Go­ing with the flow

The pop­u­lar­ity of cal­lig­ra­phy classes sug­gests that beau­ti­ful hand­writ­ing is still in fash­ion. Antony Wood­ward tries his hand

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Start on the up­stroke and no pres­sure, no pres­sure, no pres­sure, no pres­sure, no pres­sure… and press on the down­stroke.’ athena Cauley-yu is demon­strat­ing how to draw a cop­per­plate cap­i­tal D with a pointed steel nib onto ruled cal­li­graphic prac­tice pa­per. Her pen moves pa­tiently, but with an easy, con­fi­dent grace. It’s 10am on a Satur­day and eight of us are perched on high stools in the sunny back of­fice of Miss Cauley-yu’s sta­tionery shop, Metic­u­lous Ink, in Bath.

an at­mos­phere of con­cen­tra­tion per­vades this makeshift scrip­to­rium, of tongues lodged in the cor­ners of mouths, punc­tu­ated by the rus­tle of pa­per be­ing ad­justed, pens be­ing dipped and scraped, the scratch and mur­mur of writ­ing nibs.

Cop­per­plate is the round hand, cur­sive (joined and flow­ing) script char­ac­terised by thick and thin strokes with long as­cen­ders and de­scen­ders fa­mil­iar from tra­di­tional wed­ding in­vi­ta­tions. Its flow­ing sweeps and flour­ishes en­graved so well that, from the 17th cen­tury on­wards, it be­came the stan­dard script both for copy­books teach­ing writ­ing and to cap­tion im­ages re­pro­duced us­ing the en­graved cop­per plates that give it its name.

Its very suc­cess in be­com­ing the uni­ver­sal trade hand of every city clerk by the end of the 18th cen­tury has meant that its prac­ti­tion­ers have been rather sneered at by tra­di­tional cal­lig­ra­phers (as ‘pointy-pen peo­ple’) un­til its cur­rent re­vival. the thick and thin strokes we’re en­deav­our­ing to mas­ter to­day are cre­ated solely by vary­ing pres­sure on the nib. this is in con­trast to older monas­tic styles in Gothic, ro­man or italic script in which such vari­a­tions are cre­ated by us­ing an oblique or stub nib cut from cane, reed or quill (the word ‘pen’ comes from the Latin for feather, penna).

Need­less to say, it’s all less straight­for­ward than Miss Cauley-yu makes it look. On my up­stroke, the nib scratches, snags, springs free, fir­ing a ralph Stead­man-style spray of blots across my neighbour’s page. ‘Oops, sorry,’ I say, ac­tu­ally mean­ing some­thing more akin to the comment spot­ted in the margina­lia of one monas­tic man­u­script: ‘a curse on thee, O pen.’

I’m here be­cause I’ve al­ways had a sneak­ing ad­mi­ra­tion for those rare mis­sives writ­ten in el­e­gant italic, usu­ally in black or turquoise ink, that I’ve pe­ri­od­i­cally en­coun­tered (usu­ally from a teacher, ar­chi­tect or art his­to­rian) and be­cause I’ve al­ways fancied I’d be a nat­u­ral. this, plus some strange, elu­sive mag­netic ef­fect ex­erted by pens, inks and pa­per that makes it im­pos­si­ble to pass an old-fash­ioned sta­tion­ers with­out be­ing drawn in.

the peo­ple in to­day’s class vary in age from early twen­ties to late seven­ties and in­clude two brides-to-be with their moth­ers, doubt­less keen to mas­ter let­ter­ing for in­vi­ta­tions, en­velopes and place-nam­ing, plus oth­ers just try­ing it for fun. I’m the only man.

We be­gin by re­learn­ing the al­pha­bet, our prac­tice sheets fill­ing with our ten­ta­tive scrawls, dry­ing to a pleas­ing matte-black fin­ish from the pots of iron-gall ink. an­other world ex­ists down here, in which let­ters are cat­e­gorised ac­cord­ing to shape and width, and each comes with cen­turies of evo­lu­tion­ary his­tory. the lower-case i got its dot to dif­fer­en­ti­ate it from ms and ns in monas­tic Black­let­ter. Lower-case f did duty as low­er­case s un­til the lat­ter came along and j didn’t ex­ist at all un­til rel­a­tively re­cently. In an­cient Latin in­scrip­tions, V stood for both the U and V sounds, hence W’s name, as it was drawn as two Vs when it ar­rived as a me­dieval ad­di­tion.

U is an­other late­comer. But it is the let­ters’ shape, de­meanour and the space they oc­cupy that con­cern us now. the clue, per­haps, is in their name: ‘char­ac­ters’.

‘Now, a treat. Cap­i­tal G. a very sat­is­fy­ing let­ter. It flows al­most like it wants to be drawn.’ I try a few Gs and it’s true. Eas­ier than they look, they of­fer an im­me­di­ate sat­is­fac­tion ab­sent from those fid­dly Fs.

Cal­lig­ra­phy may not sound as if it’s an ac­tiv­ity to arouse vis­ceral emo­tion, but there is doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence that it does. Its mod­ern re­vival, by the arts-and-crafts move­ment at the end of the 19th cen­tury, was driven al­most sin­gle-hand­edly by one man: Ed­ward John­ston, who would go on, in 1916, to de­sign the London Un­der­ground type­face.

teach­ing at the Cen­tral School, John­ston stud­ied manuscripts in the Bri­tish Mu­seum and ex­per­i­mented to work out how they must have been writ­ten, com­pil­ing his re­search into what is still the stan­dard work on the sub­ject: Writ­ing, Il­lu­mi­nat­ing & Let­ter­ing (1906). Few who saw John­ston work­ing for­got the ex­pe­ri­ence. ‘I had that thrill and

‘The nib scratches, snags, springs free, fir­ing a Stead­man style spray of blots

We are ready to try a word, the most beau­ti­ful one we know: our names

trem­ble of the heart,’ re­called a teenage Eric Gill, ‘which oth­er­wise I can only re­mem­ber hav­ing had when first I touched [Ethel, his wife’s] body or saw her hair down for the first time.’

