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The Antique Penman
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Posts Tagged ‘calligraphy’
Life Without the Written Word
Sunday, November 13th, 2016

We’re not just losing handwriting: written communication generally is going away.

Detail from the journal of Mirabeau B. Lamar (1835).

Detail from the journal of Mirabeau B. Lamar (1835).

I’ve mentioned here the little surge of emotion that comes when you recognize the writing of a loved one—or even, I suppose, the notes of a strict professor, or the scrawl of a stalker. In all cases, a lot more gets communicated by the slope of the letters, the look of the lines, than by the actual words and sentences themselves.

But imagine a world where those words and sentences themselves have gone missing. Imagine a virtual life in which everyone simply talks to each other, and any subtle hints to deeper meaning must come from the oldest nonverbal cues—tone of voice and facial expression. It’s where we seem to be headed in this digital age.

Detail of 1407 Bible by Gerard Brils of Belgium.

Detail of 1407 Bible by Gerard Brils of Belgium.

Thanks to smart devices, now within arm’s reach of most First World residents, the ease of capturing audio and video has increased a hundredfold. Podcasts are how we document change or predict the future, replacing magazine articles and newspaper columns. We listen to storytelling and standup comedy instead of going to the library to check out books to read. We’ve been suddenly thrust into a golden era of TV.

Never mind the loss of longhand—typing on a traditional keyboard has given way to hammering out txts and mssgs with just two thumbs. With autocorrect, who needs to learn how to spell? Heck, witness the sudden proliferation of emoji. Is it inconceivable that written literacy will, over not a very long time, diminish and fade?

Calligraphic font Zapfino (1998), by Hermann Zapf.

Calligraphic font Zapfino (1998), by Hermann Zapf.

Maybe I’m being pessimistic—after all, my very livelihood depends on the written word—but consider the spread of this: “tl;dr.

Short of an apocalyptic global catastrophe, I can think of no event that might reverse this slow extinction of reading and writing. Only if the grid goes down will we have to revert to lighting our own lamps, and making our own lampblack ink, sharpening our own quills, and pounding our own pulp into paper. I suppose that might be seen as a silver lining.

Excerpt from the diary of Leslie Willson.

Excerpt from the diary of my father, Leslie Willson.

I’m drawn again to a page of my father’s diary—this one from 07 August 1945, the day after the bombing of Hiroshima, when he was a 22-year-old serviceman—written in his familiar cursive hand:

“I cannot conceive of any harnessed force so powerful. Although no mention was made of the actual damage done by this one bomb, its potential effect is tremendous. It may well shorten the war to weeks or days—and it may well have been the death rattle of this round green earth.”

Well, here we are more than 70 years later, and no planetary cataclysm has occurred. So it might be up to our human eye for art and history to preserve our lovely alphabets—the beauty of calligraphy, the magic of an ancient inscribed scroll. Current type design trends, in fact, seem full of fanciful scripts.

Nope, I cannot abandon hope. I can’t conceive of life without the written word.

 


 

Miscellanea

» Does the loss of cursive mean social devolution?

» Or have computers effectively taken the place of the pen?

» Have you ever noticed how your handwriting has changed over time? (Mine has.)

» Another argument why teaching handwriting to kids is a good thing.

» What do François Mitterrand and Steve Jobs have in common?

» More moving evidence of the timeless power of handwriting.

Handwriting as art
Sunday, June 5th, 2016
Old Dutch and Malabar scripts.

Old Dutch and Malabar scripts.

I have in my possession a book published in Amsterdam in 1672. Its author is Philippus Baldaeus, a Dutch Calvinist missionary, and my copy is written predominantly in German. It’s a big book, whose title (translated into English) is A True detailed description of the famous East Indian Coasts of Malabar and Coromandel, and the island of Ceylon.

Baldaeus accompanied Dutch invaders to southern India and Sri Lanka and came back with a tale to tell. This volume—which my father (Germanic languages professor and literary translator A. Leslie Willson) used in researching a book of his own*—has a number of magnificent plates and a series of pages showing samples of the glyphs and letterforms then used in the ancient written language of the residents of Malabar.

Egyptian hieroglyphs (the British Museum).

Egyptian hieroglyphs (the British Museum).

The scripts are truly beautiful—both the exotic Brahmic glyphs of Malabar and the looping Dutch script that accompanies it. And they serve as just one example of handwriting as art.

The earliest writers of course used pictographs, then hieroglyphs (pictures representing sounds), which could certainly be considered art. As might the illuminated manuscripts created by Medieval scribes—but that’s not what I mean. I mean handwritten symbols, Latin and otherwise, whose shapes or execution or both represent art in a fundamental way.

Zapfino specimen.

Zapfino specimen.

