The good news is neat handwriting isn’t a prerequisite of success with a calligraphy pen, as several leading artists in ink tell Mary Skipwith
Really impress with your festive greetings this year. Top calligraphy artists share their secrets with Mary Skipwith on how to master the ink.
Learn more about the symbols that appear on our Christmas cards year after year. There are few things more synonymous with the season than holly, read holly: it wears the crown. Or angels are integral to our festive traditions, read behold, angels: the origin of angels.
HOW TO LEARN CALLIGRAPHY
Can any other form of communication be as laden with promise or savoured with such anticipation as an envelope elegantly addressed in calligraphy? Spying such correspondence on the doormat provokes a frisson of excitement that the sound of an email notification from your device will never rival. Furthermore, it isn’t just the boast-worthy content – an invitation to a day’s shooting, a drinks party or a wedding – that prompts us to prop it on the mantelpiece. Much of the appeal is in the opportunity to admire the handiwork and artistry, too.
Since the end of the 18th century, when Edward Johnston, widely regarded as the father of modern calligraphy, and artists and designers such as William Morris brought it to wider attention, calligraphy has enjoyed a revival. More recently, high-profile champions of the style, including the Duchess of Sussex, have sparked a further resurgence. In the Middle East and East Asia, it is categorised as ‘high art’, the most superior art form, and consequently is much sought after.
In September, thieves stole a calligraphy scroll by the former Communist leader Mao Zedong from an art collector’s home. It was discovered in Hong Kong a month later but as it had reportedly been mistaken for a fake and deemed too long to display it had been slashed in half, simultaneously inflicting similar damage on its value. As paper cuts go, this was more excruciating than most; it had originally been estimated at £230 million.
To create something of such magnificence may seem beyond capability if you belonged in that category of pupil whose handwriting was compared to a drunken spider by the bristling English teacher. You will appreciate how much effort is required merely to pen something legible and neat. While the word ‘beautiful’ may never have been applied to your inebriated-arachnid scrawl it is integral to calligraphy, a term derived from the Greek words kallos (beauty) and graphein (to write).
However, you may be relieved to hear that neat handwriting and calligraphy don’t go as hand in ink-stained hand as you might think. Allie Mount, a London-based, copperplate calligrapher whose clients have included James Purdey & Sons, admits, “Often people think of calligraphy as just having good handwriting but that really doesn’t come into it at all; it’s more like painting but with letter forms. Many calligraphers have rubbish handwriting in real life.”
Amelia Van Herrewege of Millie Stone Calligraphy in Leicestershire confesses to being one such example. “My normal writing is awful. Fortunately, I have always been very artistic; I remember being exceptionally standard at everything else at school but excelling in art and textiles. But there is no specific skill required when learning modern calligraphy.”
COPPERPLATE AND MODERN
“There are many forms of calligraphy as each artist’s work is unique to them, but they’re generally an adaptation of the basic forms of copperplate and modern calligraphy,” Mount explains.
Copperplate is a traditional style that is structured and requires the employment of specific strokes and varying pressure to form each letter. Modern is more flexible and fluid and allows calligraphers to define their own style. The difference is subtle but obvious to those in the know; it is akin to comparing driven shooting with walked-up.
Jenepher Matts, an Australian who grew up in rural New South Wales but now lives on a farm in Northamptonshire, believes her modern calligraphy is heavily influenced by her affinity with the countryside. “As an artist your surroundings – whether the nature, the people or the history – can inspire the smallest tweaks to your creativity. That’s one of the most special aspects of calligraphy, it’s ever-changing and completely bespoke to each artist. It’s a wonderful thing to walk out your door throughout the year and feel a different mood with the change of the wind.”
When her hands aren’t occupied with reins while following hounds or a rifle or rod in the Highlands, Bryony Daniels (one of The Field’s Sporting Dianas) relishes putting pen to paper. She insists her exquisite work is “just a hobby” but admits she gets asked to write things out from time to time. “I’m not classically trained; I only learnt it as far as prep school gets you. Until about the age of 11 I was taught by a Catholic nun called Sister Francesca in Cambridge. She was completely terrifying but I just loved the classes, which were for an hour once a week. Afterwards I then just picked it up whenever I felt the need and from there I have played about with my own style.”
Such freedom to personalise a style is a benefit Mount also recognises. While she enjoys working on the classic suite of stationery for events and weddings – place cards, invitations, envelopes and table names – she has branched out to include other passions. “I’m currently doing all the signage for someone’s personal wine cellar, which is a particularly interesting commission for me as wine is my other major hobby.”
