No roses for Christmas

Layout 1Each year I try to find something a little different for our Christmas card, and the Shakespeare quotation of ‘At Christmas I no more desire a rose Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth; But like of each thing that in season grows’, from Love’s Labours Lost, seemed rather apt. I so enjoyed writing and painting the card I did a couple of years ago where I used the words of the first verse of the ‘Holly and the Ivy’ carol, writing round an oval and then painting holly and ivy in the centre as here, that I thought I’d do something similar again.

 

 

IMG_3471I sketched an oval and made a first attempt to see if the words fitted. Interestingly, the number of letters was about the same as the Holly and Ivy card so I knew it had to work. As before, I wanted the first line to go across the top of the oval rather than starting at the top middle. The first attempt here almost worked, but I started too high up on the left hand side, which meant that it didn’t balance on the right. I tried once more and finally I had it about right.

 

 

 

IMG_3419So I prepared the vellum, sketched on an oval, and got ready to write. I do wish that I could just keep things simple – but no! Writing in a circle, spiral or in an oval shape is always a challenge. The substrate has to be continually turned so that the letters are upright compared to the baseline and it’s very difficult to develop any rhythm and flow. And now I’m thinking, bearing in mind all of the above, why did I decide to write in not one, not two, but three colours? I thought the lettering would look good in oxide of chromium green (a really lovely colour to write with – the Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache version is so smooth), madder red and vermilion but this additional challenge was one whereby each individual stroke had to be considered in terms of the colour that was used before, and the colours were changed even in single strokes. I held the brushes apart in my left hand and simply stroked the quill nib gently on the paint to pick up the smallest amount of appropriate colour before writing.

IMG_3420But it was so lovely writing on vellum that even these challenges couldn’t put me off! Yet again authors don’t always consider calligraphers! Why didn’t Shakespeare know that at some point a few hundred years later I would want to flourish his words when written round an oval? Fortunately the two stretches of words without ascenders from ‘wish’ to ‘fangled’ on the right, and from ‘that’ to ‘Christmas’ on the left, fell sort of evenly either side of the oval, so there weren’t loads of extended strokes on one side and few on the other, and the two areas with no flourishes balanced out. Some of you may also notice that in concentrating on the writing and colours being fed into the pen I got a little short on space and so had to drop the ‘e’ from ‘fangl’d’. I reckoned that this was something that Shakespeare may well have done so didn’t feel too badly about it!

IMG_3463Then it was on to the rose painting. I had taken some photographs of the last roses of summer from our garden, and although it’s always better to paint from life, doing this in November meant that there were no decent roses left to paint! Here I’m two down and three to go. (The colours here are slightly different because I took this photograph in the evening under artificial light – I was working long hours on this!)

 

 

 

Layout 1And again the finished piece with the three colours blended in places in the text picked up by the different reds and greens in the paintings. The darker areas on the right are wear the unstretched vellum has dipped. It seemed to turn out reasonably well despite this.

Friendships are the best!

CIMG3117Calligraphers are commissioned to write out many varied texts, some of which appeal and sometimes, some not! These words very much appealed and they are sometimes used as a toast; surely most people would agree that actually the best ‘ships’ are friendships! This artwork was to be given to the client’s friend who enjoyed shooting, so I suggested incorporating pheasants into the design.

 

 

 

 

IMG_3474I wrote the words out as a draft and experimented with various layouts. Essentially, these are four lines at the end of three of which are the ‘good ships’, ‘wood ships’ and ‘friendships’.  However, having long lines meant that the these various ships were just lost in the text at the ends. So I re-wrote the ‘ships’ words in majuscules (capital letters) to try to give them more emphasis. But even then the ‘ships’ didn’t stand out sufficiently and the design also looked rather blocky and dull, and so I decided to change the whole shape of the piece. I cut the text into strips of short lines and aimed for a long and narrow piece, but even here writers are sent to try us! The line ‘But the best ships are friendships’ wouldn’t break where I wanted it to! As the whole essence of this toast is about friendships, I wanted that on one line, but that left the previous five words as a long line, and it didn’t break easily before ‘ships’ leaving the three three-letter word ‘are’ stranded on its own line! However, I bit the bullet, thought this the best layout and wrote ‘are’ very slightly wider to give it a bit more emphasis.

IMG_3437To show the client I wrote the words out on paper first with an indication of the size. Depending on the length of the piece and time involved, I sometimes do this or sometimes just sent them the finished pasted-up draft. I was using the equivalent of a size 5 nib so the writing is all quite small and elegant. Although I wanted to give an amount of space around ‘friendships’ for emphasis, here on the draft there was much too much space and the word looked rather adrift from the rest. This needed to be changed in the finished piece.

