Old Masters Academy

The art of beautiful writing

Calligraphic writing is uniform in style and has proportionately constructed letters and accurately spaced letters and words. The name derives from the Greek kailos meaning beauty, and graphein to write.Fine penmanship has been distinguished from functional writing since ancient times. In ancient Greece professional scribes copied important civil, literary, and religious texts in elegant scripts. In many Oriental countries, particularly China and Japan, calligraphy is regarded as the greatest of the visual arts and considered an art form that is superior to painting.In Europe during the 4th and 5th centuries books were written in square capitals (‘majuscules’) derived from classical Roman inscriptions (Trajan’s Column in Rome is the outstanding example). The rustic capitals of the same period were written more freely, the pen being held at a severe angle so that the scribe was less frequently inclined to change the angle for special flourishes. Uncial capitals, more rounded, were used from the 4th to the 8th centuries. During this period the cursive hand was also developing, and the interplay of this with the formal hands, coupled with the need for speedier writing, led to the small letter forms (‘minuscules’).During the 7th century the half-uncial was developed with ascending and descending strokes and was adopted by all countries under Roman rule. The cursive forms developed differently in different countries. In Italy the italic script was evolved and became the model for italic typefaces. Printing and the typewriter reduced the need for calligraphy in the West.During the Middle Ages calligraphy was a highly specialized technique practiced by monks and professional scribes. Medieval calligraphers developed a complicated Gothic, or black letter, script. This heavy, angular writing, although it was imprecise and difficult to read, became the accepted book hand throughout Europe and was copied by the first printers. There are outstanding examples of Gothic script in medieval illuminated manuscripts.The profession of calligraphy reached its peak in Renaissance Italy. Renaissance scholars, however, found the intricacies of Gothic script inappropriate for the transcription of classical texts. They devised a less complicated style based on the earlier Caroline script developed during Charlemagne’s reign. The Renaissance script, known as neo-Caroline, or humanistic, was the forerunner of modern handwriting.With the invention of the printing press and the increase in literacy in the 15th century, formal literary calligraphy declined. A more casual, flowing script was developed for use in business correspondence and in daily life. In 1522, Lodovico Arrighi wrote the first writing manual for non-professional scribes.By the 17th century, calligraphy as a fine art and profession had virtually disappeared.In 19th-century England, William Morris and Owen Jones tried unsuccessfully to revive interest in fine handwriting.The modern interest in calligraphy is mainly the result of the work of Edward Johnston (1872-1944), a teacher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, who wrote the outstanding modern text on calligraphy, Writing and Illuminating and Lettering (1906), which became the foundation of modern calligraphy. Johnston there showed that the best medieval alphabets could be reproduced through the correct use of traditional tools, especially the edged pen, and adapted for modern purposes.The present letter forms have gradually evolved from originals shaped by the tools used to make them — the flat brush on paper, the chisel on stone, the stylus on wax and clay, and the reed and quill on papyrus and skin.Techniques of applying burnished gold were revived largely through the experiments of Graily Hewitt (1864-1952). In 1921, a group of Johnston’s and Hewitt’s pupils founded the Society of Scribes and Illuminators (SSI). The continuing influence of the SSI, with its professional and ‘lay’ members, has spread from England to the Continent and the United States.

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