Tag Archives: calligraphy

‘It is not yet spring …’

Layout 1Most calligraphers are always on the lookout for words and texts that appeal and can be written out and interpreted. I noted these wonderful words by Edward Thomas (who for a time lived near us) early in 2020 before the resulting pandemic became so restrictive. I wrote them out in the winter of 2020 when it really did seem that any spring really was being dreamed as being ‘more wonderful and more blessed than ever was spring’.

 

 

 

CIMG3264As always, the words were addressed first. I needed to work out the length of the line of text so that I could select a size of oval that fitted. A piece of vellum of suitable size was prepared and the oval shape drawn in as a guide for the lettering. I thought that this colour green for the text would work well with the theme.

Yet again, dear Edward Thomas did not consider us as calligraphers when he wrote. How wonderful it would have been if he had thought to include some words that had ascenders that could be flourished in the top left half and at the base.

 

CIMG3267 2And now to the flowers. I researched photographs of spring flowers; I would have preferred to have used actual examples but I was working on this at the wrong time of year. I made sketches of where various flowers could go – it seemed sensible to have taller flowers near the top and smaller flowers nearer the base, so bluebells were in the upper part and violets, crocuses and primroses towards the lower part.

I sketched out a possible layout in coloured pencils and checked it for size of the flowers and colour balance with the lettering.

 

CIMG3269This stage was partway through the painting. The leaves on bluebells are yet to be inserted and I didn’t like the straightish line on the top of the violets on the right hand side. The primroses also needed more definition, but it’s on its way.

 

 

 

 

Layout 1And this is the finished piece. The bluebells don’t look quite so isolated now they have some leaves to accompany them. The single hellebore and primroses have more definition, there are now more hellebores lower right and left, with crocuses in a bed of grass in the base.

There is always a delicate balance between text and illustration and in this instance it can rightly be said that there isn’t that much of a balance here, let alone a delicate one! The density and colour of the flowers really do outweigh the lettering which dances around trying to hold its own but not succeeding very well! However, this was an effect of the pandemic and the thought that when spring comes it really will be ‘more wonderful and more blessed than ever was spring’.

 

 

The Wait

Cricket poem.PL 2020All those who love sport have been frustrated at either not being able to play it, or not being able to watch it, or both, during the spring and summer of this Covid-19 pandemic. Jimmy Lee from the England and Wales Cricket Board wrote a really poignant poem about this waiting, and the fact that in cricket this is what often happens. But, as he says, waiting isn’t time wasted, and we are a nation that queues. His words are really well chosen and they were read out by Stephen Fry in a wonderful film about the ways in which those who love this sport are just waiting for the game to begin, but that they are also contributing and helping those who are NHS and other Heroes on the front line during these challenging times. Watch the film here and have tissues ready!

 

CIMG3185So as some of you who are now familiar with how to tackle any text, poetry or prose will know, the first thing to do was to write it out. This artwork was to go on the wall so it couldn’t be written too small. And with quite a few lines too, there needed to be adequate space between them so that it was easy to read. I used my favourite green paint at the moment (Schmincke oxide of chromium – it really is wonderfully smooth for writing – mix with water to the consistency of thin, runny cream as always!) and a size 4 Mitchell/Manuscript nib and wrote the lines straight out just as they were.

CIMG3192I then photocopied this and cut the lines into strips to experiment with the best distance between lines. I also wanted to break up some of the lines and emphasise others by writing some of the text in small capitals. So I laid the lines out on to paper and played around with them a little and attached them with magic tape. I had the idea of writing out the title with a lot of space between the letters so that the letters themselves looked as if they were waiting, and when I’d done that I thought that red circles between the letters (a bit larger than just dots) could look as if they represented cricket balls.

 

 

Version 2I also wanted to add an illustration of a cricket bat resting on the stumps waiting – my first sketch in pencil is on the rough of the lines above. I searched for a long time to get an image of a bat at the right angle looking as if it could balance on stumps, and stumps too at the best angle, and made a number of drawings with the bat in different positions and the ball in various places. In the end I had what I thought looked best. The crease of the cricket pitch is usually cut very short, but all cricket lovers were waiting, and so I painted the grass longer than it would be in most matches. I also found an image of a bat with a red and black handle and this added a little bit of red to that part of the painting, thus slightly linking it to the red cricket balls in the title and the one by the stumps.

Cricket poem.PL 2020And so the piece was complete. It is so satisfying to write out words that have real meaning and to have a challenge in painting cricket stumps, bat and ball with an aim to get the proportions right and for them to fit in the best way.