 

 

 

 

IMG_3446 2 IMG_3445 2Once that was approved I prepared a lovely piece of creamy vellum, sharpened the quill and set to. The vellum and quill reacted together like a dream! It was such a pleasurable experience writing out the words in this way and the result was very crisp writing with the finest of hairlines! The writing is very small.

 

 

 

CIMG3117And so to the painting. How fortunate we are now to have the internet! It was not difficult to find a number of images of pheasants. I chose a male and female and painted these in different poses at the top and set in that green sward to pick up the green of the writing. These birds are tiny – just over a cm (10mm) each high. And then to the brace of pheasants for the bottom of the piece. Again I wanted a male and female and, because I thought that the male was probably the bigger bird, I hung them slightly unevenly, so the greater weight of the male was pulling down lower than the female. In the image I had found the birds were tied together with bright blue string which would have looked completely wrong in the subtle colours here, so I changed this into a piece of suitably subtle brown cord. If you look closely, you may even be able to see the twists!

My hope is that it will give pleasure to the recipient and his heirs, as vellum will last!

 

Even More Glittering Gilders

Layout 1Another group of keen potential gilders met in May 2019 to learn the craft skills of creating mediæval miniatures over three very full days. Their stunning results, albeit some unfinished, are shown here – just look at how shiny that gold is! The brilliance of this shine is really only possible on traditional gesso, as modern adhesives don’t seem to react quite so well with pure gold leaf.

 

IMG_2687

Everything was set out for each participant at their own work station so they needed to bring nothing with them apart from the willingness to learn!

 

 

 

IMG_2691The first day started with trial gilding then making and laying gesso. Then it was on to laying it for real around the mediæval animal image on prepared vellum pieces. Gesso forms the raised base on which the gold adheres. By lifting it from the surface, the shiny gold reflects the light, looking as if it comes from the illumination itself – hence the name.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2704Once the gesso is dry and calm, then the gold is attached, and on gesso it can be polished until it is really shiny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2695The brilliance of shine, polished with a burnisher, with this group was quite amazing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2701And on to painting. After a detailed demonstration on paint consistency, mixing paint and using the fine, Kolinsky sable brushes, everyone set to.

 

 

 

IMG_2713The results in terms of the shine of the gold and painting were most impressive.

 

 

 

IMG_2711Here are some comments from the participants:

IMG_2728Patricia, I enjoyed every moment of your course, thanks to your perfect preparation, wonderful teaching and fabulous hospitality. The course was everything I hoped for and more.

 

 

 

I have learned so much, a really great few days. You were clear and concise, very funny and informative. I loved it.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2706Fabulous. Excellent. Pitched at the perfect level with exactly the right amount of repetition/reinforcement. Perfect course numbers to allow 1:1 assistance. A real privilege to participate. 

 

 

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I was so thrilled when I knew I’d be able to come, and the course has been everything I had hoped for and so much more. Thank you Patricia for your patience, expertise and wisdom.

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I loved that everything was explained in a clear, straightforward and good humoured manner. It was everything I had hoped for and so much more. The attention to detail throughout the course was fabulous, from our name cards to the gesso we could take away.

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Thank you for the wonderful course. I learned so much in such a short space of time! And I really appreciated all the care and attention you put into every aspect of our three days.

Plaxtol Roll of Honour

IMG_1110The vast number of people involved in the First World War is being highlighted during these centenary years. This huge number is perhaps particularly exemplified  in the small Kentish village of Plaxtol. Over 150 men, all former pupils of the local village school, went to the front, as well as four members of staff. I was asked recently to prepare a Roll of Honour on vellum recording the names of these men.

CIMG2464I was given a typed list and the requirement that there would be a decorated border of cob nuts and hops, as these were local to the area, and so set about designing the panel. I experimented with the styles and sizes of text, spacing between the lines, placing of the blocks of text and so on.

CIMG2468I decided on Edward Johnston’s Foundational Hand for the text, as it was this style, and Roman Capitals, again championed by Johnston, that MacDonald (Max) Gill used as his lettering design for all the First World War Memorials; Max being a student of Johnston. As always, everything was written out in rough first, and then positioned where it was to go. In the typewritten version the letters ‘RIP’ were written without fullstops, which I copied for two of the columns, and then inserted the fullstops for the other two – we all agreed that the latter looked better. I also used the traditional colour scheme for such panels of red and black.
IMG_1108Then it was deep breath time, the vellum was prepared, ruling up done, and I had to start the writing. I tacked the four columns of names first to get the body of the panel done, writing all the names and then returning with the same size nib and red paint to insert the words ‘Wounded’, or ‘R.I.P’ where appropriate. However, I used a compressed Roman form for ‘Wounded’ so that the columns weren’t too wide.