The nov­el­ist Eve­lyn Waugh, who en­coun­tered John­ston while learn­ing cal­lig­ra­phy at school at Lanc­ing, re­ported a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence: ‘The art of the scribe is some­times con­sid­ered spin­ster­ish. The sweep and pre­ci­sion of John­ston’s strokes were as vir­ile as a bull-fighter’s and left me breath­less.’

John­ston’s modus operandi, his blend of in­fi­nite, some­times al­most de­mented de­lib­er­a­tion, fol­lowed by dra­matic ac­tion, goes to the heart of what cal­lig­ra­phy is about—the stroke.

‘Cap­i­tal M. Your first let­ter that breaks the rules of the down stroke, be­cause that first stroke is very ver­ti­cal in­stead of fol­low­ing the dot­ted line.’

The fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween hand­writ­ing and its more an­cient and il­lus­tri­ous cousin is that, in cal­lig­ra­phy, every let­ter is con­structed by a se­quence of sep­a­rate, pre­cisely planned strokes, be­tween each of which the nib is lifted from the pa­per. Hand­writ­ing, which only de­vel­oped with the ris­ing lit­er­acy that fol­lowed Cax­ton’s in­tro­duc­tion of print­ing in 1476, was the con­se­quence of the need for rapid, leg­i­ble ev­ery­day com­mu­ni­ca­tion in which en­tire words could be writ­ten with­out lifting the pen from the page.

Print­ing may have spelled the end for the monas­tic cal­lig­ra­phy that, through the Dark Ages, had pre­served and copied an­cient and re­li­gious texts, but it was the be­gin­ning for hand­writ­ing.

‘Lower-case q. Starts like a lower-case a, down into D height and add a flour­ish.’ With the stroke comes the flour­ish. As scripts go, Cop­per­plate is alive with flour­ishes or what cal­lig­ra­phers call ‘swashes’: those gra­tu­itous loops and em­bel­lish­ments (think of El­iz­a­beth I’s sig­na­ture), es­pe­cially on ini­tial cap­i­tals, tails and am­per­sands, mono­grams or those dec­o­ra­tive scrolls, like top­pled tre­ble clefs, there for no pur­pose but to show off the cal­lig­ra­pher’s ex­u­ber­ance and vir­tu­os­ity.

The art his­to­rian Ernst Gom­brich re­garded the way the flour­ish high­lights the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the dec­o­ra­tive and sym­bolic, be­tween sign and de­sign, as of ‘paradig­matic im­por­tance’. In The Sense of Or­der, his study of the psy­chol­ogy of dec­o­ra­tive art, he wrote: ‘It is as if, hav­ing formed a let­ter on con­struc­tive prin­ci­ples, there was still so much sur­plus en­ergy which needed an out­let that the hand showed off its mas­tery of reg­u­lar move­ment.’ Flour­ishes and play­ful­ness are ev­i­dent even in the Book of Kells.

By the end, how­ever, the tail was wag­ging the dog. Trea­tises such as Ed­ward Cocker’s Mag­num in parvo or the pen’s per­fec­tion (1675) took the flour­ish to such ‘deca­dent’ ex­tremes that the texts were in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.

‘Cap­i­tal Z. Three very small loops—and keep them small oth­er­wise it looks like a pound sign.’

We are ready to try a word, the most beau­ti­ful one we know: our names. As I re­turn to the be­gin­ning of the al­pha­bet—a, n, t—i de­tect that, al­ready, my strokes are more con­fi­dent. The re­sult is a bit wob­bly, a bit un­even, but not bad. Much re­mains to be learnt: Ara­bic nu­mer­als, spac­ing—of let­ters, words, lines —lay­out, colour and il­lu­mi­na­tion, not to men­tion Ro­man and Italic.

How­ever, few craft hob­bies so freighted with his­tory of­fer such a prompt re­turn in terms of per­sonal cre­ative sat­is­fac­tion or do so more in­ex­pen­sively—no looms or potters’ wheels, just pen, ink, pa­per and per­se­ver­ance. ‘Ap­par­ently, if one is ever go­ing to do good work one has to give one’s whole life to it,’ wrote Waugh, be­fore de­cid­ing the craft re­quired ‘more dis­ci­pline and de­vo­tion than I was ready to give it’.

As we pack up, my fin­gers are inky, but I have an un­de­ni­able light­ness of spirit, even if I’m in­clined to agree with an­other monk­ish aside found at the end of his man­u­script: ‘Now I’ve writ­ten the whole thing, for Christ’s sake, give me a drink.’ Metic­u­lous Ink, 134, Wal­cot Street, Bath (01225 333004; http://metic­u­lousink.com)

Above: The elab­o­rate sig­na­ture of El­iz­a­beth I. Fac­ing page: Athena Cauleyyu demon­strates her prow­ess with the dip pen at Metic­u­lous Ink in Bath

Monas­tic cal­lig­ra­phy, such as in the Book of Kells from the 9th cen­tury, pre­served an­cient and re­li­gious texts be­fore the dawn of print­ing

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