 

‘…With Wakened Hands …’

Layout 1I really like this quotation from D H Lawrence, although I do wish that he hadn’t excluded women – many of whom have wakened hands just like men! However, these were the times and the words resonated so much with me that I wanted to write them out.

 

 

 

 

 

CIMG3183As usual, I wrote out the words just as they were and, for the last few months, I’ve been writing quite small, so I cut a swan’s quill to the equivalent of a size 5 Mitchell nib. I knew that I wanted to pop in a couple of flourishes on the top line so introduced these as I was writing the words. Having written the words out in the same script, I then read it through again to consider which phrases had particular meaning for me and wrote them out in small dancing capitals. One of the great things about being a calligrapher is that we all react to words differently, so what I choose to emphasise may not be the same as the next person. For some reason, although I love ‘with wakened hands’ I missed out the ‘with’ in the first write through and then the whole phrase in the second version! What was it about wakened hands that weren’t going through my brain?

CIMG3149I then photocopied the page and cut the text into strips for each line, breaking the text where it fitted my proposed design and allowing for the sense and flow of the words. The advantage of doing this is that when writing things out in rough usually I am much more relaxed and it doesn’t matter if I make a mistake as I can just write in the word or phrase again as can be seen; this means that the text isn’t tight and cramped as it may be when first writing on the prepared surface and on lines carefully measured and drawn. I marked the mid point of each line and placed them in order on a white piece of paper at about the best distance between the lines. I also numbered the lines (very important to ensure that the lines don’t get mixed up!).

I then used two L-shaped pieces of card and slid them up and down and in and out to set the margins of the piece which meant that I could cut a piece of vellum to this size and then prepared it for writing. I used a set of compasses to measure out the distance between the lines with pin pricks, and then ruled horizontal guidelines and also a vertical line indicating the centre.

CIMG3159I loved the green colour of oxide of chromium so I mixed up this Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache to the consistency of thin, runny cream and used a piece of magic tape that I’d taken some of the ‘tack’ off by pressing it again and again on my finger to attach the photocopied strip of the first line above where I was to write, lining up the centre point. Having the text just above where I was to write meant that it was much simpler to ensure that the words were spelled correctly and written in the right place so that the lines were centred.

CIMG3161So the text was written and now for the painting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CIMG3166I really enjoyed painting squirrels on a recent piece so I decided to paint some more. Previously I had painted squirrels on grass. This time I thought I’d paint them in autumn on a bed of leaves, so I looked up images of red squirrels online and chose three in different poses for the top. I used a 000 Kolinsky sable brush (I prefer da Vinci brushes from Cornelissen and Son in London as they are such good quality) with watercolour and a strong magnifying glass – they were only about 10 mm tall! For the bed of leaves I used dilute light red and ochre to paint a wash, and then a darker brown to paint the leaves themselves – half of it is done in this enlargement.

Layout 1At the bottom, I decided to use different images of squirrels on a dead tree trunk including a baby. I am on a campaign to get calligraphers to ensure that their work can be identified in the future by putting their names or their known cipher on their work. Here I wrote my name as small as I could in the same red colour underneath the leaves. And now the piece was finished!

 

 

Red Squirrels and an Uplifting Quotation

CIMG3120This quotation by J B Priestly is new to me and as soon as I read it I wanted to write it out. At these challenging times (April 2020) the words hold just the sort of promise that we need – tomorrow is a new day, a fresh start, and those wonderful words ‘with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning’! What could be better than that. I seem to be writing out a few long narrow pieces lately, and when I wrote out these words to see how they would ‘fall’ on the paper, they followed that pattern. I wanted to emphasise some phrases more than others – ‘a new day’, ‘a fresh start’ etc, and wouldn’t normally have written them in alternate lines like this, but that is just how it happened; and, of course, that ‘bit of magic’ needed to be different for significance! To add emphasis to the initial and the top lines I added a few flourishes.

 

Version 2The piece was written out on vellum for The Prince of Wales, President of the Heritage Crafts Association, to thank him for his kindness in suggesting his own President’s Award – an annual award for endangered crafts as identified in the Heritage Crafts Association’s Red List of Endangered Crafts. It was a beautiful piece of vellum which, once prepared, took the writing and paint very well.