CIMG2630I left painting the border until last. My original design had the hops and cob nuts entwined but this was not was wanted. The suggestion of having separate blocks of the two plants would have made this part of the panel very disjointed, so I drew a long wavy line along the whole border, with the cob nuts growing up from the ‘valley’ and the hops hanging down from the ‘hills’. The width of border was about an inch (2–3 cm) high. The hops are about 1–2 mm each in size and each have about 5 different colours on them.

CIMG2617The panel was too large for me to stretch the vellum first around a board as I couldn’t then reach the top of it, so I had to do this after it was all done. The need for stretching is obvious from the way in which the skin is bumpy in the picture on the right.

It was a huge job and difficult to cost at the beginning – I spent far more time on it than I charged for, and now it hangs in Plaxtol Village Memorial Hall. It would be nice if more people knew about it and were able to see it.

How Mediæval Manuscripts were Made

fcdcf8be-d41f-4954-b06e-603091f607c1It really was a great joy and privilege to be part of the great Polonsky Project, which was a joint venture between the British Library and the Bibliotèque nationale in Paris to digitise manuscripts which from before the year 1100. They were keen to show how those manuscripts were made, and so it was on two very hot days in the summer of 2017 that Dr Alison Ray, filmer Jan and I spent many hours recording those processes. The films are now on the British Library’s and the Bibliotèque nationale’s websites (the latter being dubbed into French) and sections of the films were also used in the fantastic 2017–2018 Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 18.53.31The first film features the pen used for the writing, which, of course, was usually a quill cut from the feather of a large bird. I always use penknives which have curved blades as the curve rolls over the slight curve in the barrel of a feather to cut the nib tip, whereas a straight blade tends to squash the feather. Indeed, penknives today (the clue is in the name!) still always have a curved blade. Here’s the link. There’s more on quill knives and how to cut a quill on my website on this link.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.05.35Ink was usually made from oak galls, although in fact peach, cherry and apricot stones can also be used but give a less dense colour. It’s the tannic acid from the galls reacting to copperas (iron sulphate) that creates a dark liquid, and which needs an adhesive, in this case gum Arabic, to ensure that it adheres to the writing surface. To see the process, click here.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.07.32The writing surface was vellum or parchment – calfskin, sheepskin, goatskin or ever deer on occasion. In this clip I explain about the differences between the hair and flesh sides of vellum and also the qualities of other types of skin. More here.

 

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.10.21Having cut pieces of skin to size for writing, the page needed to be set out, and often dividers – similar to sets of compasses, but with a point at the end of each leg – were used as it was easier to mark the exact positions of the guidelines in this way. On occasion, the lines would be set out using a ruler and lead point (or similar) and then the positions marked using the tip of a knife (perhaps a penknife). Here the ‘point’ would actually be a triangle shape and this can be seen in some manuscripts. There’s more on setting out a manuscript page here.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.17.54Pigments used in illuminations came from animal, vegetable and mineral sources. Perhaps the most famous is ultramarine, as Cennini Cennino called it ‘perfect, beyond all other colours’. A very similar blue, but much cheaper was citramarine. Woad and indigo are from vegetable sources along with madder. And Tyrian purple and carmine came from animals. There’s more on this link, including dragon’s blood!

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.22.01 1These pigments have no natural adhesive (apart from saffron interestingly!) and so this needs to be added. Traditional either glair, the egg white or the egg yolk was added. This film clip explains the process, including the equivalent of a hole in one! It can be tricky removing the egg yolk from the egg sac, but when this was being filmed, it worked with the very first egg! Here it is with the knife being withdrawn and the yolk falling out at the bottom. See the whole thing and more here.

Screenshot 2018-12-17 at 19.26.13And having got everything ready, it was then only the setting out the illumination, laying the gesso, applying gold and then painting bringing everything to life and with wonderful colour. Watch the process here.

It is hoped that these short films will add to the knowledge and understanding of these historical craft processes and ensure that more people understand and appreciate the skills that went in to creating the wonderful manuscripts now in great collections such as those at the British Library and the Bibliotèque nationale.

Recreating the ‘Beatus’ page from the Eadui Psalter

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

As part of the Polonsky project for the British Library and the Bibliotèque Nationale I was asked to show how mediæval manuscripts were made to create a series of short informative films. To show the process of completing a miniature we selected the ‘Beatus’ page from the Eadui Psalter, (although, to be honest, I immediately regretted it because it was so complicated!). We agreed that for filming, because of time and logistics, I would concentrate only on the central letter B, but aim to complete it after the filming.

