Tag Archives: calligraphy

The stages in creating a simple commission

HymnCalligraphy is a broad church, and just as there is a place for complicated, ‘designed’ pieces, with layered and textured backgrounds, and blocks of text of differing sizes and styles to create an exciting piece of work, so there is a place for pieces where the lettering is foremost and the design allows the meaning of the words to be paramount. One such piece was a commission I had earlier in the year – to write out a favourite hymn to mark a couple’s ruby wedding anniversary.

text 1It started with the whole hymn, and the client had the idea of laying the hymn out with the above verse in the centre and the remaining verses arranged around this. I experimented with writing styles and sizes of nibs, and then wrote out all the verses. I was in a bit of a flourish-y mood while I was doing this, but not all of these would make it into the final piece!


text 2So it was then time to cut up the verses and arrange them so that they looked as good as they could. The larger verse went in the middle, and the other verses were arranged around the edges in what I thought were the best places. However, there was a change of colour between the background paper and that which I was using. This, and the cut edges, often distract the eye, so if I had been going ahead with this design, I would have written it out again on a sheet of paper just to ensure that it all worked, before writing it out as a final piece.

Hymn 3That verse at the bottom bothered me. It made the shape strange, and, in my view, detracted from the central verse which was to be the focus. I removed the verse and it looked so much better.




red and blue textAt this stage, the client decided that, actually, it was only the main verse that was wanted. We had thought of writing the text in ruby red to mark the particular anniversary, but this could have looked a little plain. I suggested mixing two colours in the pen, which gives a variegated effect, as in a poem I wrote out on vellum, right. (The poem was ‘Kite’ which is why there is a black curvy line throughout the text – this was the tail of the kite.)This can be quite challenging to do, and it doesn’t help rhythm and flow, but it does emphasise two individuals coming together with a shared life (well, it does in my view!). I also rather enjoy the challenge of maintaining a consistency of colour and tone.

HymnRather than have the whole verse written out like this, the client selected certain words which meant a lot to him. So it was a little complicated to use the same nib, wash it in the middle of writing a line to use the two colours for one word every line, wash it again to go back to the red, but that’s what a calligrapher is for! I also suggested a very simple leaf decoration on the left-hand side, to add a touch of interest, but not to detract from the words.

Vellum ‘music’ book

Vellum bookI am always on the lookout for suitable quotations to write out, and, as I am keen on music, when I had a collection of phrases on the topic, I decided to do something with them.






Rough textIt took quite a few years before I could get round to it, but I was eventually able to combine the music quotations with a spare piece of vellum I had and make a vellum book. To start with I experimented with nib size and writing style, and settled on the fallback of Italic. So I wrote out all the quotations to see how many lines each would take and what sort of shape they would be. I wrote out the authors’ names in tiny capitals as a contrast.

Text rough placedThen I cut up the different quotations and used magic tape to attach the authors’ names underneath in what I thought was the best position. I played around with blocks of text to try to get a balance in terms of layout, and placed these in various positions on a large piece of paper.

When I was happy with this, I marked all the positions and took measurements of exactly where each separate block of text, with the writers’ names, started and finished.

text on vellumThen it was time to determine the exact page size. The top margin is usually smaller than the bottom, and the two outer and the inner margins about the same (the ratio for a classically laid out manuscript book is 2 units at the top, 4 units at the bottom, and 3 units at each outer edge and in the gutter [fold]).





detailI selected a reasonably robust piece of vellum so that it wouldn’t buckle and cockle too much, but note the distinct curve of the skin on the above right. This is the piece of vellum without being under weights, and not sewn into a book.The skin was prepared (see Illumination DVD) and the positions of the lines were marked by pin pricks using a set of compasses (see Calligraphy Clip, Measuring lines) then the lines were drawn with a 4H pencil.


detailTo avoid the lettering looking too boring I wrote the text blocks alternately in Chinese liquid ink, and ultramarine Schmincke Calligraphy gouache. I also had the idea for a bit of levity by inserting a raised gesso musical note covered in pure gold leaf, (the same process as used for raised gold in mediæval illuminated manuscripts), between each of the text blocks.

I was fortunate in that my training many years ago also included bookbinding, which I enjoy very much, so making the vellum sheet into a book wasn’t too much of a challenge. Acid-free 230 gsm hp paper was used for the title page and colophon. I was given some lovely Indian hand-made paper marbled with gold swirls which seemed appropriate for the end papers, and also had some black and gold fabric with which I covered the boards for the book. So it was a case of folding, trimming, sewing and sticking and the book was done.

