This year the Society of Scribes is celebrating its 40th anniversary. It was founded by a small group of practicing scribes who wished to share their enthusiasm for calligraphy with a wider public by offering workshops and lectures on the history of the lettering and book arts. Following Donald Jackson’s landmark lectures in New York City, SoS offered a dazzling array of workshops and seminars in almost every historical script imaginable.
Renaissance Italic, Roman Capitals, Bookhand, and Carolingian headed the list of classes that newcomers flocked to. Shortly thereafter members were introduced to a rich palette of luscious, exotic Blackletter alphabets, along with the more eccentric regional hands such as Luxeuil and Beneventan Minuscule. By the early 80s pointed pen alphabets began to make their mark, attracting other members who were content to work in a more contemporary mode, while others were thrilled to journey through time to study and put to use long-forgotten scripts.
Recent years have witnessed an unprecedented interest and super-charged enthusiasm for pointed pen in all its variations. This is a welcome development in the light of increasing technology which has caused some to declare an end to the age of handwriting. What makes it more pleasing is the fact that in most guilds and at the national conferences there appears to be an increase in the younger generation exploring our art.
But it also seems that with a few exceptions, such as Blackletter variants in the hands of a Julian Waters or Luca Barcellona, interest in the historical scripts has waned considerably since the halcyon days of the 70s and 80s. This is a shame, because familiarity with these alphabets goes a long way to creating interesting, arresting designs that attract a reader’s attention and lead to a desire to know more about these scripts. And when called upon to write out a text from a particular historical period it may be more appropriate to render the text in a style of writing peculiar to that time, or at least with a modernized version as Sheila Waters so brilliantly executed Carolingian in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood. I can recall passing the Morgan Pierpont Library and seeing with delight Alice’s blazing, authoritative banners heralding a particular exhibition, sometimes in a scintillating Batarde, sometimes in a majestic Uncial, always conveying the right flavor.
This term SoS is offering a most unusual, rather esoteric script, Visigothic Versals, the alphabet of 8th and 9th century Spain. At first glance one is struck by the strange, slightly weird, sometimes wacky forms. Upon closer scrutiny, however, one comes to see the incredible imagination and exuberance of this alphabet, and how winsomely they have been applied by the instructor Risa Gettler in her childrens’ books. Indeed, in that context they convey a child-like innocence that imparts a greater liveliness than the texts might otherwise have had if they were written in, say, Italic or Bookhand. An unfamiliar script may also slow the reader’s pace, resulting in a greater concentration on the words and the text’s meaning. This actually happened to me several years ago, when I was commissioned to write out the opening lines of the St John’s Gospel. The client chose a highly personal, quite eccentric version of Gothicized Italic, stating that the elaborate forms caused him to slow his reading speed and to focus on the content. And remember Edward Johnston’s admonition to his students to “think about the words.”
No less a compelling reason to study antique scripts is that they provide building blocks for the creation of new and unique, personalized versions of familiar alphabets. Once you have attained the understanding and ability to execute traditional styles, you may then start to experiment with various elements of different scripts and synthesize them into something new and exotic. So, for example, you may apply one of the quirkier elements of a Visigiothic Versal to the solid structure of a Roman or Uncial form, and develop something quite unexpected and attractive. This brings us into the realm of calligraphic playing, a time no less valuable than concentrated, disciplined study. So, for example, examining a truly bizarre lettering style, Luxeuil Minuscule, the precursor of Carolingian, that looks rather like a plate of spaghetti randomly tossed into the air, has a verve and texture that can be applied to quickly rendered gestural strokes resulting in an unusual and visually arresting composition. This is not to imply that the process is always easy or a guaranteed success, but it does expand the field of creativity.
Way back in the 90s a wave of expressionist, abstract calligraphy began to seduce scribes and other practitioners of the broad-edged pen. For all the razzle-dazzle it was often apparent who had a solid foundation and understanding of classic letterforms — and who did not. Not even the most bravura strokes and bold applications of color could mask the weaknesses and flaws in these designs, but those who knew their traditional forms understood how to break the rules and succeed in creating something new and dramatic.
So, the next time you attend a cocktail party whip out a marker and write the guests’ names in Schwabacher Fraktur or Merovingian Minuscule. Not only will you delight and fascinate your friends, but you may wind up with a contract for the next remake of 10,000 BC.
—Article by Barry Morentz; Visigothic Versals by Risa Gettler