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The first stage was to trace the outline from a print out of the original. It was such a complicated image that the tracing alone took 5 hours. The tracing needed then to be transferred to vellum. I used my own Armenian bole paper as ‘carbon’ paper; doing this took another 5 hours.Then the outline was reinforced in red, which is the traditional colour; this process took 6·5 hours.

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The next step was to lay the gesso with a quill. Gesso is the plaster-based cushion that raises the leaf gold from the surface, and the slight rounding of the cushion, once the gold leaf is attached, really catches the light so it looks as if light is coming from the book itself – truly illuminated. I had made a batch of good gesso and was filmed laying this on the letter B. The interlace at the head and foot of the minim was very complicated and it took a while to work out the pattern and lay the gesso according to the original. I had one day in between the schedule before the next filming session to lay, scrape and prepare the gesso. However, there was so much to be gilded that I ran out of gesso halfway round the border. I made another batch but didn’t have time to test it, and found out as I was laying it that it was rather bubbly. Laying, preparing and scraping the gesso took over 12 hours.

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

And then for the gold. The stickiness in the gesso is reactivate by moisture in the breath and the leaf gold (23·5 carat) attached immediately. Once secure, the gold is polished to a high shine with a stone burnisher (just visible on the left). Building up layers of gold improves the depth of burnish.

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The gold leaf can attach to the surface of the vellum as well, especially after a hard burnish. It was particularly difficult to remove the excess in the gold interlace area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

Well-burnished gold really does catch the light.

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

Applying the gold, burnishing it and cleaning it up took 14 hours, but the end result was worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

It was a difficult to decide what to do about the colours. Although contained within a book, pigments still deteriorate over time; some of the colours had changed even in adjacent areas. So should this copy of the manuscript page be exactly the same as the original that has deteriorated, or should I try to recreate the page as it was? I decided to plump for trying to paint it as it was. Matching the colours was a bit of a challenge!

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

Painting mediæval manuscripts is a little like painting by numbers sometimes. Each colour is done completely and separately. Here the blue has been done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

And now the magenta red, no doubt it’s madder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The basic colours have now been completed. At this point, I often feel that any artistic skills I may well have had have disappeared because it all looks so flat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

However, adding tones and shades starts to lift the image.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The white highlights improve the image even more and it starts to take shape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

The black outline makes all the difference, separating the gold from colour and colour from colour, also emphasising what look like folds on draped cloth. Notice the difference between the letter B which has been outlined in black and the rest of the border where there is no black.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

© 2018, Patricia Lovett MBE

And the final result again.

If you would like to recreate your own mediæval image, then my book and DVD on Illumination: Gold and Colour have clear instructions on making and using gesso, cutting quills, treating vellum for painting (and writing), and the process of creating a mediæval miniature shown step-by-step. See here.

Illuminating a miniature

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Another group of lovely people started the day early at the end of May 2018 to spend three days learning the traditional skills and techniques of the mediæval illuminator. Usually the group is limited to eight, but someone was coming from the Middle East and so the group was actually nine – it still allowed for intensive personal tuition.

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Everything is supplied and work stations are set up for each individual.

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

We focused on gesso first, gilding gesso which had already been laid for practice of the techniques, then making gesso and considering the role of each constituent ingredient. Gesso had already been made for the each person to use straightaway, so at the end of the course participants had a good amount of gesso to take home with them to do more miniatures.

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Gesso is best laid with a quill, so next, the group cut their own quills from swan feathers. Everyone did very well with sharp quill knives cutting good quills which they took home with them after laying their gesso.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Then it was on to laying gesso on vellum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

The next morning, gold leaf was laid on the carefully prepared gesso.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

This is highly skilled and takes some time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Before painting the ‘best’ piece, another miniature was gilded and painted as a practice piece. This meant that the final miniature was as good as it could be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Adding colour to the gold really brings the image alive.

Everyone went home with two miniatures on vellum, the practice one and the carefully gilded and painted best piece.

Comments from the group:

It has been the best course I have been on so far, not only for the quality of the course but for your immense kindness and generosity.

You are a very generous teacher. I feel that I have learnt a lot. Everything was very clear and to the point, and you were very kind to answer all the questions with more detail than I expected.

IMG_0991I am very pleased that I could come on this course and would love to follow it up with another!

Excellent! Would do it all over again without a second thought! Natural talent in teaching! Thank you so much.

An amazing experience – moments to cherish. Left feeling very motivated and very relaxed after 3 days of total absorption in another world.

Detailed, clear and very supportive teaching. Fantastic to hear so much of the background without it being a lecture.

SUPERB! The best possible introduction to these arts – miniatures and gilding – and the practical support makes this course EXCEPTIONAL!

