Art and History of Calligraphy

IMG_2440The Art and History of Calligraphy, published May 2017 by the British Library, does pretty much what it says on the tin! It covers writing from what is thought to be the earliest known writing by a woman in Britain in the first century, to the present day (as much as a book published in 2017 can do that!). Here is a sneaky peak inside the book.





FullSizeRender 8What I love about the design is that images of manuscripts are large and so it’s possible to get up close and personal to the letters. Here a page from the Luttrell Psalter has been spread over two pages at the beginning of the book. I chose this page for its wonderful trumpeter – his instrument long enough almost to extend right across the whole column of text!


FullSizeRender 7The first chapter is called, surprisingly enough, the Art and History of Calligraphy, and, after defining the way in which calligraphy is going to be regarded in the book, traces writing through the ages. A number of manuscripts will be familiar, but there are some new ones here, including this lettering by Bembo and a delight of chrysography on dyed black vellum.




FullSizeRender 6Then a chapter is devoted to how the manuscripts were actually made, including quills, vellum brushes, pigments and gold.






FullSizeRender 5This is followed by a section on Writing the Letters, based on Edward Johnston’s 7-point analysis.





FullSizeRender 4And then there are full page double spreads of over 70 manuscripts from the second century AD to right up to the present day. In many cases, as here, there is an enlargement of a couple of lines to show the lettering really closely. The Bosworth Psalter is on the right.




FullSizeRender 3Here is the Lacock Cartulary with wonderfully flourished letters.





FullSizeRender 2And this is one of the first times that Edward Johnston’s Scribe, given to Dorothy Mahoney, has been shown this size in full colour.





FullSizeRenderAnd the book is brought as far up to the present day as a publishing schedule will allow. A stunning piece by Stephen Raw of a poem by Carol Ann Duffy is shown on the right.




I really enjoyed writing the book, sharing information that I have learned from others and researching the manuscripts, and I do hope that others will enjoy reading it. It’s available from the British Library Bookshop, and I am also selling it through my website. If you order a copy from me here then I shall happily write a name in the book calligraphically to make it really special.





A single shivering fleck of sunset-light

Layout 1How fortunate we are as calligraphers not only to be moved by the words of authors and poets, but also to be able to interpret that text visually. I had the task of creating a number of pieces of the same artwork for a special occasion – what to choose, and how to interpret the text? As it’s what I do, I homed in on vellum and quills, and had some lovely classic-finish skin which hadn’t been bleached too much so still had many of the characteristics of the animal such as darker areas, veining and specks of hair follicles.




IMG_2163I wanted something that would be a bit of challenge as I had to write it out over a dozen times and I do tend to get bored rather easily (!), but I hadn’t quite appreciated the extent of that challenge when I started! As it was a special occasion I chose my favourite verse of my favourite poem, Gift, by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. In this poem he writes about what he could give to show that he cares. Tagore considers a flower – it will fade, a jewel – it could get lost, a candle in the darkness – it will get blown out. So he chooses a moment – that point when, wandering in a garden, a hidden flower’s scent ‘startles you into sudden wondering’. Or when, at dusk, a ‘single shivering fleck of sunset-light turns your daydreams to gold’ (I get a shiver up the spine whenever I read that). I tried the verse in various formats, portrait, landscape, in Italic, in Foundational hand, and in the end decided to go for Compressed Italic Majuscles (Capitals) with the words and phrases that meant to most to me in wider Roman Capitals. Rather than using the same colour, I chose three – bright yellow, a bright green and an olive green as I felt these reflected the colours in the verse, and fed these into the pen as I wrote. This is technically quite challenging to do as you can see here and here. So the first thing to do was to see how the lines would fall, as on the right above.

IMG_2162Having determined the line endings and seen how big the piece was, I realised that I needed to go down a nib size, as on the right, but even this was too big, so I then went for the smallest nib size – a size 6 – this was turning into quite a challenge! I did have the basic layout of the poem though.







IMG_2155I don’t usually use lines for these pieces, relying on eye and the balance of the text, but to do this number, I appreciated that I did need some sort of guide. The great thing about vellum is that usually you can just about see through it. So I worked out the line spacing, length of lines, beginnings and endings and the balance of the artwork and ruled up a piece of paper to use as my guide on which I placed the prepared cut pieces of vellum ready to write.




IMG_2152Pieces that are completely evenly centred often cause a problem as the eye is taken by the shape the edges of the lines make, so in my view it’s better to have the lines based on a central line. For this, to ensure that there is a balance, use a plastic ruler and place the narrow edge down the vertical central line of the piece. Half close your eyes and there should be the same amount of text on the right-hand side of the line as there is on the left. It can take some adjusting of individual lines  to achieve this. What is important is that some part of all the lines must go through this central line; if they are flying off to the right or left without this the piece has no cohesion, no spine.


