Learning Index >> Calligraphy: an education in letter form

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Edward Johnston

Through much of these early months of experiment Johnston is preoccupied with working out an alphabet for himself to use. Looking again at C86.13 and C86.17, you might list the differences between the letter shapes he is using. For instance in C86.17 'a' is now closer to our normal printed 'a'. 'b' has a sloped ascender, it leans forward, 'd' is now upright, 'f' is essentially the same but without a curling foot, the 'g' is totally different.

In between writing C86.13 and C86.17 Johnston had made a study of the hand in the Book of Kells that was reproduced in Strange's Alphabets plates 13 and 14 and also a study of the seventh century Anglo Saxon hand that was Strange's Pl. 15. (See C86.16 for Johnston's study). In making his new plainish script Johnston has carried the influence of these studies forward, adopting the flat pen angle of the Kells example and copying some of the letter shapes such as the 'b'. Perhaps also the increased contrast between thick and thin strokes which results from a flat pen angle made this visually appealing to him.

C86.17 was written on the 3rd of October 1898. On Oct. 7th Johnston took this piece along to show Lethaby. Johnston records in his diary that Lethaby was not impressed and criticised it as affected and needing much simplification (e.g. b).

It was at this point that Lethaby took Johnston's future education in calligraphy firmly in hand and introduced him to Sir Sydney Cockerell. Cockerell had been secretary to William Morris. For the rest of 1898 Johnston's diary records frequent meetings and correspondence with Cockerell. The most important thing Cockerell did was to accompany Johnston on visits to the manuscript room in the British Library, where he showed him first hand examples of calligraphy. He also lent him manuscripts from his own collection and showed him William Morris's manuscripts and gave him samples of printing from the Kelmscott press.

The effect of seeing these manuscripts is instantly apparent in Johnston's work - it reinforces for us the importance of seeing good examples of original writing. C86.20, dated 5-7 November 1898, is a first exercise in a new hand. Johnston notes it is an amalgam of English seventh century, Italian thirteenth century and Morris influences. It represents a huge leap forward. This is the first time that Johnston's writing begins to grow organically from close study of the manuscript tradition of which this writing now feels an authentic part. Look at the words lent him by. The letters are evenly spaced, notice their terminations at the foot of h and m and the top of l and h . But something else has happened, Johnston is now observing space, not just the black lines of the letters. It is the evenly distributed space within the words lent by him which makes the words visually attractive and harmonious. From now on Johnston's letters will have a unity of form or family likeness from one alphabet to another.

Related form or family likeness is a key concept in contemporary calligraphy, even amongst innovative calligraphers, such as the American calligrapher Thomas Ingmire, who deliberately break the normative relationships. When analyzing related form in lower case letters key features to look at include the underlying pattern of curves, serif treatment, and letter branching (the shape of the arch and height on the letter stem that it springs from). Related form is a concept that is also crucial in Arabic calligraphy. For examples of how Johnston's calligraphy increasingly came to embody his concepts of sharpness unity and freedom see C86.26 written in January 1899, and C75.2 from 1911.

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