IMG_0992I loved how any question, even ones with minimal relation to the course content, were welcome and thorough explanations or commentary were given. Support, even if the results were less than what we’d envisioned, was enthusiastic and honest, but left us with hope for future efforts.

FABULOUS COURSE – will highly recommend this to my students.

It has been fantastic to learn so much about the skills needed and how to create illuminated artworks. Would highly recommend courses with Patricia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quills and Quill Knives

Image-1An unusual quill knife in a manuscript image on Twitter made me look again at quill knives. This one had the necessary curved blade (don’t get me started on straight edges for cutting quills!) but a strange curved hook shape which seems to end in a point. I’ve really thought about why this shape of knife was developed and can’t see any real advantages for it over what I would call a ‘normal’ quill knife as below. It would be really difficult to sharpen that inner curved edge, so what would a dull inner curved blade be used for. Has anyone got any suggestions?

 

 

IMG_0101This is a trusty quill knife which I use when being filmed cutting quills. The shape of the handle sits really well in the hand, but for me the blade is rather too long and the lower part of the blade (the bolster or shank) should have been inserted more into the handle for better control. The blade is of steel, but not stainless steel, so there is some rust. Some years ago I was told that it wasn’t possible to get a good sharp edge on stainless steel, but according to Robin Wood MBE, who knows a thing or two about blades, modern stainless steels are much improved and these are what he uses for his tools and axes so they must be good.

IMG_0642So what’s important about a quill knife? First that it has a good handle that sits well and is comfortable in the hand; it is also important that it is substantial. I teach quill cutting as part of some of my Calligraphy courses, and in the three-day Painting a Mediæval Miniature course I run at the end of May each year. For these I use X-Acto knives (see image) which have good solid handles. They are sold with a pointed blade, but I buy curved blades and replace the pointed blade with these. In my opinion it is easier to replace a curved blade when it dulls for quill cutting than sharpening 16 knives! (And the blades aren’t wasted as they are then used for scraping mistakes from vellum, and then for cutting vellum and paper. And at the very end of their life, they’re used to sharpen pencils!). I would never cut quills with scalpels because the barrel of a quill is tough and a scalpel can so easily turn in the hand; having control of a razor sharp blade is paramount in my opinion!

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Then the blade itself. First it needs to be reasonably short. There is strength in a more stubby blade that isn’t there in a longer, perhaps more flexible blade. And because cutting a quill requires only a short section of the blade, a knife with a longer blade where the whole edge slices isn’t necessary.

CIMG2507So how to cut a quill? If you want to see how it’s done then it’s all explained in my Illumination book and associated DVD (see here for details). The feathers used are the first five flight feathers of large birds. The differences between the first five flight feathers are explained in the book and DVD.

 

 

 

 

CIMG0977Once the feather is hardened, it is prepared and the nib then shaped.The first step here is making the long scoop cut.

 

 

 

CIMG0985Then the sides of the nib are shaped.

 

 

 

 

CIMG0991The long tip is trimmed to a manageable length.

 

 

 

 

 

CIMG1205And finally the end of the nib is shaped to make a quill that writes.

 

 

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

All modern pen knives – and the clue is in the name – have a curved blade. I’m not getting into ‘quill knife wars’, but every part of logic leads to the blade being curved so that it can ‘rock’ over the similarly curved end of the barrel of the feather when trimming the nib tip without splitting it. I do appreciate that there are those who swear by a straight blade, and these are sold on many websites, but it’s a curve for me and my students!

 

 

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

The images of historical quill knives have kindly been provided by Alan Cole of the University of London’s Museum of Writing to whom I am very grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

A Chronology of the Penknife (Finlay, 1990)There is an excellent pictorial history of the shapes of pen knives from the early 8th century to 1698 produced by Michael Finlay in ‘Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen’ (Carlisle, UK, Plains Books, 1990) and reproduced here. (Thank you to Alexander Devine of the Parker Library for kindly sending this to me.)

 

 

 

 

So what would an ideal quill knife look like? For me it would have a short, slim, razor-sharp curved blade (the curve being on the outer edge of the blade), the blade should be inserted well into the handle, and that handle have a heft that sits well in the hand. An additional refinement for me would be the insertion somewhere on the handle of a crochet hook, perhaps pulling out in a way similar to a modern pen knife attachment. The crochet hook catches on to the membrane inside the barrel of the feather and is used to pull the membrane out. If the membrane isn’t removed it gets in the way of writing the letter-forms.

