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