Celebrate Calligraphy – The 90th Anniversary Exhibition of the SSI

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Celebrate Calligraphy – The 90th Anniversary Exhibition of the SSI

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Introduction to the catalogue
The Celebrate Calligraphy exhibition marks the 90th Anniversary of the founding of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators.

At the turn of the 20th century, Edward Johnston began reviving the practice of formal penmanship, and in 1921 his early students founded a society that aimed to promote and advance high standards of craftsmanship in writing and illuminating. These aims remain at the forefront of the Society today. From the beginning, Members, later Craft Members and now Fellows, were elected by their peers on the standard of their workmanship and ability to interpret and express their ideas using calligraphy and illumination in a contemporary manner. Exhibition of work remains the pathway to election. In 1952, the SSI introduced Lay Membership and gained a body of people who support and advance calligraphy and illumination at all levels. Works by both Fellows and Lay Members have been selected for this exhibition.

In 1921, modern calligraphy was relatively in its infancy. Edward Johnston had come to an understanding of the fundamental importance of the edged pen; this being a metal nib or the traditional quill cut so that it has a square edge to it rather than a point. The edged pen makes a line that is sometimes thick and sometimes thin, and influences the shape and style of the letters in the way it is held and used. It makes possible a consistency, a degree of control and a formality that is harder to achieve with other writing tools.

History affirms that it is the right person given the right opportunity at the right time that makes all the difference. Before Johnston, the Victorians had largely lost the skills to produce good edged-pen letters such as those used in the best historical manuscripts of Great Britain and Western Europe. Much had been done with a pointed pen to make outlines that were then drawn and filled in to imitate medieval lettering. William Morris was practicing calligraphy with some degree of understanding and although he was an important forerunner to Johnston in his ethos and approach, it was Johnston who really began to understand the detail of how an edged pen works. He realised how important the edged pen has been in the development of western lettering as the primary tool for writing scripts derived from Roman inscriptional letters and used in the making of Western European manuscripts.

In 1899 Johnston began teaching calligraphy in London at the new Central School of Arts and Crafts in Holborn at the invitation of its Principal, W.R. Lethaby, a friend and contemporary of William Morris. Earlier, Lethaby had seen Johnston's early efforts at calligraphy and recognised his potential. He introduced Johnston to Sydney Cockerell, who for a while was private secretary to William Morris and later Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Cockerell was an acknowledged authority on manuscripts and took Johnston to see significant medieval manuscripts in the British Library, which later became the basis for Johnston's own study and his teaching. He also helped Johnston to see that the manuscripts were connected by history and by practical and theoretical traditions.

Lethaby realised the wider relevance of the study of calligraphy, or 'writing', as he called it, and said in his Editor’s preface to Johnston's book, Writing & Illuminating & Lettering, first published in 1906 and still in print today: "...we do need a basis of training in a demonstrably useful art, and I doubt if any is so generally fitted for the purpose of educating the hand, the eye, and the mind as this one of WRITING' (The Artistic Crafts Series of Technical Handbooks: Writing & Illuminating & Lettering, page xi, Pitman 1927 edition).

The result of Lethaby’s vision and confidence in Johnston was that, by the middle of the 20th Century, most art schools in Britain included calligraphy in their syllabus and even those students who specialised in other disciplines spent some time learning calligraphic skills. Johnston's book was translated into German in 1910 by one of his students, Anna Simons, and his influence spread with similar impact in that country too. That was only the beginning. One of the latest languages into which the book has been translated is Japanese, a culture with a long tradition of its own calligraphy but relatively new to western calligraphy. Japanese calligraphers are discovering, embracing and interpreting Johnston's work for themselves. Calligraphy was to become much more than simply a 'useful subject' to use as a training tool for students in other disciplines. Calligraphy and lettering was soon a valid and equal discipline alongside that of painting, printing, sculpture and other mainstream disciplines. Johnston and his students, who in turn trained others, influenced the understanding and design of public and commercial lettering throughout the 20th century, continuing into the 21st century. The London Underground signage, major carved lettering commissions and good type faces in everyday use still bear witness to Edward Johnston and those he taught, including Eric Gill.

Sadly, since the 1960s, calligraphy is no longer an integral part of the art school curriculum. However, it remains an option at Reigate School of Art, Design and Media, which has for a long time trained students in calligraphy, heraldry and illumination. Ann Camp set up Diploma courses at Roehampton Institute of Higher Education to address the need for serious full-time study of Calligraphy that also included disciplines of drawing and bookbinding. Many of today's prominent calligraphy and lettering artists were trained there during the more than 30 years that the courses ran. This is continued now in Sunderland University's Foundation Degree in Calligraphy with Design delivered at Kensington Palace. The SSI has its own Calligraphy Correspondence Course based upon methods that have as their root Johnston’s understanding and teaching.

For Johnston, calligraphy was far from being simply a revival of an old craft. He himself said in a letter to Sydney Cockerell that "the ideal came - to make living letters with a formal pen”. His daughter Priscilla adds: "Living letters - that was the key" (p88 Edward Johnston by Priscilla Johnston, Faber and Faber 1959). On a fundamental level, well-designed letterforms that are beautifully spaced and arranged are easily legible and can be used to communicate a message effectively. But the shape of those letters, their size, arrangement and style of delivery can be manipulated had infinitum to convey specific or general messages of mood, impression and emotion. A page of handwritten letters has a spirit and energy beyond technical skill that is not replicated in even the finest typeset page.