IMG_0644Classes of children were often large in the past, and until machine-made pen nibs were adopted in schools in the 19th century, one of the tedious jobs of a school teacher was to cut and trim the quills of the pupils in their classes. With often more than 40 students per class, a great deal of time would be attending to pens. What a boon it must have been when the quill cutter was invented, however, these were used almost invariably to cut a feather tip only into a point for Copperplate-type writing, To write letter-forms shaped by a broad-edged nib, it was back to the quill knife. This is a quill cutter with a curved blade to trim the quill, and then the part that cuts the quill and makes the slit is at the top.

 

Writing with a quill is magical – it is, literally, feather-light – and it becomes almost an extension of the arm. The downside, of course, is that the quill needs to be trimmed about every paragraph, and then recut eventually.

 

The Man in the Arena

IMG_3638One of the joys of taking commissions is being introduced to text that may not be familiar, and The Man in the Arena was one such. Written by Theodore Roosevelt it notes that it’s not those who criticise, or who stand on the sidelines heckling, but the person actually doing the job who is the one that matters. I really liked the text and may well write it out again. However, it did create a number of interesting challenges. The title was very long, and to write it out in one line resulted in only a few long lines of text below, with the title far too dominant. Splitting the title resulted in two uneven top lines, with the lower line longer, and a rather square block of text which looked rather dull and uninteresting for such inspirational words.

 

 

IMG_3628In the end, I settled for a long and narrow block of text, with the title along the side as shown here. The first phrase determined the width of the piece, there weren’t too many hyphenations or difficulties in the text running on to the following line, and it created an unusual shape which I think invites you to read the text. Of course, all this was decided after I had written out the text in rough and tried the lines in various positions. Here the text roughs are cut into lines of approximately equal length, the credit is the correct size and in position but the title isn’t long enough – it needs to stretch the whole length of the text block.

 

 

IMG_3635It took quite a few tries before the title was the right length.

 

 

 

 

IMG_3624Because there were so many short lines, it would have been easy to get them muddled, so I numbered the lines on the final piece of paper I used in faint pencil, and also numbered the lines in red on the roughs to avoid any errors.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3633Then, again to avoid errors, I placed each line of text above where I was writing. This ensured that not only did I not make any errors in the text, but that the lines ended where they should.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3642I was asked to do two versions of the piece, so I decided to write the title of the second one in red. It’s interesting how simply changing the colour of the title affects the ‘mood’ of the piece.

 

Charter for Trees, Woods and People

© Patricia Lovett MBE/Woodland Trust 2017

© Patricia Lovett MBE/Woodland Trust 2017

The Charter for Trees, Woods and People has been created to record the importance of woods and trees to us all and also to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the 1217 Charter of the Forest which is now in Lincoln Castle. This early Charter, sealed by Henry III, re-established rights of access to royal forests. The Woodland Trust led on the new project for the nation, collecting comments and ideas from many people, and putting together ten tenets of contemporary views of the value of trees and woods to people. I was delighted when I heard that I had been the unanimous choice to carry out this important and prestigious commission.

 

First lettering trialsI needed the text before I could start doing anything really, and once I had it I appreciated that it was quite lengthy! As this piece was going to be framed, the size of writing needed to be larger than for something held in the hand such as a book, as people stand further away to read and look at things on the wall so I couldn’t really use anything smaller than a size 5 nib, and the writing style had to be a compact one such as Italic. The title set the width of the piece, and although I wanted to write it in strong wide Roman Capitals (as can be seen here in the first tryout of the title), I realised that I needed to reduce the width as it would have made the piece really wide and rather unwieldy! I kept to the usual proportions for Roman Capitals, but just reduced the width of the round letters which seemed to work. This shows my first writing out of the text.

I didn’t really have time to consider the design for long as everything had to be completed, from first sight of the text to final piece, in about six weeks, so sizes of the various blocks of text, inter-linear spacing, layout etc, had to be done pretty much instinctively and based on previous experience. I used as a guide for the text blocks the longest sub-title, but realised once I had written out all the text that this would have left far too much space between the two columns and the illustrations would have dominated the text, but it was good practice anyway for writing out the lengthy text blocks.

Text blocksSo, with a lot of measuring – never my strong point – I wrote out all the text again with columns the width I thought they should be to allow for a narrower central column of decoration. As I was writing out the text blocks in rough, I realised that they were working out sort of justified, with a straight margin on the left and also on the right. Now in calligraphy we really never seek to justify text because it can make the spacing look very uneven, just as it does sometimes in printed text. And it also adds another level of stress which really isn’t needed for something like this, but …!