By its very definition, calligraphy is a fine example. The pleasing, expressive sweeps of a calligrapher’s brush or pen can be admired for long moments, can conjure up moods or memories or magic. Calligraphy spans multiple language systems and cultures. In fact, some of the most popular fonts these days are essentially digitized calligraphy—from Zapfino, by late master type designer Hermann Zapf, to the work of contemporary lettering artist Laura Worthington.

Sign painters, poster designers, and graffiti artists also qualify—their hand-rendered letters and words are an unquestionably sincere form of accessible artistic expression. (I’ve received some wonderfully illustrated envelopes from such folks, which I have displayed prominently here and there.)

Detail from Mirabeau B. Lamar’s journal.

Detail from Mirabeau B. Lamar’s journal.

But leave it to me to carry the handwriting-as-art concept into an even broader realm: the shared experience of people who have written (and, in declining numbers, still write) routinely by hand. Those who have unique or fancy signatures, or who add special little extra loops or curls or flourishes to their regular script (or printing), or who take secret pride in the shapes of their Ps and Qs.

I have a strong appreciation for this kind of handwriting artist’s work. I know it when I see it. I’ve seen it amid the source materials for the pen fonts I’ve made of the scripts of historical Texans—the sweep of the D of Mirabeau Lamar (Lamar Pen), the little vertical cross Emily Austin Perry added to her H (Emily Austin), Sam Houston’s inimitable signature (Houston Pen). Another such font I’ve got cookin’ in the oven adds an interesting twist: the script in Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary, originally written in pencil, was later traced in ink by his nephew, Moses Austin Bryan (Emily’s son).

Detail from Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

Detail from Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

You’ve seen it, too, in the handwriting of certain friends or relatives. Perhaps they heard early on how neat their cursive was, so they took pains to make it more evocative. Perhaps they’re visual artists by nature, and it also carries over onto their notepads. Even sloppy scribblers have quirks curious and endearing. Witness the little crosses on the Zs of Viktorie.

Without question hand-done lettering communicates far more than mere words and sentences—e.g., the mind, age, mood, or proclivities of the writer. Perhaps, in this sort of innate expressiveness, all handwriting might stand as a form of art.

Note: If you know of an example of some particularly artistic penmanship, I’d love it if you’d comment with a link.

*A Mythical Image: The Ideal of India in German Romanticism (Duke University Press, 1964).


Miscellanea

» Award-winning penmanship doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with hands.

» And while were on the subject, here’s another young handwriting champion. Can there be hope for penmanship?

» Perhaps not, as some are editorializing against cursive requirement in schools.

» Meanwhile, archaeologists have uncovered 2,000-year-old handwritten documents in the London mud.

Handwriting as a sense of self
Tuesday, March 8th, 2016
The Palmer Method of cursive script.

The Palmer Method of cursive script.

I have my hand, and I have my pen. That’s it. —Rev. Robert Palladino

A few days ago I listened to a fascinating Freakonomics Radio podcast called Who Needs Handwriting? In exploring the question of its title, the episode features an interview with Anne Trubek (@atrubek on Twitter),  a writer, editor, and former professor who knows a lot about writing by hand. Trubek, who is author of the forthcoming The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, essentially argues that kids don’t need to learn penmanship anymore.

It all started, Trubek says, when her son began having problems in second grade—strictly because of his poor handwriting skills. So she wrote an article for Good magazine with the bold and declarative title Stop Teaching Handwriting. It drew a lot of interest.

The Gregg Method of shorthand.

The Gregg Method of shorthand.

And she has a point: young people of today might well go far in our technology-driven world without so much as ever touching a pen. What use is it for us to continue to embrace what was originally a strictly utilitarian skill out of some romantic sense of self, a part of our individuality?

Then again, the Freakonomics podcast goes on to tell us, research shows that students who take notes by hand recall a lot more of a lecture than those who merely transcribe what’s said via keyboard. So should we perhaps be reviving shorthand (a skill my father practiced, much to my childhood incredulity and awe)? Not so much, turns out—it’s a lot closer to straight keyboarding.

Still and all, cursive script appears to be on the way out—other than as a fine art form. Fewer people over time will be able to read engrossed old documents. Who among us these days, after all, can interpret the early hand-scribblings of, say, a Sumerian skilled at cuneiform?

Rev Robert J Palladino (at Reed College).

Rev Robert J Palladino (at Reed College).

On the other end of the handwriting spectrum, you have a celebrated scribe like Rev. Robert J. Palladino, who died a couple weeks ago. Palladino was a Trappist monk when he began learning the skills that made him a master calligrapher who, at Reed College, influenced Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’s design of the Macintosh computer. Jobs credited a Palladino calligraphy course he audited with helping inspire the whole idea of digital typography.

“[The Mac] was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”

In a delicious twist of irony, of course, a master with a pen helped further our mass migration over to the keyboard. But there’s something to be said for Father Palladino’s own unwired life—replete with its long periods of thoughtful silence—and his having never once used a computer in 83 years.

[Hang on, time to check Facebookbrb.]