Whether calligraphy is an 'art' or a ‘craft' continues to ignite controversial debate. The handwritten letter reflects its maker and the message that the maker wants to consciously or unconsciously reveal. Calligraphy is no different from any work made by hand in two dimensional or three dimensional conventional art forms. The action and result of the tool and medium upon the surface of the paper, vellum, wood or stone depends upon the skilled technical and intellectual judgement of the maker, described succinctly by the term 'craftsmanship’. To become embroiled in or inhibited the need to define calligraphy as 'art' or 'craft’ is to miss the point. Memorable pieces of any kind of craft or art work take the viewer beyond the physical mark s to a world of understanding and imagination that feeds the soul and elevates life to a higher level.

A joint Crafts Council exhibition with the V&A running from September 2011 to January 2012 shows this perfectly, as the highest standard of 'traditional' craft-made works are exhibited alongside those made as a result of the newest technological advancements. All the exhibits in Power of Making are united by their direct dependence upon the outstanding abilities of the makers. They cross any boundaries of 'art' and ‘craft' because they do not seek to be in either camp, that is not their purpose. They aim to be the best they can possibly be and to push every boundary as the makers work to achieve their highest levels of skill. Arguably this happens when self-consciousness is set aside for the sake of that which is being made and the purpose to which it may be put. This communicates itself to the user or the viewer by challenging the imagination and creating a sense of wonder.

The highest standard of calligraphy, illumination and applied lettering can create a similar sense of wonder but its integrity and value can be compromised by those who require it to conform to trends and fashions. When the ego of the maker and their striving to be 'modern’ is more important than that which is being made, integrity is lost. Much of the work in this exhibition is indeed influenced by current visual language and expectations but has not been made for the sake of that, even though it has all been completed within the last four years. If work from 90 years ago by the first SSI members were exhibited in Celebrate Calligraphy, their pieces might look somewhat dated in comparison. But what the work from 1921 and the work in 2011 shares and reflects is a common understanding of the importance of content, shape, form and space. How that is expressed is influenced by the times and by contemporary thinking and visual trends, but the underlying root remains the same.

For Edward Johnston an important part of that root came from the historical sources he studied. It is a common misunderstanding that he advocated that historical scripts be copied precisely and unquestioningly, but that was not Johnston's stance. Good historical scripts are starting points to be intelligently analysed as part of the learning process and then lead to a personal interpretation that can be used in ways contemporary to the user. Therefore, although most of the letterforms used in these new pieces of work in the exhibition are likely to have their origin in historical letterforms, they are not rigid copies that merely seek to preserve the past as the ideal to be replicated. Calligraphy at its best acknowledges and celebrates the value of the past and, at the same time, looks to discover ways in which history can be interpreted as a spring board for the future. Those who acknowledge Johnston's influence and return to the source of his work rather than copy the work he or his followers made, develop original and creative ideas for themselves.

Why is this exhibition called 'Celebrate' Calligraphy? 90 years is a long human lifespan and that is in itself worth celebrating. But what this exhibition shows is that calligraphy is still certainly alive to be celebrated and shows no sign of imminent demise. The V&A, with support from the SSI, is running a six-month residency in Calligraphy in 2012 in order to enable a calligrapher to engage with the V&A’s collection and with the wider public. The museum already holds a significant collection of 20th and 21st century calligraphy and lettering, including works by many of those who founded the SSI. However, the brief for the residency is that the appointed calligrapher works with any aspect of the V&A’s vast collection that inspires and excites them to explore creative ideas and make new work of a high professional standard.

In the works on display in Celebrate Calligraphy, it is clear that the traditional vehicle of words and illumination on paper and vellum, as a clear and beautiful means of communication, is still very much in use. Prominently though, there are works showing an innovative use of calligraphy and applied lettering that excites and stirs the imagination. These pieces challenge preconceptions and push boundaries, sometimes giving rise to more questions than answers. However, experimenting and daring to do new things are integral to the human condition. Calligraphy speaks through the marks of the pen and in so doing, communicates a sense of living history that moves forwards into contemporary expression with vitality and integrity.
Sue Hufton F.S.S.I.


List of exhibitors
Susie Leiper, Sylvie Gokulsing, Christopher Haanes, Clare Whittaker, Tim Noad, Gaynor Goffe, Maureen Sullivan, Sally-Mae Joseph, Angela Dalleywater, Hazel Dolby, Heleen Franken-Gill, Tom Perkins, Jan Pickett, Denis Brown, David Howells, Sue Gunn, Cherrell Avery, Sally-Mae Joseph, Josie Brown, Susan Hufton, Marion McKenzie, Caroline Keevil, Vivien Lunniss, Anne Irwin, Celia Lister, Heleen Franken-Gill, Stan Knight, Lesley Davies, Izumi Shiratani, Helen White, Lin Kerr, Edward Wates, Mary Noble, Janet Mehigan, Jan Jeffreys, Jilly Hazeldine, Ruth Bruckner, Sybil Ewan, Yukiko Fukaya, David Howells, HeleenFranken-Gill, Sharon Shaw, Dave Wood, Richard Middleton, Tanya Bolenz, Juliet Banks, Sylvia Thomas, Dr George Thomson, David Graham and I hope I did not miss anyone.


Interested in learning more about the work of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators?

Click here to go to the SSI Page within this web-site.


1st edition 2011, paperback, 78pp, full colour throughout, over 80 incredible pieces of work, 21 x 29.8 cm



Celebrate Calligraphy – The 90th Anniversary Exhibition of the SSI
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