 

 

 

 

Version 4As it was for The Prince of Wales I wanted to make it personal to him and so checked to ensure that he was as keen on red squirrels as ever, I was told that indeed he was. If newspaper and magazine articles are correct, His Royal Highness encourages them to come into the house at Birkhall. So at the top I painted a tiny red squirrel no more than 10 mm high eating a hazelnut. (Sadly the magnification doesn’t really show the detail of each hair being painted separately.)

Version 5Then at the bottom of the writing, to round it all off, I painted a squirrel looking alert, as though it was watching The Prince of Wales, and it is holding tiny Prince of Wales ostrich plumes in its paws to make it personal to him.

 

CIMG3120We don’t really get feedback on whether royal gifts are appreciated (or even seen) but I do hope that, if he sees this, The Prince of Wales’ spirits will be a little lifted by the words by J B Priestly and by his beloved red squirrels themselves perhaps bringing that ‘bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning’.

Rectors of Chevening

CIMG3146Being asked to create a panel listing the rectors of St Botolph’s Church in Chevening, Kent, was a fascinating project with a number of interesting design challenges. The list goes back to Reginald in 1262 and there were 56 names in all. It’s always a problem working out the size and style of the lettering so that there is a wide enough space for names as long as William de Wintreshull but also accommodating short names such as John Wode and John Crull without having a large white space on the right.

 

 

 

IMG_3575Because it is a formal piece and the script should reflect that, I began by writing out the names in round hand (English Caroline Minuscule), or Edward Johnston’s Foundational Hand as here. However, I soon realised that those long names were causing me problems and the columns would be too wide. I had decided at the start that there should be three columns as two would have made the piece too long and four would have resulted in a wide panel and the lettering for the names would be too small.

 

 

IMG_3001So I changed the lettering to Compressed English Minuscule and this worked much better. I wasn’t sure whether the dates should be in black or red – the problem with a vibrant red is that it can be overwhelming sometimes. I tried both and realised that actually the red dates looked better than the black. I also asked the client if there were flowers or plants associated with the church.They didn’t have any ideas so I looked for suitable biblical texts and thought that John 15: verse 5 seemed very appropriate – ‘I am the vine; you are the branches’, the rectors being the branches in spreading the word. This also gave me the opportunity to use vines and grapes as decoration.

 

IMG_3404It took a little while to get the information correct. After I had written out the rough it was suggested that where there were two rectors in one year the date was omitted which really didn’t look right, and then that there should be an ampersand rather than the year as here, but this didn’t look right either. In the end it was decided to revert to my original layout.

 

 

 

 

IMG_3731The piece was so large that I couldn’t stretch the vellum before I started as I wouldn’t have been able to reach to letter the top, so I prepared the skin, which was quite bumpy, drew all the lines and set to. Because the heading is often the most daunting I always start with this to get it over with, and then worked my way down the board. I left the red lettering so that I could do it all in one go.

 

 

 

CIMG3147Then it was on to painting the vines and grapes.I decided that the vine should start in the middle of the piece and then the branches should extend out to the right and left. This also gave a nod to mediæval images of the tree of Jesse which also seemed rather appropriate. To get the best balance with the lettering and the position of the paintings within the piece, I designed it so that the leaves and grapes were the largest at the bottom, a little smaller either side of the name ‘St Botolph’s’ and then smallest of all on the row just above the columns. I don’t know how many leaves I painted, and certainly not how many grapes, but there were thousands it seemed!

CIMG3146The skin was very bumpy as can be seen when unstretched, and so it needed to be dampened and then pulled round a strong piece of wood and carefully attached at the back. This will also help to keep the vellum flat in the cold and sometimes damp atmosphere in many churches.

Props for film and TV

CIMG2859As a professional scribe and illuminator, I am often asked to make props for film and TV. These have ranged from 19th century petitions of ‘thousands’ of names, Elizabethan maps, writing in ‘invisible ink’ and making it reappear onscreen, any number of documents, poems and letters, and, a few years back, to coincide with a big exhibition in Venice by one of the UK’s most well-known artists, a double spread of a 12th century manuscript written in Greek.

CIMG2811The story was that a freed Roman slave had amassed great wealth such that he was able to buy up great treasures. He wanted a suitable palace to display these and planned to take them on the ‘biggest ship ever made’ – the ‘Unbelievable’ – and then build his palace. Sadly, it was said, on his journey a sea monster caused the ship to wreck and the treasures were lost only to be found again hundreds of years later and brought to the surface in the twenty-first century. I was given a very wide brief and set to creating this double spread, checking the designs as I went along. I researched palaces in mediæval manuscripts, and it was lovely to create my own … in the style of! Of course the palace would have a fountain and fish pond and, as with many pieces I’ve done I enjoyed adding a bit of personal amusement. Each fish, for example, had an extra fin from one to four.