In keeping with my overarching theme here (i.e., handwriting as a sense of self), I’d like now to share another old handwritten document I’ve used as source material for a font I’ve designed. Below are page scans and a transcription of a two-and-a-half-page letter written 18 September 1825 by Samuel Clarke, then pastor of the Congregational Church of Princeton, Massachusetts, seeking donations for the victims of an accident at sea. Inspired by Clarke’s extremely distinctive penmanship, I designed Schooner Script back in 1996. [Note: the boat was in fact a sloop, but Sloop was a script already.]

The Schooner Script letter, page 1. Written by Pastor Samuel Clarke on 18 September 1825

The Schooner Script letter, page 1.

Princeton Sep. 18. 1825

Christian Brethren,

It is known probably to most of you, that several of our acquaintance and friends, in coming from the State of Maine to this Town, have been exposed to the most imminent danger, and also sustained a considerable loss of property. As their danger and misfortunes have excited much sympathy; and as it is believed to be a Christian duty to do something for their relief, it may be proper, for the correct information of all, to make a short statement of the peril to which they were exposed, and the extent of their loss.

On Saturday the 10. inst, at 12.o.clock, Messrs How, Fay and Cobb with the wives of the two last, and eight other persons, sailed from Camden for Boston in the Sloop Governor. Their passage was favourable until about 8.o.clock on Saturday evening, when the Sloop was struck by another vessel which was apparently in distress, and whose fate is not known. The Sloop was so much injured by the unknown vessel, that she very soon filled with water, which, communicating with lime in the hold, caused her to take fire. Being unable, by the greatest exertion, to save the Sloop, the Captain with his men and passengers was obliged to abandon her, and consign themselves to a small Boat only thirteen feet long and about five wide. our friends were compelled so hastily to leave the Sloop, that they had no time to secure their trunks and clothing—and had they been even able to do this, the smallness of the Boat to which they fled, would not have admitted any additional weight. In this small Boat thirteen feet long, thirteen persons

The Schooner Script letter, page 2. Written by Pastor Samuel Clarke on 18 September 1825.

The Schooner Script letter, page 2.

passed the whole of Saturday night on a boisterous, dangerous sea, some of them destitute of outer garments, and all of them in constant danger of immediate death. It is impossible for us to know, much more to describe their anxiety, their anguish. But a benevolent and merciful Providence watched over, and preserved them, when death appeared inevitable. After having been in this dangerous, distressing situation nine hours, they were discovered on the morn of the Sabbath by another Sloop which immediately came to their relief, and rescued them from impending destruction. In this Sloop they arrived in Boston on Tuesday morning, and on Wednesday were permitted to rejoice in again beholding this their native Town, and receiving the kind welcome and sincere sympathy of their acquaintance and friends.

They desire, with unfeigned gratitude, publicly to acknowledge the goodness and mercy of God which watched over and saved them in the season of extreme peril, which preserved them from the watery element, and which has again restored them to the arms of their brethren and friends—

It may be proper to state that Messrs How and Fay saved their money, with the exception of a small sum lost by Mrs. Fay—but they lost a considerable amount of property in clothing. Our young friends Mr. and Mrs. Cobb lost nearly five hundred dollars, about four hundred of which was in money, and the rest in new and valuable clothing.

There can be no doubt, Brethren, respecting our duty in relation to the misfortune of our friends. While we sympathize with them, we should also assist them in bearing the burdens which a wise Providence has seen fit to lay upon them. It has been suggested by several respectable persons that the easiest and most effectual method of rendering them assistance, would be to request a contribution in each of the religious Societies in this Town on the

The Schooner Script letter, page 3. Written by Pastor Samuel Clarke on 18 September 1825.

The Schooner Script letter, page 3.

next Sabbath. In accordance with this suggestion a contribution will be requested in this place in the afternoon of the next Sabbath, when it is hoped that our charity will correspond with our ability and the necessities of our friends, and manifest for us that we do truly sympathize with them in their sufferings, rejoice in their preservation, and are anxious for their future comfort and happiness—

Samuel Clarke
Pastor of the Congregational Church
in Princeton—


Miscellanea

» Lamentations continue over the decline of cursive—from pen companies, forensic scientists, and autograph collectors.

» Does playing with old-fashioned toys help kids learn better handwriting skills?

» Handwriting analysts go to town on a note left by a guy who found a wallet full of stuff—but didn’t return it all.

» It might be fading generally, but certain local school districts continue to find time for handwriting instruction.

» A thoughtful essay by Dolly Merritt about what penmanship used to mean.


Abigail Adams American Scribe Botanical Scribe Douglass Pen Emily Austin Houston Pen

Lamar Pen Military Scribe Old Man Eloquent Remsen Script Schooner Script Texas Hero

Antiquarian Antiquarian Scribe Bonnycastle Geographica Terra Ignota

Attic Antique Bonsai Broadsheet Castine

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