Friday, October 27, 2006

Sacred Cows


On the left is Edward Johnston's Foundational (image taken from Formal Penmanship ed. by Heather Child); on the right is a humanist bookhand written by Arrighi himself, in 1520 in Rome (image taken from Stan Knight's Historical Scripts).

Is there anything more sacred among calligraphers (especially you Brits) than the name Edward Johnston? One always watches one's step when speaking of the revered Johnston. His great work, Writing and Illuminating and Lettering was published in 1906 and is referred to as 'the calligrapher's bible.' However, I am not the nice girl my mother so desired me to be and I just have to bring this up.

Foundational vs. Humanist Bookhand. The first, Foundational, is the hand 'rediscovered' by Edward Johnston in the later 1800s, polished up, and trotted out for the first modern generation of calligraphers to learn. Edward Johnston based Foundational on his study of a 10th c. English manuscript, the Ramsey Psalter. He taught his first class at the Central School in London in 1899, and the rebirth of calligraphy was on its way.

Humanist Bookhand, on the other hand, is a style of lettering used extensively in the 15th century in books. It was an influential style of writing. It is, in fact, the basis for the first typefaces ever designed.

Now, all of this is fine. I do not have a bone to pick with Edward Johnston. I respect his efforts greatly. The bone I have to pick is with those who came later, who picked up the Foundational flag and ran with it, to the exclusion of Humanist Bookhand. It seems to be left to me to remind people that Humanist Bookhand exists! It is not all just Foundational! I believe that when calligraphy book authors include Foundational in their books, they should also include Humanist Bookhand. Foundational is kind of like Neuland, in that both are alphabets designed by individual men (even though Johnston got it from a historical manuscript, he still adapted it somewhat and 'made it his own').

And 10th c. vs 15th? A difference of 500 years! How can anyone (and they do, in practice) lump Foundational in with Humanist Bookhand? It is a wierd process by which Foundational was propogated for a long period of time in the 20th c. and now somehow the general understanding among calligraphers is that Humanist Bookhand and Foundational are one and the same. So frequently people say 'Foundational' when they mean 'Humanist Bookhand.'

Honestly, I adore Charles Pearce. But in his book The Anatomy of Letters he has a Foundational exemplar which has distinct Humanist Bookhand characteristics. He has altered the bowl of the miniscule 'a' so it is nice and curved. And he has also 'fixed' the miniscule 'g' so its lower counter doesn't make me cringe; it is more balanced. Yet he has retained the built-up serif in the ascenders. I do actually like his hand here much better than Johnston's Foundational. I just think Maybe Mr. Pearce ought to have mentioned that he started with Foundational and made some adjustments so it is something of a hybrid.

And in the Speedball Textbook Foundational is represented but not the more general Humanist Bookhand. At least in Jacqueline Svaren's Written Letters she discusses and has an exemplar of Humanist Bookhand--and she has left out Foundational! Although she does talk about Edward Johnston.

Why should I care about all this? Maybe because my early training was in Humanist Bookhand, and it was only later I met other calligraphers who would refer to work I had done as Foundational. As I have never made a concentrated study of Foundational I really can't be said to write it! I have superficially studied it to notice its distinct characteristics. But I have been a irked by others' insistence in using the word Foundational as a blanket term to describe all hands that are not italic, but are sort of 'standard' (meaning not carolingian, uncial, gothic, etc.).

I think I finally understand why Marsha Brady made such a point of telling us to look at original manuscripts when we want to learn a new hand. I used to think that an odd thing to say, given how many great contemporary instruction books are published now. Personally I lack the funds (time/connections/language ability) to travel to various European countries in pursuit of knowledge. I have to content myself with Stan Knight's Historical Scripts and xeroxed exemplars from classes.

Of course we owe Edward Johnston a tremendous debt for all his work. However, when Foundational is altered, as in simplified and lightened, I think it should no longer be called Foundational. It has then become something else, something more basic and universal. The calligrapher at that point has, perhaps unwittingly, returned to Humanist Bookhand. And this is just evolution, and that's ok, but let's not always call it all Foundational, for crying out loud!

The other day I picked up a little beginner's calligraphy book/kit designed as a novelty for gift shops. Sure enough, there was something inside called 'Foundation.' Now it's Foundation?! Does anyone see what I mean? It's getting more and more twisted, and who can tell where it's going to end up.

Perhaps some of the British calligraphers are puzzled and a bit insulted when American calligraphy teachers teach Humanist Bookhand instead of Foundational. I wonder if there are any British calligraphy teachers who teach Humanist Bookhand instead of Foundational? (I know there are American teachers who only teach Foundational.) I have not yet noticed any calligraphy teachers who teach both, as separate classes. They seem instead to make a decision as to which way they will go. They seem to be saying, "really, who needs both?" If you have one do you need the other? And if you go with one should you pretend like the other never existed or was irrelevant? Maybe it is editors who say, "hey, these are so similar let's ax one."

I like to think that had Edward Johnston traveled around Europe more (maybe he did and I don't know it) and studied other manuscripts from other places and times more extensively; had he gotten some distance from the Ramsey Psalter and gained a stronger overview of historical writing he would have produced a rather different Foundational. But he did the best he could, and despite my whinings I really am grateful.

PS--my maternal grandmother was a Johnston, and I like to think Edward and I are distantly related. Actually, my maternal grandmother's uncle's name was Edward Johnston! Go figure)

1 comment:

Elmsley Rose said...

Thankyou for an interesting commentary :-). I'd never even thought about this issue.