The writing or drawing of beautiful letters (see also illumination).
|Status||Currently viable (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Historic area of significance||Europe (Western Calligraphy)|
|Area currently practised||UK and globally|
Careful, and often beautiful, writing has long been a means of communicating text. The roots of calligraphy in the UK are centuries old. Manuscripts have survived from the medieval period and tend to be religious works produced in monasteries. Irish missionaries who had learned how to produce books in Rome in turn passed on their knowledge to Anglo Saxon scribes in Britain. Different monks may have had different roles in the process, for example scribes to write the main text, a rubricator to add headings and initials, and an illuminator to create paintings on the pages. Lindisfarne was a major centre of manuscript production around 700 AD, and other centres included Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells were produced for the glory of God, but charters, grants of land and property, laws and personal letters were all written with various levels of calligraphic proficiency.
In the twelfth century there was a rise of learning and the birth of universities throughout Europe; this increased the demand for hand-written books both for students to study as well as for religious foundations. The rise of the middle classes meant that there was more disposable income, but not much that could be bought, but manuscript books were available and became a status symbol. Books of Hours were the medieval best seller and many thousands were produced. The Humanists’ interest in the classics resulted in a number of beautiful Renaissance books written in Humanistic minuscule and Italic.
The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, meant that books were cheaper and easier to produce in number, and calligraphy declined apart from the most luxurious volumes. William Morris and then Edward Johnston revived the use of the broad-edged pen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Calligraphy is not just a functional craft, it is also an art form, and whilst many calligraphers carry out formal commissions, many also combine these with the creation of pieces for exhibitions. There are also experienced calligraphers who do not carry out any commercial work at all, but create works of art for exhibition and sale.
The various writing styles (Uncial, Insular Minuscule, Rustics, Gothic Textura, Italic etc) require the broad-edged pen nib to be held at different angles to the horizontal guidelines, and the size of the letters is usually determined by the width of the nib – wide nibs make bigger letters. Most calligraphers use metal nibs, paper, and ink or gouache paint, but some still use quills and vellum skin, combining their letter-forms with gold and paintings. Some letters are made with a brush.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Training issues: There has been the odd couple of apprenticeships in previous years, but generally they do not exist at the current time and there are no apprentice calligraphers in the UK. A few people have been able to obtain QEST scholarships in order to further their studies, but calligraphy is not generally an occupation where practising craftspeople take on a trainee to pass on their skills.
Training issues: There are few full-time courses in calligraphy but many self-fund and produce manuscripts books, grants, rolls of honour, presentation addresses and scrolls, and also artistic interpretations of text.
Training issues: Many adult education classes (a popular route for entry into the craft) in calligraphy have closed, leaving fewer opportunities for local study, though a few local authorities such as Birmingham City Council are still running courses. In addition, there are no longer any University level courses in calligraphy running in the UK.
Market issues: There is a perceived lack of need for the services of the calligrapher. With home computing now the norm, some of the traditional work of the calligrapher such as posters, invitations, certificates, etc. can now be done by anyone with access to a computer and printer. However there is still a need for skilled calligraphers to write in memorial books, to produce freedoms of cities, to produce gilding and specialist work.
Lack of awareness: There is a lack of understanding by the general public of the specialist skills of the calligrapher, and the number of years of study and practice it requires to become skilled in the craft.
Lack of information: Counting numbers of calligraphers is not easy, so the total number of calligraphers is not known.
Calligraphy & Lettering Arts Society – has many regional groups that offer opportunities and runs a Calligraphy Summer Festival every year. Members of CLAS also have the opportunity to take diplomas, eventually leading to Fellowship of the Society.
Society for Italic Handwriting – aims to spread the practice of the Italic script. It publishes a quarterly magazine relating to the study and practice of italics.
Society of Scribes and Illuminators – 430 members from the UK and around the world. Of those, 52 are Fellows of the Society, i.e. they have been recognised by the Society as achieving the highest standards of calligraphy.
- V&A Museum
- British Library
Craftspeople currently known
A list of regional calligraphy groups can be found on the website of the Calligraphy & Lettering Arts Society.
The Society of Scribes and Illuminators believes that the craft is far from being in a sustainable position, but that at present there are still highly trained, highly skilled practising calligraphers at work, and thriving national and regional calligraphy groups. Our challenge is ensuring that opportunities for developing future calligraphers remain available.
Training opportunities: The Society of Scribes and Illuminators creates opportunities for the study of the craft through its Calligraphy Correspondence Course, its Advanced Training Scheme, Study Days and Masterclasses, along with events such as its Lay Members Day and Research and Technical Day. It also holds major exhibitions whenever possible. No full time training courses any longer exist.