Tag Archives: lettering

Trajan’s Column

IMG_0299We have been fortunate enough to visit Rome in Italy a few times and on each occasion I make a pilgrimage to Trajan’s Forum intending to see if I can view the lettering at the base of the column. But every single time the Forum has been closed for renovations and as the lettering is on the side of the column facing into the Forum, the lettering has been impossible to see!




IMG_0313I want to see the lettering up close because it’s regarded as one of the very best examples of Square Roman Capitals. The column was erected to celebrate Trajan’s victories in the Dacian (present-day Romania) wars between 101 and 106 AD and was completed in 113 AD. It is thought that the architect was Apollodorus of Damascus. The victories of Trajan were significant. It’s estimated that he brought back half a million pounds-worth of gold and a million pounds of silver.


IMG_0308The column is simply magnificent – it’s 98 feet (30 metres) tall, but when the pedestal is taken into account it’s even taller at 115 feet (35 metres), and consist of 20 drums of Carrara marble placed one above the other. Winding round the column is a 620 feet (190 metre) frieze with carvings of the wars between the Romans and Dacians. There are 155 scenes with 2,662 individual figures and they have even been used as an historical source for the clothes worn at the time.



The inside of the column is hollow and there is a spiral staircase winding to the top; there are narrow rectangular windows placed around the column to give light to this staircase which can just about be detected (there’s one just to the right of the arch almost in the centre of the top visible spiral, and then another beneath it three spirals down. In 1787 the German poet Goethe climbed to the 185 steps to the top to ‘enjoy that incomparable view’. Placed on the platform there  was a bronze statue of Trajan but this was removed by Pope Sixtus V in 1588 and replaced by a statue of St Peter.


IMG_0258So there we were last month on our first morning, looking at Trajan’s Column and I happened to spot that the gate to Trajan’s Forum, which had always been firmly padlocked before, was open and it was possible to go down steps to the Forum. There was a kiosk selling tickets – it was open! We immediately bought tickets and I turned hoping to be able to stand in front of the column to view the lettering only to find this section was roped off and thus inaccessible! Without any Italian I tried to explain that I have visited Rome and each time been disappointed by Trajan’s Forum being closed as I really wanted to see the lettering at the base of the column. They very kindly lifted the rope and I was able to realise a long held dream of standing in front of the column and gazing at the lettering. The sun on the letters brought them in to sharp relief and it was such a privilege and thrill to view this panel of exquisitely cut letters that had eluded me for so long.

IMG_0262They really are magnificent! And the sun light added to the exhilaration. The letters also looked so fresh despite the fact that they are two thousand years old. At this point I do have to acknowledge that whoever it was who made the decision to cut into the inscription to allow for the roof of a porch to be built deserves every punishment they should get!

IMG_0265Standing at the base of the column and looking up the letters look very regular and even, but the top row of letters is considerably larger than the lowest row to allow for perspective – the Romans knew about this even then!



IMG_0270Each letter is so precisely cut and is a fitting tribute to the victor of the wars. And yes, if we go back to Rome, I shall indeed on the first day make my way back to Trajan’s Forum to view the lettering, though I may not be able to persuade the ticket seller to let me cross the barrier again!


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.


Art and History of Calligraphy

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





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


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




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






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





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




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





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





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




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





MacDonald Gill’s Westminster maps

photo 6Going in to the House of Commons through St Stephen’s Porch you pass two huge and magnificent wall maps painted by MacDonald Gill. On the left-hand side is a plan of the Houses of Parliament (see right) and on the right-hand side is a map of ‘The Cities of London and Westminster’ – see below.



photo 8The plan is surrounded by wonderful coats of arms of British royalty, and it is interesting to follow the changes over the centuries in the shields of the kings and queens of Britain. This one (right) for Charles II, for example, has the lion of Scotland in the second quarter (top right), and the harp of Ireland in the third quarter. But in the first and fourth quarters, England is represented not only by the ‘leopards of England’ (lions passant guardant) but also by the fleur-de-lis of France, even though England lost all French land in 1558. The fleur-de-lis remained part of the coat of arms of the United Kingdom, and thus represented the claim to the French throne by the English monarch, until 1801, even though by this time there was no French throne as the country was a republic!

photo 9MacDonald Gill, Max, was the brother of the more famous letter cutter, letter designer and sculptor, Eric Gill, Both studied with Master Calligrapher Edward Johnston at the beginning of the last century, and this is shown well in Max’s strong and lively letter-forms – see right – from the Houses of Parliament map. Here the lettering varies from flourished capitals, compressed capitals and a formal minuscule style, with a delightful addendum in Italic where perhaps the text didn’t quite fit!

photo 5The map of the cities (see right) is particularly attractive, and fits the rather unusual shape well. (The maps are on the walls flanking a flight of stone steps.) The map itself is very detailed, and there are also a number of very well-designed heraldic shields representing the boroughs that make up the cities, balancing the arms of royalty on the opposite wall.



photoUp close and personal to the map it is easy to appreciate the detail and sheer artistry of Max’s hand. Buildings are drawn out in 3-D, with scrolls naming the most important. However, up close and personal it is rather worrying to see the obvious cracking of the paint.



photo 3The vibrant shield of Camberwell, shows two wells in the first and fourth quarters – the most important in heraldry. The second quarter (top right) represents Dulwich and so the chevron and cinquefoils from the arms of Edward Alleyn, who was the founder of Dulwich College, were adopted. And lastly, in the third quarter, the lion from the arms of Robert, Earl of Gloucester, represent Peckham, as the Earl was lord of this manor in the twelfth century.




photo 2That for Chelsea is equally lively. The crozier in the centre represents Westminster Abbey which used to hold the borough. The bull in the first quarter (top left) is the symbol of St Luke who is the patron saint of the borough. The white lion in the second quarter is from the arms of the first mayor, Earl Cadogan. The boars’ heads and sword are from the Sloane family, and the stag’s head is from the Stanley arms – both former holders of the manor.