CIMG2809I knew that the spread was going to be aged but selected a piece that had a lot of character to it anyway. There was a fair smattering of brown spots which indicated the hair follicles. In my rough sketch I had planned to have carts with treasures being loaded on to the ship but realised that this would take far too long so in the end settled for wrapped bales on the quay, and a few treasures being shown on the deck of the ship. The freed slave, Amatan, is shown here, again in his fur hat and rich red robes lined with cloth of gold, supervising the loading. At this point I didn’t know what form the treasures would be so I painted in a few objects. To ensure that, mediævally speaking, the ship was in character, as it was meant to be so big, the prow extended well beyond the border.

CIMG2814They did give me a sketch of a mediæval monster from a manuscript as a suggestion but I thought it looked far too benign (a bit like a Tellytubby!) so I asked if I could make mine much more scary, to which they agreed. So here it is with horns – because it was evil – rows of sharp teeth and sharp claws. And because the monster was wrecking the ship by creating a storm, I drew a waterline which wasn’t horizontal to reflect that. (I did try it with a very angled sealine but it just looked weird!)

CIMG2804There are quite a few miniatures of ships in mediæval manuscripts, especially connected with the Jonah and the whale story, and I found a lovely image of a sailor falling overboard, which I copied, painting treasures tossed into the sea by the storm too. Amatan and another sailor are here pointing in horror at the monster, and even the ships’ prow is looking a bit scared! The mast is broken and the sail in tatters.

 

 

CIMG2815I also decided to have the monster coming up the side of the page and towering over the boat to make it seem even more menacing and had his gold tail pointing menacingly towards the crashing ship.

 

 

 

 

 

CIMG2863I then wrote the supplied Greek text and worked hard to ensure that it fitted the space exactly, rearranging the line spacing and the length of the lines to ensure that it did. I was also able to pretty much justify the lines so that the right- and left-margins looked neat.

 

 

 

 

CIMG2862I knew that they wanted the page aged, and so, once it was all done, took some sandpaper to the painting and roughed it all up a bit. However, when I saw it being used in the accompanying film about the story of the ‘find’, I saw that they had really roughed it up, with the gold leaf blistered and some of the images almost gone completely. The film of the story and the ‘find’ is available on Netflix if you subscribe. And the artist is still causing controversy about the whole project as here.

 

Quills and Calligraphy

IMG_1961Sixteen eager students were ready to start a day of learning and practising calligraphy as part of the events associated with the fantastic Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms 2018-2019 exhibition at the British Library. We were focusing on the Angled-Pen Uncials as in the St Cuthbert Gospel of St John, a very pleasing writing style, and which has only majuscules, or capital letters.

 

IMG_1947Everything was set out before the students arrived with a sloping board, pen and nib, ink, etc and sets of A3 information and exemplar sheets so that no ruling lines was necessary while learning.

 

 

 

IMG_1952The morning was spent learning and practising the letters and then the afternoon focused on quill cutting and preparing and writing on vellum. Cutting quills was a lot tougher than it looked – the barrels of swans’ feather are really strong!

 

 

 

IMG_1954It does take some preparation, but once the steps are clearly explained and reinforced to everyone as they cut the feathers, really good quills resulted.

 

 

 

IMG_1958Then it was on to preparing the vellum, practising writing names using the quill and then, with a deep breath, writing on the vellum itself. I suggested using Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache in vermilion as a contrast for the initial letter and this worked really well. The results needed to be admired even halfway through the writing!

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1956And the concentration here was intense!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1961But the results were very much worthwhile! Congratulations to all students for such a successful day – and for being such a lovely group to worth with.

A stunning Renaissance manuscript

BL, Add ms 19553

BL, Add ms 19553

The British Library has a stunning array of manuscripts and one that has been recently digitised caught my eye because of its lively and idiosyncratic lettering; the shelf reference is BL, Add ms 19553. The page shown has typical Renaissance decoration – the manuscript is dated to c.1505 – with a rather restrained red, blue and green decoration on shell gold (powdered gold in gum Arabic base).