Text set outThe Woodland Trust had sent a list of eleven trees that they wanted included on the Charter, so these needed to be placed appropriately. Before I received the text I had been thinking and experimenting about how to represent these trees. They could be shown as complete trees, but the leaves would have been so small and they could be identified only by the overall tree shape – and who knows those that well? Or they could be shown as botanical paintings with one or two of the leaves carefully painted as exact replicas. However, this is where the decision about what is more important comes in. Is the text or the painting to be emphasised more? Here it is clearly the text of the Charter, so the decoration had to be subsidiary to the lettering and not in competition with it. With quite a lot of experimentation of various styles, sizes, what to include and exclude etc, I decided to show parts of trees where their identification would be obvious, and for most trees it’s their leaves and berries or seeds – conkers, acorns, hazel nuts, rowan berries etc. Having read the text I appreciated that the essence of it was how important trees are to us – around us, close to us in our gardens and on our streets, and almost within us – lifting our spirits and delighting the eye – so to have them separated in the piece by being a wide border along the bottom or along the sides wouldn’t really reflect that. A painted central vertical column of trees seemed to be the best way forward – and it had an added bonus too – read on to the end …

Ink experimentsThe Woodland Trust, understandably, wanted me to use oak gall ink. This wasn’t a problem as I do use it often, and have just done a major project using this. However, I didn’t have time to make it myself and they had someone who was doing this anyway for the Charter. Unfortunately, the ink supplied created further challenges as shown here. Another problem to test and overcome!

Not making mistakesSo with the text written, the headings done and the central column indicated, it was time to draw the lines. However, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that! The first column was a line longer than the second column, and the sub-headings were in a different writing style than the text. It took quite a bit of measuring and re-measuring to work out exactly the inter-linear spacing to ensure that both columns ended up at the right place. Setting out the whole piece was immensely time-consuming and yet again I misjudged how long this seemingly simple process would take. I tackled the text blocks first. Having written them out in rough, when I was more relaxed, I knew that the spacing would be about right – not tight and tense. So I photocopied all the text, cut the photocopies up into strips of individual lines, and attached these just above where I was to write each line to avoid making mistakes. The lines were very carefully numbered!

Why I hate paper!The Woodland Trust wanted the Charter on paper not vellum (to avoid upsetting those who are sensitive to such things), despite me pointing out that the paper I would use wouldn’t be tree-based but from cotton or linen rag. Now I really don’t like using paper, because when using a sharp nib, it often picks up paper fibres which can’t be seen until they mess up the letters as here – note the ‘d’ at the end of the last line in the upper text block.

 

 

 

 

Writing finshedThen it was time to write the sub-headings, the text about the Charter along the bottom, and the main heading itself. This is where I found out that the paper I was using, Lavis Fidelis, was softer than I wanted it to be. I’ve had a large roll of this paper, about 350 gsm in weight, for a very long time and I thought it would be perfect for this piece, which turned out to be very large. But over the years, the hot pressed surface had slightly softened, and the paint in the large letters did not sit evenly on the surface. Every stroke on the title and the poem at the top had to be over-painted. However, I was pleased with the fact that having the lines justified gave neat edges to the right and left margins, which was particularly important with the central painted decoration. However, what with writing on paper where it’s not easy to erase mistakes without it being seen, this was an added level of stress that I could have done without! Note that both text columns line up top and bottom despite the extra line in the left-hand column.

erasing linesAnd once I had finished the writing and allowed the ink and paint to ‘settle’ for at least 24 hours, I had to be really careful in erasing the lines because the ink was so fragile. This eraser was a new one, and it had a point when I started. Because of the delicate paper surface, it took me about three hours just to remove the lines!

 

 

 

 

 

Tube on boardNow the Charter is large, 78.5 by 82.5 cms, and this meant that the paper stretched way below my sloping board especially when I was writing close to the top of the Charter. It is so easy just to lean on the paper without thinking and crease it, so I used a cardboard tube placed over the bottom edge of my board and taped it underneath the guard sheet. I had cut a vertical section along the length of the tube so that the tube would fit over the board and this created a smooth round surface for the paper to slide over. Even if I leant heavily on the paper, the fact that it was backed by this curved shape rather than a straight edge meant that the paper remained undamaged.

