The History of Calligraphy

Example of Ronde calligraphyAt the risk of being assaulted by a sharpened nib, may I just say that we don't need to do calligraphy these days. Word (other word processors are available!) has a pretty comprehensive list of different typefaces to choose from, and scanners and photocopiers make reproducing ancient manuscripts a doddle. But despite these modern conveniences, hand-lettered calligraphy shows no signs whatsoever of being relegated to the status of slate-writing. Why? Well, talk to any keen calligrapher (and they are legion) and they'll tell you that it has nothing to do with need and everything to do with desire.

And before we leave the subject of computers with their rather good typography and selection of typefaces, why did they get them in the first place? Well, Windows had to have good typography because the Macintosh had good typography. And the Macintosh had good typography because Steve Jobs had loved a calligraphy class he took where he learned all about what made lettering look good, and what made it readable. His love of calligraphy led to us all having great lettering at our fingertips.

Example of Gothic calligraphyBut the art (and it is an art) of calligraphy is as old as humankind, which is pretty old. If you want to get right down to it, it originated from the days when ancient man needed to indicate to another ancient man - by scraping signs on a handy rock - as to where the fattest mammoths were grazing. But decorative lettering - calligraphy, which comes from the Greek words kallos (beauty) and graphein (to write) - probably originated around 600BC in Rome, with the advent of the Latin alphabet. Over the following few centuries, it developed into three different types: Imperial Capitals, which were carved on stones; Rustic Capitals, which were painted on walls; and Roman Cursive, which was for everyday use. These in turn developed into what's known as 'Uncial' (or Onciale) lettering, a rounded script which monks used for copying the Bible and other religious texts in order to preserve their content.

Example of Onciale calligraphyIn the 9th Century, Uncial was replaced with Carolingian, developed under the reign of the Emperor Charlemagne. The letters were still relatively rounded, but were spaced further apart and made everything much easier to read (for those who could read, of course). A couple of hundred years later, Gothic took over, and dominated the Middle Ages. Narrow and angular, it allowed more words to be fitted onto a page, so it was environmentally-friendly - particularly in a time when paper was very hard to produce in large quantities. And when the printing press was invented in 1454 it became the first typeface!

The Renaissance saw arguably more beautiful lettering, as you'd expect of an era that placed so much importance on literature and the arts. The rather rigid confines of precision lettering gave way in Italy to the curlicues, flourishes and flowing lines of Chancery and Italics, which spawned the Ronde in France and Copperplate in England (the name of which originates from etching letters into copper).

Example of Anglaise calligraphyAnd all the myriad forms of calligraphy over the centuries have evolved into what we know these days as 'modern calligraphy', which is essentially a bit of a free-for-all. Calligraphers take the 'rules' of calligraphy and break or bend them to create their own particular styles, which is basically what calligraphers have been doing for centuries. But the modern world has to wave its arms about at some point, and rather than current technology killing the art stone dead, it's enabled the creation of beautiful lettering to become accessible to more and more people. There's no longer any need to search out woad and cochineal and grind pigments to make ink, or whittle away on a piece of wood to create a nib holder, or do a bit of ancient smithying to fashion a nib (not to mention spend days making paper…) Thanks to the faith of long-established manufacturers such as Diamine, Manuscript, Brause and Herbin, there is now a mass of brilliant calligraphy kit out there, from a host of different types of nibs and nib holders, several thousand gallons of ink in myriad colours and a stack of top notch paper.

Calligraphy has been around for over two and a half thousand years. And if Instagram, greetings card manufacturers, artists, illustrators and appreciators of beauty have anything to do with it, it'll be around for another few millennia. Good-oh!

9 August 2019

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