 

 

 

 

'que'It is the lively lettering, though, not the decoration, that caught my eye, particularly the exuberently free curved stroke on the letter q in the middle of the second line. This is an abbreviation and indicates that this word should be tibisque. There is wonderful control of the pen as the pen moves from the right to the left, and, with again great control, moves to the left with a slight hesitation at the finish of the stroke adding a hint of a thickening at the very end. Note also the letter g with the exaggerated lower bowl, and no little ‘ear’ to the right of the upper bowl. This scribe is really enjoying making these strokes!

xAnother beautiful stroke is the one from top right to bottom left in this letter x; it is rather more successful that the slightly more wobbly stroke from top left to bottom right. Notice also the very flat pen nib angle to the strokes. Usually the nib angle for this writing style, Humanistic Minuscule, is about 30°. The flatter nib angle gives a more chunky feel to the lettering.

a:eWhen the letters a and e are combined as a ligature it can be a rather clumsy form. Here, though, the scribe has sloped the usual upright of the letter a and the e nestles in neatly, sharing the same stroke. Extending the ‘crossbar’ of the e and just pushing it up slightly at the end, which thickens the stroke, gives a very elegant letter-form overall. Note, too, the second thoughts the scribe has had with the long s and t in posteritate . The long s started just above the line for x-height, and the letter t was written normally. Then the decision was made to extend both strokes and join them together. It’s great when watery ink like this is used as these sorts of things can be detected.

& and extended fThe ampersand (et = and) is very graceful here, with the smaller bowl written as a complete letter o, and the lower stroke travelling to the right has a real swoosh to it. Note, too, the additional extension to the letter f written after the letter had been completed.

 

 

 

yAnd lastly another wonderful stroke on this letter y, where the slight thickening at the end of the stroke bottom left not only collides with the letters o and n on the lines below, but the pen has also caught a little on the surface so it looks a bit messy.

And if you want to see more of this intriguing manuscript and spot fabulous letters yourself, then click here.

 

Another Graily Hewitt manuscript book

IMG_2632This delightful little book was written by calligrapher and illuminator Graily Hewitt (1864–1952). It’s the text of the Holy Communion written out for Clairice Gabbatt who lived in Petersfield. The book is in Graily Hewitt’s typical lettering style and it’s likely to be on his usual preferred writing surface of parchment, as the leaves are quite thin.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2631The book is bound in a dark leather with a gilded cross, and vine leaves and bunches of grapes in each corner (from ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’, John 15:5) and this image also gives an indication of size.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2633Graily Hewitt’s lettering is always very strong, it was said that he was the best calligrapher in the UK after Edward Johnston. Interestingly he almost always chose to write on parchment which is not the most pleasant surface to write on and results in letters that are not as crisp as they can be on well-prepared vellum.The enlarged and gilded letter ‘O’ is delightful and that, and the enlarged ‘A’, are surrounded by fine line decoration similar to that in the De Brailes Hours.

 

 

 

IMG_2634Calligraphers working at the turn of the last century were less concerned about word breaks. Nowadays most scribes wouldn’t break the word ‘Father’ in the first line to ‘Fa’ and ‘ther’ on the second, and again the word ‘Because’ split not just between two lines, but ‘Be’ on one page’ and then ’cause’ on the next.

If you want to see more of Graily Hewitt’s work, then a previous web post is here.

 

 

 

downloadGraily Hewiit was the tutor to a number of students, including Dr R A Holmes (shown on the right) and featured in another post on Graily Hewitt here. This is the background to the book from Jenny who owns it:

My great aunt Clairice Gabbatt and her husband lived in an Arts and Crafts house in Petersfield. They had no children and Clairice was worth a considerable fortune as she was a member of the Hartley’s Jam family. They were religious (and a bit stuffy) and became lavish benefactors of their church, St. Mary’s Liss. Clairice and her friend Lady Maufe (a director of Heals) wife of Sir Edward Maufe the architect who designed Guildford Cathedral  furnished the church with fabrics from Liberty and Heals and bought all the vestments etc. Percy Gabbatt seemed to domineer all the goings on at the church and any renovations etc (which he paid for) so tongue in cheek, the locals referred to the church as St. Gabbatt’s. They donated a wonderful porch statue called Incarnation made by friend Eric Gill and he and Gwen Reveratt and Graily Hewitt, I am led to believe, were all friends.  Graily Hewitt was commissioned to do the Baptismal roll in the church. In a church magazine I have, he was mentioned as living in Petersfield.  However this little Holy Communion book refers to Treyford. Treyford is not far from Petersfield. 

Written on the last page of the Holy Communion book by Graily Hewit  in pencil “Clairice Gabbatt memento Graily Hewitt 1946.”

Many thanks to Jenny for supplying the photographs and the background.

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.