Having just finished twenty-one new pieces for my forthcoming British Library book (this post is written in July 2023), I decided to re-cover my sloping board – something I do once about every 3-4 years, depending on how dirty it is. As it was so lovely and clean I felt that it might be interesting to show the board and the rest of my workroom. This is the view from the door, and although it looks big, it’s about 2 metres by 3·5 metres. However, don’t think that I’m complaining that it’s small! I know how very lucky I am to have a dedicated workroom when most people have to share their working space within another room, as I did for very many years. My chair in front of the board is padded with two flat cushions and stools are to hand on the right to put completed work or a computer, or texts just written. Note also how close my chair is to the sink on the left.
So, the room tour. Directly to the left of the door are large cardboard tubes. Most of these are from vellum skins sent from William Cowley, but the large one at the back right is from work I did for the Damian Hirst ‘s exhibition held in Venice – ‘Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable’. To the immediate left are red tubes of tracing paper for large projects. The tubes are useful not only for storing large sheets of paper but also for sending large artworks to those who have commissioned pieces. Now, however, I work mostly on vellum, and so large pieces are stretched over board requiring a different delivery system, and so these tubes are a bit redundant, somehow, though, I can’t bring myself to throw them away!
On the work surface to the right of the tubes are swans’ and Canadian goose feathers ready to be cut into quills. It may look like quite a lot for one scribe but most are waiting for workshops I teach on ‘Quills and Calligraphy’. I also don’t cure feathers with heat – sand or a Dutching tool and an iron. I find that feathers cure themselves by just being left to dry naturally as I’m sure happened in mediæval and Renaissance times. It was only with the rise of literacy and growth of empires and the need for records that more and more pens were needed and the curing process had to be speeded up that heat was needed.
Above that are cupboards of books and supplies. This is the first cupboard. At the bottom left is a small folder bursting with papers. These are quotations, poems and prose that I’ve collected over many years and which I write out to give to friends or for my own use. Occasionally someone will ask me if I’ve got something suitable for an occasion and it may be in here or in one of the books to the right which focus on important stages in life – birth, marriage and death mainly. Above that are various books by other calligraphers – it’s always useful to see what the competition is up to. And above that books on Latin, Chaucer, and various reference books to use in my work.
Under that cupboard is a new piece on vellum waiting to be sent to the person who commissioned it. I hope to be able to do a blogpost about this in the future as it was a really interesting artwork to do. Behind that is a strip of lead to be made into lead points to show to classes and for them to use. And at the back, to the right is oak gall ink getting nicely black. Oh and more books!
Below that, all along the work surface are even more books! Book shelves in the house are completely full, so are the cupboards here. I also have my own books here which I also use for reference – not everything stays in mind and so it’s helpful to look things up. In front of the books is a new box of Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache to use in photographs for the new book. They really are the best paints to use for writing and for painting. There’s more about them and mixing colours from the two reds, two blues, and two yellows here.
There’s a small sink just behind where I sit, completely reachable by simply swivelling round in my seat. I cleaned it up specially for this photo! It’s usually covered with ink and colour and not a pretty sight. To the right of the sink is a pot with old toothbrushes in it ready to brush the nibs clean. To the side and behind the sink are clean little jars up-ended and ready to fill with water for washing brushes when painting or to add to gouache to dilute it for writing and painting. It isn’t shown here but the tap is this side of the sink just to the left again for ease of use.
On to the window sill there’s clean paper towels for wiping nibs and reservoirs dry so they don’t rust, and tubes of Schmincke gouache ready to use. There are too many tubes to store neatly but I know where each tube is in that pile and usually just need to reach my hand out to grab the one I want.
Further along the window sill is a pot of quills already cut just waiting to be used. The nibs of all of these will have separated into two halves. This is not a disaster! The strength of a feather is when it is complete, cutting into it weakens it. However, popping the quill into a jar of water for an hour or so brings the two tines together ready for use and doesn’t soften the nib.
Below the window sill and just to the left of the seat is a trolley of already mixed (but now dried) small palettes and crucibles of paint, jars of black ink, and ink droppers to add water to paint (never use a brush dipped in clean water as the quantity can’t be controlled). Good quality gouache will last in this dry state with water added when it needs to be used. At the front right are pen holders, the green one in the shape of a dragon, and an Arkansas stone to sharpen nibs. As a right-hander, everything is to my left so that I can easily fill pens with ink and paint with my left hand, and then not take a fully charged pen over where I’ve just written. I did think to clean this up a little before this post, but it’s how I work and so I left it!
Then, proud moment here, my clean new board. This is flat whereas it would usually be at a slope of about 45°. It’s a large board with its own stand with a sloping rule, ideal for drawing the many lines calligraphers need to do. A pad of white paper completely covers the board, and then a fold of paper (fold at the top) goes right across bottom part of the board held at a slight tension, so that the writing paper can go to the right and left, and up and down, and doesn’t slip. The writing paper or vellum isn’t attached anywhere because it needs to be at a comfortable writing level which is usually when the hand is about the same level as the shoulder. The shadow is a large light fitted with daylight bulbs so it gives the truest light. The window, which is another source of light, is of course, for a right-hander on my left so that my hand doesn’t create a shadow where I’m writing and painting.
To the right of the board are all the tools I need for painting and writing. At the back on the left is a long metal straight edge for cutting paper and skin of large pieces, and to the left, in the front, are erasers in a little muller, behind that a tiny jar of pounce, and behind that little bags of sandarac in a shallow pot. Magic tape, used pretty much all the time to attach lines on roughs and best pieces is to the left of a hygrometer which indicates the humidity for illumination. And behind that are scissors, dividers, pens, brushes, paste and wash brushes etc. To the right of the storage pots are large knives for cutting vellum.
At the back of the table to the right is a plastic folder which holds set squares. One side of all of these has a metal edge for cutting (don’t cut using a set square without a metal edge as the knife is bound to cut into the plastic and ruin the straight edge). It is easy to stand up from my board and simply reach over for these. In front of them is a magnifying glass on its own stand for working on tiny paintings.
All sit on a variety of sizes of cutting mats. Of course, everything has to be moved off if I want to use the larger one, so I must admit that I usually use the medium sized one and just slide the paper/skin along. This isn’t the best or most efficient and it really would be more sensible simply to move stuff off!
A relatively new addition, recommended by my son-in-law who is an excellent photographer, is this flat table and two powerful lights (not the the Anglepoise to the right which has a different purpose) to take good quality photographs of my work, and the camera I use (far too old but I don’t know what new one to get – I’m far from an expert!) is at the back. On the table is a card with gesso at various mixes, and an experiment of shell gold on vellum written with a quill just to make sure that the treatment I was going to give for the actual skin produced the best result.
The last of the ‘tour’ are rolls of vellum (and one of paper to the left). It is better to take the relatively tightly rolled skins out of the tube they are sent in so that the roll is much looser; this then makes it easier to cut large and small pieces from the skin. In front of the rolls are smaller pieces of vellum in a clear plastic folder, some far too small to use but somehow I think they may be handy for something. I used to make vellum size from them for making gesso but now I use fish glue (Seccotine). This is a bit of a dark corner so the Anglepoise lamp is there to add light when selecting the skins.
And a last tantalising look at how the sloping board is at the moment (July 2023). These are the twenty-one new pieces of artwork with stage-by-stage of how they were done for the ‘Art of the Scribe’ book to be published Spring 2024 by the British Library. It is an information book about seven selected writing styles – the ones most commonly used by calligraphers –and also a practical section for each script of three graded pieces with detailed instructions on how to do them. You’ll have to wait until the book is published to see what’s in those folders!