IMG_2153So I was ready to go, and hope that the recipients are pleased with their original artworks, each one different.











Colour in the pen

CIMG2478Some people think that calligraphy is essentially black writing with perhaps a touch of red. How limiting! Calligraphy can be any and every colour. One way of using colour that I really like is where the pen actually mixes the colour, as on the right. It’s not one line one colour and one line another, but two colours which are mixed, somewhat randomly, as you write.




CIMG2469It is a good idea to choose two colours which have greater contrast than the two in the piece above, but the extract was about water and fishing, so to echo that I chose a bluey-green and a greeny-blue. The text was Welsh with an English translation. So, to start I wrote  out the text in differing styles and heights of letters; after experimenting I decided on Italic for the Welsh and tiny dancing capitals for the English. I had a smallish piece of vellum so I didn’t want to use a large nib. I chose a Mitchell/Manuscript size 5 for both styles of writing, and a size 6 for the title and dedication line to be positioned at the bottom, and then wrote out the words

CIMG2471The lines were of very varied lengths, so a right or left alignment would leave a rather ragged edge. I decided on a centred arrangement after a bit of experimentation. I cut up the lines, measured each one and marked the centre point then placed them on another piece of paper to see how it would look, and where the title and dedication line should be positioned.


CIMG2473Once all the decisions had been made, I prepared the vellum (see my Illumination DVD and Illumination: Gold and Colour book here), ruled the lines and mixed up the paint. Writing with two colours in the pen is not quite as hit-and-miss as it may seem at first. With this process individual letters usually consist of more than one colour, and if this doesn’t come out of the pen then it needs to be ‘engineered’. The Calligraphy Clip (see below) shows how to do this. The pen isn’t filled as is usual, but one colour just ‘tipped’ on to the underneath of the pen with a brush, As each stroke is written, the colours in the previous letters and also the ones above need to be taken into account to ensure an overall even effect – not too much of one colour, not too much of the other, and not too much of the mix. Sometimes it’s necessary to go over some strokes with a different colour to ensure this. It certainly doesn’t encourage rhythm and flow, but can be most effective. I find it very appropriate for when I’m asked to write out pieces for weddings or anniversaries; each colour represents one person and the mix of colours suggests their lives together.

CIMG2625This piece has more contrast in the colours, as they are vermilion and ultramarine.





IMG_0039This Calligraphy Clip explains how to use two colours in the pen and demonstrates the process, and some of the pitfalls.

Illumination – Gold and Colour

FullSizeRenderIt is always a great relief when a book is published and rough drafts that have been worked on for so many months or even years all come to fruition. This is exactly how I feel about my latest book – Illumination: Gold and Colour. This is just about everything I know about using metallic pigments, powders and leaves, colour, the traditional materials of vellum and parchment, as well as quills, gesso and egg tempera painting along the way.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 15.44.51The book, with a preface by Professor Michelle Brown, has 162 pages, is lavishly illustrated, and costs £15 + p+p. Here is a sneaky peak inside.

It is available from my website here; I shall be delighted to write a name calligraphically in each copy. To buy the book please contact me and I’ll send you details of how to pay, and how much the postage will be. I don’t use Paypal nor take credit/debit cards, so if you would prefer to pay in this way, then L Cornelissen and Son are also selling the book (in this case I won’t be able to write in a name). Contact them here. The book complements my Illumination DVD.

Illmn 4Chapters include a brief history of manuscript production, tools, materials, techniques and projects. I felt it very important to include projects which are very simple and cheap to do (gold leaf is expensive!). So there are lots of ideas for making simple items with cheap gold and colour which even children could do.

Illmn 5There are also step-by-step ‘instruction boxes’ which make it easy to find out how to do various processes, but also ‘ingredients’ lists and numbered steps to follow them through. These are coloured and boxed so they are clear to see and find in the book.

Illmn 1Of course, it wouldn’t be a book about Illumination if vellum, parchment and quills weren’t throroughly explained and considered. So the differences between parchment and vellum are explained, how to prepare skin for writing and painting is here, how to stretch vellum over board in easy step-by-step stages is also covered, so are curing and cutting feathers into quills, and how to prepare pigments and mix them for egg tempera painting.

Illmn 2The projects include simple and easy, those more complicated such as writing on vellum with colour and shell gold, right up to mediæval miniature gilding and painting, and also how to plan and make a presentation scroll on vellum using traditional skills which is based on an actual commission.

Illmn 6The book finishes with a chapter on pigments which were used in mediæval manuscripts.