Codex Amiatinus – a very English book with an Italian name

St Paul's, Jarrow
Abbott Ceofrid (pronounced Chalfrith) must have been a remarkable man. At the beginning of the eighth century, he was in charge of the twin foundations of St Peter’s at Monkwearmouth (now Sunderland) and also St Paul’s, Jarrow (right), both on or very close to the coast on the far north-east of England. The church buildings have evidence of Anglo-Saxon work, and although both have been much altered, it is still possible to get something of the feeling of what it must have been like at the time of Ceolfrid and Bede; Bede lived at Jarrow.

cod amIn 692, Ceolfrid commissioned three great pandects (all the books of the bible in one volume) to be created, one for Monkwearmouth, one for Jarrow and one to take with him when he went to see Pope Gregory II in Rome; this last book became the Codex Amiatinus. The date is fairly certain because it was in that year that the twin foundations were given a grant of extra land, needed to raise the cattle required for these books. (Map of Jerusalem on the right from the Codex Amiatinus)

Each of the three books had 1029 leaves from calfskin, which was of exceptionally fine quality. The books were large, one calfskin would have had the edges trimmed and then folded in two to make four pages. It’s been estimated that 2,000 cattle were needed for the project, and it should be pointed out that these would be calves, not fully grown mature cattle because their skin is too thick and unwieldy. The books weighed over 5 stone each (75 lbs, 35 kg), and would have required two strong people to move them once bound.

page from Cod AmiatinusThe writing in the Codex Amiatinus is a particularly fine uncial script (opening of St Mark on the right), and for many years was thought to be produced by scribes in or from Rome because of its quality. It must have taken years to produce three great books; seven scribes have been identified and there is evidence that the Venerable Bede was involved in the project. It was only at the beginning of the last century, and then only because of its similarity to other manuscripts known to have been produced at Monkwearmouth/Jarrow, that scholars agreed that the books would have been written by English scribes in England. There is no punctuation, but sections start with a large initial, and it is written as per cola et commata, which means that it is set out as clauses in a sentence, and indented as such. It is remarkably easy to navigate despite there being few illustrations or big headings.

Ezra page, Cod AmiatinusThe text is an almost pure form of the Latin Vulgate translation of St Jerome (the language used at the time, nothing to do with it being ‘vulgar’), and is thought to be have based on a book called the Codex Grandior, an Italian 6th century book, and again a pandect, but now lost. Benedict Biscop, who has recently been adopted as the patron saint of Sunderland, was the founder of the monasteries, as well as being Ceolfrid’s predecessor. He and Ceolfrid visited Rome in 678 and brought back books, including the Codex Grandior, bought from the library of the Vivarium, a monastery set up by Cassiodorus, on the site of modern Santa Maria de Vetere near Squillace, in Italy. (Right: The Ezra page from the Codex Amiatinus)

Two of the pandects stayed in England at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, but, when he was 74 years of age, on 16th June in 716, Ceolfrid set out for Rome with the third book. It must have been a tearful departure as the monks knew they would not see their dear abbot again. Sadly, Ceolfrid didn’t get to Rome but died at Langres, Burgundy, in France on September 24th the same year.

Codex_Amiatinus_(dedication_page)By the 9th century, the pandect was at the monastery of Monte Amiata, near Siena, which gave the book its current name. It remained there until 1792 when the monastery closed and it was taken to the Laurentian Library in Florence, where it is to this day. In 1888 a scholar called Giovanni Battista de Rossi noted the similarity in text to the bibles mentioned by Bede, and also noted that the dedication of Petrus Langobardorum (Peter of Lombardy, see right, line 5) had been added over Ceolfridus Anglorum (Ceolfrid of England) which had been partially removed. This was one of the great Ceolfrid pandects.



Greenwell leafWhat happened to the two books that stayed? We have evidence that one was presented to King Offa when it was thought that it was a book from Rome, but that hasn’t survived, and nor has the other. However, individual leaves have. The most famous is the Greenwell leaf (right) discovered by the Reverend Greenwell in an old register that he said he bought in Newcastle. Other leaves have turned up including one from a book found at Kingston Lacy; mainly these are used as binding waste, which is why they are often discoloured and with pieces cut off.

So the Codex Amiatinus, one of the most famous books in the world because of its purity of text and script, is actually an English book produced by English scribes from Northumbria. Perhaps its name should be changed to Codex Northumbrianus (or whatever the Latin translation would be!).