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.



Are columns always straight?

Columns at the British LibraryColumns have been used for thousands of years to make impressive porches over significant buildings, or to record something important, such as Trajan’s or Nelson’s Columns, and the impression is that if they weren’t straight we would notice. However, if you look really carefully at columns, such as these from the British Museum, you’ll see that they have a very slight bulge just below half way.


Temple of Vesta, Rome


Parthenon in Athens







This is, of course, not new. This shape for columns was also used for those on the Parthenon in Athens (left). The columns on the beautiful Temple of Vesta in Rome (right), have a similar slight bulging just below half way. It is more difficult to make this out, though, with the railings in the foreground and the metal supports to the columns.

Pantheon in Rome


More obvious perhaps are the columns at the front of the Pantheon in Rome, the temple to all gods. Let your eye focus on the black space between the columns and it may be easier to make this out.



This shaping is called entasis, and is defined as the slight convexity of the column shaft which is introduced to correct the visual illusion of concavity. If the brain believed what the eye was telling it, without entasis the building would look as if it could not be supported by the columns.

lettering by Michael HarveyNow the space between the columns is the ‘counter space’, and this shape is thus slightly concave, going in just above halfway down. This is the shape that most good letterers use in their downstrokes. In drawn letters, this is quite easy to see as here. In this alphabet by Michael Harvey the swelling on the downstroke of the outlined letter B is quite obvious, so, too, is the increased width at the base of the outline stroke on the downstroke of the letter N. However, this shape to the downstrokes can also be seen quite clearly in the smaller letters in the black alphabet.


Letter F in British Library manuscript



This letter-shape was also used in mediaeval manuscripts. The downstroke (or minim as used by academics) of the Lombardic Capital letter F here in this British Library manuscript shows distinct signs of swelling at the top and bottom of the double stroke. (Note, too, the slight discolouration of the vermilion pigment at the top and on the right-hand stroke.)



Peter Thornton calligraphyIn Calligraphy, when using a broad-edged nib to make just one downstroke rather than those above which use two or more strokes, the technique is called ‘pressure-release-pressure’. So there is pressure on the pen to start the downstroke, this is then slightly released just above half way between the guidelines for x-height, and then pressure is applied again nearer the base guideline. British calligrapher Peter Thornton, now living in the US, is one of the best practitioners of this technique (see above right). It is, though, one that can be learned and applied after practice, and it does make a great deal of difference to how letters look. If you’ve not tried it before, then why not get out your pen and have a go?

Here lies the beautifully lettered gravestone …

Langar 3It is rare to get a whole batch of beautiful gravestones, and even rarer to be able to spot the hand of real craftspeople at work. This is clearly the case in the graveyard of St Andrew’s Church in Langar, Nottinghamshire. The church is a Grade I listed building, and is quite wonderful inside, and large, too, for a small country parish. But nowhere on all the records of the church does it mention these wonderful stones, such as the one on the right. Carved in slate, the lettering is still as crisp as they were when first made. This one to William James is dated 1809, and although it has little text, the decorative surrounding is quite wonderful. A grieving woman tugs on a rope or swash from an urn, and this is balanced on the right hand side by the same swash being caught up on the branch of a tree.

Gravestone from Langar Church

This early gravestone dated 1720, some 80 years before the one above, is not quite so fine. Here a rather Chinese-looking sad cherub spreads its wings with wonderfully carved feathers to protect Anne James, who died when she was only 42. The curly letters in the words of ‘Here’ and ‘James’ contrast with the fairly restrained lettering of the rest of the gravestone, but see how the letter carver has had a bit of fun by extending the serifs into spirals on some of the ascenders, such as the l of lies, and the B and d of Body in the first line.



Gravestone at Langar ChurchThis one from 1730 is very interesting, and again not of the same quality as some of the later others. I did tweet about this soon after we had visited the church (follow me on Twitter) as I find it so interesting. This, too, has a delightfully sad angel at the top, with eyes this time that are remarkably similar to those in the Lindisfarne Gospels. There is a great deal to learn from this stone about forward planning and the need to sketch something out to resolve any design issues before you start. So in the larger capitals at the top, there are conventional abbreviations and contractions with the letter e tucked into the v of the y to make ye, the letters h and e conjoined in he, and a slightly smaller letters at the end of the second and third lines. But what happens towards the bottom? Choosing that size of lettering has meant that the letter cutter has not had room to complete the lines, and so the remaining one or two words in each line have been squashed above or below. Charming though it is, it really doesn’t work!

Gravestone at Langar ChurchBut this one certainly does! A wonderfully vibrant and lively border of swags, foliage and flowers really draw the eye in rather than distract from the lettering. The exuberantly flourished H of Here at the top contrasts with the second line, and the third again with the fourth. The advantage of planning is also shown at the base where the four lines of lettering sit neatly within the left and right borders, although the last two lines have slightly smaller words, but this doesn’t detract from the overall feel. And we have a name! W Barnes was the sculptor. This is rare indeed to have this information.


Langar 5And the high standard continues. It seems that W Barnes had a workshop where he was able to pass on his skills. The name Wood has been carved near the base on the right of this later stone of 1810. The unusual curved lettering, sitting neatly into the flourishes or just underneath contrasts with the conventional straight lines of the rest of the citation. It is likely that the gravestone was carved in one hit, even though Richard died just a few days short of a year after his wife, but it is interesting to see the two ways in which his named has been carved, once in Copperplate and the second time in Small capitals.


Graveyards can be a rich source of inspiration for letterers when they include stones as fine as these.