi, Writing Master of the 16th century. 


What follows are some still shots and short video clips of my presentation.  I can assure you, I won't be quitting my day job and taking up acting, but this was fun to do!  The video clips are not complete, so I’ve included my monologue script with more detail for those who are interested.  
I hope you enjoy it!   





My name is Bede and I am a monk from the monastery of Jarrow in Northeastern Britain.  I was born in the year 673.  I am also a scholar and an historian, and I have spent many years of my life recording the history of the English Church and People.

A vast number of beautiful manuscripts were commissioned and produced from my fellow monks and scribes at Jarrow.  One in particular, however, stands out among the rest—the St. Cuthbert Gospel manuscript.  This manuscript was created shortly after my birth in the late 7th century and contains the Gospel of John. With its binding of red leather and Celtic interlace patterns, and its calfskin vellum pages of Uncial script, this little manuscript miraculously survives as the most well preserved and fully intact book of its time.

an enlarged sample from the St. Cuthbert Gospel
The Uncial script found in the St. Cuthbert Gospel was the common hand of my day in the monastery scriptoriums, and in fact, has a long and geographically widespread history.  Various forms of Uncial are found in manuscripts dating from the 4th through the 8th centuries.  The style traveled as books were borrowed and passed from region to region.  But, I understand that the Uncial of the Cuthbert Gospel is the model used for new students here, among you, today.  The round form of this capitular script makes it an ideal hand for new scribes to learn.

Although Uncial had such a long and prominent life, its characteristics were adapted and changed over time, eventually taking the form of the Caroline Minuscule scripts…


Good afternoon.  My name is Edward Johnston, and I became known as the “father of modern calligraphy.”  I must say, it happened quite by chance—here is my story…

I was born in 1872 and, from the age of three, grew up in England.  I always had an interest in both art and science.  I dabbled a bit with lettering and drawing as a child and that interest remained with me into adulthood. 

My original career focus was in medicine, but in 1898 I discontinued my medical studies and decided to accompany my cousin on an expedition through the United States and Canada.  In fact, we spent time in Seattle, as well as an extended camping stay on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia.

But before this expedition, the direction of my future studies took a dramatic turn.  While staying with friends in London and preparing for my travel abroad, I had the great fortune of being introduced to several kind gentlemen involved directly and indirectly with the late William Morris and the crafts movement in England.  I was encouraged to pursue my interest in art—specifically, lettering—and guided in how to study ancient manuscripts at the British Museum.  I guess you could say I found myself in the right place at the right time—I was offered a job teaching illumination and lettering at the Central School of Arts & Crafts in London, following my expedition to the United States! 

as E.J., with a sample from the Ramsay Psalter
My development of the Foundational calligraphy hand for my students was based on my studies of a 10th century manuscript, the Ramsey Psalter.  This manuscript was written in a Caroline minuscule script that emerged from a form of Uncial over the course of several centuries.  My Foundational hand was excellent for new students pursuing calligraphy studies, and to this day, with its round form and upright structure, is still recognized as the most fundamental hand in calligraphy for a new student to learn.

Although the 10th c. Caroline Minuscule was highly readable and an excellent model for my Foundational hand, it was not the most speedy way of writing.  The pen is lifted for every stroke and the letters do not join together.  Those characteristics were to follow several centuries later, with the emergence of the Italic script of the Renaissance scholars…




Greetings, friends.  My name is Arrighi, and I am a Writing Master of the Renaissance period.  I was employed as a professional scribe by the Papal Chancery (administrative offices of the Catholic Church) from 1519 to 1523. 

Scholars of my time were tired of the heavy, burdensome appearance of the former Gothic scripts that were prominent in the 14th and 15th centuries—you may be familiar with the style, as seen in Gutenberg’s early printed books.
We Renaissance men were looking for something new—a fresh face in our written scripts.  But we also needed a style suitable for faster writing, in transcribing the non-printed documents of everyday business affairs.  We looked back to the earlier Caroline Minuscule styles from the 12th century and adapted these to suit our needs.   

What developed was the Humanist Italic Corsiva—better known among you aspiring calligraphers as Italic. 
As a Writing Master, I was the first to publish an illustrated instruction book for writing the Chancery Italic.


Other Writing Masters after me, liked to “show off” a bit for their students, creating Copy Books with ornate capital letters and extreme flourishing.



The Stampadoodle lunchtime demo group
So, you see my friends, the task we undertake as calligraphers has a long history—one filled with elements of faith and devotion of early monastery scribes, the adaptation of writing styles to suit specific needs of a time period and people, and the artistic pursuit that brings out the beauty of written words.  We are all connected across the centuries through the unifying force of the written word, the dance of the pen, the flow of the ink, and the cushion of our pages that become part of history for all time. 

Reference material

The History of the English Church and People, Bede
The British Library website and manuscript reference

Edward Johnston: Lettering and Life, Ewan Clayton
Historical Scripts, Stan Knight

1 comment:

  1. Great job, Christy. Love all that additional information about the different hands.