Character Traits – Jean Larcher

Calligraphy Today exhibitionJean Larcher is one of the world’s great calligraphers. His skills and expertise in creating wonderful letter-forms is shown in many of his works, which always have an enviable  liveliness and vibrancy. He is also extremely generous. When I used to run a charity for children, schools and carers interested in all forms of letters and lettering, he kindly sent me a large package of his publications which stood me in good stead for prizes for children’s competitions for a long time! It was Jean’s wonderfully vibrant lettering that was used on the outside of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK, for the Calligraphy Today exhibition that I co-curated in 2011-12.

Jean LarcherJean has now published a collection of his lettering – Character Traits. It is a huge book, both in width and height, but also in number of pages, over 600 of them! The books is simply wonderful in so many ways. The obvious care with which it has been designed – by Jean’s equally talented wife Katharina Pieper – the way in which the pieces are set out on the page, and the details for each piece make this book a must-have for anyone interested in calligraphy and lettering. Jean is studying the huge pile of pages on the right above. Photographs from Jean’s website.

Calligraphy is alive and wellMany of the pieces of calligraphy are to do with lettering, and Jean’s versatility is shown here, with the same text as that used on the poster outside the Fitzwilliam Museum.






The one standard of handwriting ...Other pieces show different writing styles. This one is based on early writing styles. It is notoriously difficult to justify hand-written letters to create an even left margin and an even right margin. Yet here Jean has achieved that. In addition to this, though, the texture is remarkably even (make your eyes slightly blurred) yet with only four lines in thirteen needing a word to be split. This is a real tour-de-force.




Live lettersAnd a remarkably restrained piece, but with wonderful free and distinctive joins between letters s and following letters, creating a repetitive pattern within an even texture.






CalligraphyHaving proved that he is a supreme master in pen control and letter-form, Jean also shows that free lettering is another style in which he excels. This has an almost graffiti style, but I would hazard a guess that there would be few people who would protest if something as beautiful as this was written on walls in our towns! The shape of the lettering, with the small lettered insertions, and the red sections as well is an intriguing but most pleasing design.

These few examples give something of the flavour of this wonderful book and I can recommend it no more highly.



A very special Book of Remembrance

Book of RemembranceI am often asked, when I’m talking to arts, general interest and history groups, what project or commission I have done which has meant the most to me. Without a doubt it’s the Books of Remembrance for Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. This year I have been associated with this for over 25 years, and there are more than 3,200 names written in what are now four volumes.



I was fortunate enough to have been involved from the very beginning such that when I was asked where to buy books of remembrance, I was able to say that the best place to start was with the paper, and then get it bound, and fortunately this is what happened. It makes setting up the book such as drawing the lines so much more straightforward and it is much quicker to work initially on flat pieces of paper.

Important decisions were taken early on in the planning. Rather than a list of names, the book was to be a ‘day’ book, whereby each day would be on display consecutively, showing those children who had died on that date. This meant that there were to be 366 pages at least for the days, plus prelims and pages at the end, including the colophon.

Most books of remembrance are written in black, red with sometimes a touch of gold. This seemed too cold and harsh for children, and we decided early on that green would be the best colour to use; it suggests youth and, indeed, life. Oxide of chromium calligraphy gouache is one of the best colours to write with and it is a fresh and light colour, yet with good coverage, and this is the colour I chose to use. It is from the Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache set of paints that I developed, and so is particularly finely ground to pass easily through the pen.

Another decision that was made before any pencil had been put to paper, was how the record of the children’s lives should be written. We had much discussion about the dates – 1st January 2014 – 3rd March 2014, or 1 January 2014 to 3 March 2014, or 1.1.2014, or 1.1.14 etc etc. The night before the final meeting and sign off I realised that these forms of dates were appropriate for monarchs and politicians, but were just not right for children. For children we think of their age, not their dates. So the ages are written in specifically – until 2 weeks the age is recorded as the number of days, from 2 weeks to 2 months in weeks, from 2 months to 2 years in months and after that in years.

a pageI made quite a few trials on how the pages should be set out, avoiding anything over fussy and elaborate. Again for the children we didn’t want a tightly spaced list. For a number of children, their short lives are full of drips, bandages, injections, and general intrusion; at least in death, we felt, there should be some space for their names. The book is large, and when open is about the size of a small coffee table. There are only 14 names of children, with their ages, on each two-page opening spread, 7 on each page.