Similarly, Matts has used the necessity to diversify to her advantage. “Usually in the summer I work on weddings and in the winter I make bespoke items for shoot parties and Christmas. This year, as the wedding season slipped from view as a consequence of the pandemic, I decided to combine my skills and focus on other areas of my business, such as family trees. I also picked up some watercolours and began painting small pictures to go with my calligraphy. I have loved the result, which has now inspired some of my stationery suites, one of which has been featured on Fortnum & Mason’s Instagram page.”
Van Herrewege was initially inspired by typography but as her skill and ideas developed so did her creations. “While I was managing a few interior design showrooms in the county and assisting in our buying trips to London and Paris, I was always most interested in the wall art and banners and the typography signage so I started to make my own. Initially I sold my products to friends and family but once I joined an online marketplace I had people from all over the world asking me for wedding stationery. I have branched out by making a range of personalised items, from Christmas feather baubles to reindeer place cards.”
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
To try your hand at calligraphy you’ll need paper that is thick enough for the ink to sit on top rather than bleed through, a nib and some ink. The tool the nib goes into is called an oblique nib holder, which allows you to write on an italic bias. A straight nib holder can also be used in modern calligraphy. Perhaps the most important requirement is perseverance. “Don’t give up,” encourages Mount. “The first year can be pretty discouraging as you see so much amazing work out there and it’s hard not to compare yourself to artists who have been practising for years. But look to them for inspiration instead of a direct comparison. The whole key to calligraphy is practice, practice, practice. There are no shortcuts, it’s just time and effort. Save bits of your draft work so you have a diary over time of how much you have improved. This always gives a confidence boost when needed.”
Van Herrewege agrees: “I’d suggest to anybody wanting to learn modern calligraphy that practising and getting to grips with your own fluid, unique style is the most important and rewarding part. I started teaching calligraphy workshops last year and it is great to see my attendees practise, learn and improve. Calligraphy is an impressive skill to have for correspondence and one that can easily be learnt at home. I sell modern calligraphy kits, which include a ‘how to’ guide along with all of the materials to work with: a nib, nib holder, ink, practice pad and practice papers.”
Indeed, Matts started with a kit five years ago and since then she has created bespoke stationery for the likes of the former England rugby captain Dylan Hartley. “I have a degree in graphic design but my mother sent me a calligraphy set in the post by chance and I have never looked back. I began by teaching myself with it and through books and videos and now I am a professional calligrapher and teach it through my own kits or classes I host at our farm.
“My husband and I are currently doing up a studio in one of the stables,” Matts continues. “I need to work somewhere that will inspire me every day, so it’s painted in a luxurious pink with treasures from my travels and small knick-knacks, including some Victorian taxidermy, a disco ball, old champagne bottles kept from special occasions (all marked with a calligraphy tag, of course) and bits and pieces from around the farm. I’ve written a note in calligraphy to the next intrepid explorers who take on the farm long after we have gone and hidden it under the floorboards for them to find.”
Daniels hopes her creations will be treasured, too. “I usually write out passages I know the person I am writing to will love, or things I like (mostly Kipling from old books) and then I write the letter on the other side. People don’t write enough with a pen these days and it’s such a wonderful medium. I’ve always written letters, especially to my maternal grandmother, but also to my godchildren, my godmother and to friends as thank yous. I hope people keep them. I’m horribly sentimental and love both the traditional and the beautiful, and old letters are such exquisite things.”
“I love how calligraphy elevates those special moments in life,” muses Mount. “Receiving a hand-calligraphed wedding envelope in the post really makes such a difference to the feel of the event and gets people excited. It provides that extra layer of sophistication and personal touch. A place card that has been done by hand is so much more special than one printed from a computer. And they become beautiful keepsakes. People take them home as a memento of a significant occasion.”
While hunkering down through these winter months, why not try your hand at calligraphy, whether your motivation is to challenge yourself to learn a new skill, to enhance your correspondence or to leave a memento for subsequent generations to treasure. Light the fire, pour a tipple and give it a go. It can’t be as daunting as the prospect I face of embarking on thank you letters to those I have interviewed for this article. I can practically hear the spider stumbling from the wine glass into the ink to limber up.
GETTING IT WRITE
Allie Mount Calligraphy
Amelia Van Herrewege
Millie Stone Calligraphy
Tel: 07891 088980