Wrong interlinear spacingI am often asked if I ever make mistakes – the answer is far too often – but as I use vellum these can be erased without trace. However, despite every check, I made a major error which meant that I had to start all over again. The lines of text in the blocks varied in number from five to eight lines, and the headings needed lines ruled at different heights – all requiring great care – so it wasn’t just a case of drawing lines the same distance apart all the way down the page, but drawing lines appropriate for each separate block of text and its heading. I never start at the beginning because no matter how much you try to relax you are always tense before you start writing and this comes out in the hand and writing. Starting elsewhere and then going back to the beginning one you’re relaxed and into writing the piece is a better approach. So I started at text block seven, which went OK and so I wrote out text block eight. Then, for no apparent reason, I picked up the paper strips of text for block ten rather than nine. Block nine had fewer lines then ten, but I only realised this when I ran out of guidelines! I thought – and hoped – that the Woodland Trust would not mind too much the reversal of these two text blocks, so I went back to the left-hand side of the paper to identify the guideline measurements and drew the appropriate lines. HOWEVER I took the wrong inter-linear measurement – how could this have happened? So although mixing up the text blocks might have been acceptable, lines too close together as evident in the last two lines here certainly weren’t! So it was the huge job of marking out and re-drawing all those lines for the whole piece on a new piece of paper!

Hazel startingThen it was on to the decoration. I started to paint each type of tree carefully on another piece of paper to get the design and balance right. This was an education in itself as so often things are in calligraphy and painting. How did the leaves hang on the branches – up/down/flat/singly/in clusters/evenly along the branch/randomly? And were the veins symmetrical or random, and having got the shape of the leaves were the edges smooth, jagged, rounded, pointed etc etc. I learned so much doing this. Annoyingly, despite all my preparations beforehand, the softness of the surface of the paper meant that I couldn’t transfer any of the designs over because in erasing any pencil or similar lines, the paint also came off the paper! So, having got the idea of the leaves etc, I just had to take a deep breath and wing it. I set out the faintest guideline in pencil for branches and then used very dilute Schmincke gouache and a very fine Kolinsky sable da Vinci brush (size 00) to paint in the leaves and fruit/seeds, having done all that previous research.

Hazel finishedNext, I used the fine brush and outlined the branches and leaves, put in the veins, added further colour to the leaves and fruit/seeds and finished the painting off. It all sounds so easy but actually each tree took the best part of a day with the research, initial painting and then the final painting on the Charter. Above and here are the hazel leaves and nuts.

 

painting douglas firI enjoyed all the painting and for the Douglas fir and yew I counted how many separate tiny strokes of paint I made for one short section along the branches. There were over 350 strokes not more than a couple of millimetres long in three colours for a section less than 10 millimetres long! As I say so often in my courses, the consistency of the paint and the control of it is crucial and it was here.

 

 

 

 

Everything masked for paintingBefore I started painting I covered the text completely, as it had taken me so long to write, the last thing I wanted was a green blob of paint across the lettering!

 

 

 

 

 

 

First 3 treesSo I worked my way up from the bottom painting the trees, here it’s oak, rowan and Douglas fir.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trees 2Once it got too far for me to reach from the bottom, I turned the Charter round and worked on it upside down. So from the top here it’s sycamore, hawthorn, horse chestnut, hazel, yew, ash and apple. The order in which the trees were featured was up to me so I spread those with red berries throughout the column as red, being a complementary colour to green, would make a sharp contrast and visually ‘ping’, and also carefully placed the ones with darker leaves, or more spikey ones etc so they were evenly balanced and didn’t dominate too much.

 

 

Painting upside downThis is the completed central column of trees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top decorationI then added tiny little blocks of leaves and fruit either side of the poem at the top. These were about 1.5 cms square in all. This brought some colour and interest to the top of the Charter.

 

 

Delivering charterAnd the added bonus of having the central column of decoration? This can be seen here in the finished Charter, where Matt Larsen-Daw, who is Project Leader for the Charter, is receiving it. The shape of the central column of decoration with the title and heading text and paintings makes the letter ‘T’, and, of course, ‘T’ stands for Trees – the whole point of the Charter! (Note the wide margins on the Charter, giving the calligraphy room to breathe, and see then the picture frame below)

 

 

 

IMG_3551There was a lot of publicity for the Charter and it was featured on BBC1’s Countryfile programme on November 5th 2017, and also on BBC Breakfast on November 6th, as shown here. I did shiver when I saw the Charter in all that sunlight on Lincoln Castle ramparts, but it was taken inside straight after the programme!

 

 

IMG_3557There were big celebrations at Lincoln both in the Cathedral and in the Castle to launch the Charter and mark the 800th Anniversary of the 1217 Charter of the Forest on November 6th. It was a bitterly cold evening with a fierce wind, and Lincoln stands high in the surrounding countryside. Here I am once the Charter was taken inside to be close to the 1217 Charter. (And, like many of you no doubt, although the frame was lovely, I just longed for more space around the piece, particularly at the bottom. I had indicated the dimensions for framing, but this must have got lost in translation!)

The whole experience of designing, writing and painting this Charter was one that I enjoyed very much indeed, and the benefit was that I learned so much about trees. I am most grateful to the Woodland Trust for giving me this opportunity.