January flowers

As the book was to be open each day for that date, I realised that, initially, there would be many pages with nothing on them apart from the date at the top. I suggested that I paint a little flower picture on the left-hand page for a bit of visual interest. I chose what were generally British flowers appropriate for each month of the year, but I did also add a personal touch here, in that they were flowers that I enjoyed drawing. Calligraphy and illustration on the same page can be a problem – which should be more important? In this book it certainly was the children’s names, so a full colour, detailed painting would have detracted from these. After much experimentation I decided on something simple and compatible with the design of the book. I outlined the design with a fine dark green line, and used two colours of dilute watercolour to paint only some of the flowers and leaves, leaving others uncoloured; similar to the children’s lives – they are finished but not complete.

I had the choice of paper, and so chose a favourite Arches which is quite robust, not too thick but also not too expensive. I experimented with pen nib size on the paper I was to use. Some names are very short – Sam Dun, for example, other children may have five or even six long names. How to give prominence to Sam, yet not have to squeeze the multiple names so much so that they would be almost illegible. I also decided to make the age and the year smaller, so that the names were prominent.

Then it was the time to start. I set out a template so that I could rule lines across the opening spread of both pages – wider guidelines for the names and narrower ones for the ages; I also needed guidelines for the beginning and endings of the columns. Just ruling the lines took well over a week of long days. Simply folding the paper to make the pages of the book took over a day.

I added some red and a bit of blue to darken the oxide of chromium green for the dates to head each paper. Again this was not straightforward. What size nib, and thus size of writing, would be best to use to allow for large lettering that will cope with both December twentysecond to be written along one line (not two) and yet May first would not be lost?

I lost count of how long each little flower drawing took – all 366 of them – but this was a labour of love, not one where I was totting up the hours.

bound bookWhat I did realise fairly soon, having all these pages stacked up in a huge pile, was that one book would be far too unwieldy, and asked the hospital if they could stretch to having two books bound by designer bookbinder Jen Lindsay. In fact, although not planned, this resulted in a great positive in that one book could be on display while the other volume was then available for the names to be written in. Jen did a great job of binding the books in a matching green leather, and made two book boxes which keep the volumes protected and safe when being stored.

ready to startThe names are written in at least twice a year, and we are now into volumes 3 and 4 because some of the pages in the original books are full. For those of you who are calligraphers, the names are written in a pen nib size of 3·5, and the ages in the line underneath in the smaller nib size of 4. I am now on my second sets of nibs after 3,200 names. Before I begin writing in the names I set everything out on a stool as on the right. A well-used kitchen towel protects the stool top, and on this a Chinese jade (coincidentally also green!) pen rest has dips for the two pen nib sizes and a paint brush for mixing the paint. I use a small scientific crucible for the paint, and this has a little lid to pop on top to protect the gouache when I need a break. A small jam jar of water is available for washing the pen nibs frequently, as well as a jar of fresh water and an ink dropper to add water to the paint when it gets a bit sticky. Then, just in case, another jar of clean water, a fine brush, and an electric eraser for the times when I make a mistake. I also always sharpen the nibs before writing; this ensures that the letter-strokes are clean and crisp.

day lily © patricia lovett 2014But all these are the nuts and bolts of what is certainly not a nuts and bolts job. First, it has been absolutely crucial to have a marvellous team at the hospital, especially Kathy Ramsay and Senior Chaplain Jim Linthicum who collate the names and ages, check, check and check again (and some of the names do need a huge amount of checking with combinations of consonants that are very difficult to pronounce), and contact the parents at what must always be a very difficult time to ensure that everything is correct. However, even more than this, it is about the children. Many of us have never been through the incomprehensible and devastating experience of losing a child. When I am writing out the children’s names I think about each and every one – their names and then their ages – those that are only a day or so old; the bigger babies who may be sitting up or even starting to walk; the toddlers talking away and such a cause of enjoyment; children who may have just started school and then growing up, and the teenagers, and even the few in their twenties; all are someone’s child, and the loss must be impossible to bear.
Ben Jonson's poemRecording their names in these wonderful books means that, no matter how short their lives, each child is remembered and is not forgotten. What has always impressed me about Great Ormond Street as well is that the sense that I get from them is the joy and delight of children while they are with us and how valuable that is. The verse of Ben Jonson’s poem, written at the beginning of the first volume (right), does seem to sum it up, and the illustration of a day lily (above) is on the front of the card that was sent to parents.