• Ian

Where does modern calligraphy come from?



Go into the world do well, but more  importantly go into the world and do good!
Modern calligraphy

At its most basic definition, calligraphy is an art form related to writing (Oxford standard). In some ways calligraphy has existed as long as the written word. The word calligraphy comes from the two Greek words for “beauty” (kallos) and “to write” (graphein).


The oldest calligraphy we can find is from China from roughly 2000 BCE (Shen 2002, Anyang and Sanxingdui: Unveiling the Mysteries of Ancient Chinese Civilizations). In fact there is a Chinese tale that talks about the origin of all writing. In this account, Tsang Chieh, a man of unusual power and ability, was especially adept in finding and recognizing patters. He was able to find patterns with the stars and even tracks left by the birds in his village. (Harrist & Wong 1999, The embodied image)


The tools used in the art of calligraphy have evolved as much as the art form itself. In this early stage credited to Tsang Chieh practitioners would carve early pictograph (symbols that resembled the word they represent) characters on oracle bones. A common oracle bone was the inside of a turtle shell. These etchings were then burned in for better preservation. Later, the tool of choice became the fine-tipped paint brush that was used with black ink.


Nevertheless, there are many forms of calligraphy and what is possible in Chinese script is not in other written languages. According to master calligrapher, Claude Mediaville, calligraphy has three essential elements: expression, harmony, and skill. As long as these elements are included, calligraphy can take almost any form. The calligraphy is expressive more than other written words. It has a tone. It has a feel. I nearly has a heartbeat you can hear coming right off the page. The harmony that exists within Calligraphy is within each piece. Clearly if you put one style with another in the same sentence, this harmony will be challenged. And the skill comes from practice and dedication. A dedicated calligraphy can spend their entire life perfecting their craft.


What you will see on this side is sometimes referred to as western calligraphy to distinguish it from other languages. Western calligraphy is uses of the Latin script--like the letters in this blog post. While the Latin alphabet can be trace back to Rome around 600 BCE, it wasn't until around 100 CE that we start to see anything that can be considered calligraphic. Remnants of this can be found carved in stone and painted on walls. At first there was a type of Roman cursive, and about a hundred years later there emerged a uncial lettering style. This resembled what we might call "printing" and it was entirely in capital letters.


Over time, writing was less and less common with exception of Monks who used uncial lettering to transcribe copies of the Bible and other religious texts. (Sabard 2004, Calligraphie latine) When the Roman empire fell, the influence of these writing styles endured. As was done earlier, the written word (for western writing systems) was reserved almost exclusively for transcribing religious texts. When Gutenberg's printing press was invented, the practice of hand-written productions and re-productions went into severe decline. (de Hamel 2001, The Book: A History of the Bible)


At the end of the 19th century a man by the name of Edward Johnston started what would be called the Arts and Crafts movement. This was the initial period of renaissance for hand-lettering and eventually modern calligraphy. (Cockerell 1945, Font Designer -- Edward Johnston)


And again the tools of this trade evolved. Johnston began using a broad-edged pen. This would allow him to have some strokes narrow and other broad. Johnston began in late 1899. The class was hosted at the Central School in Southampton Row, London. This new writing style was so well received that it was quicky used as the basis for font faces that are used today.


So the next time you jot down a quick note or but "best wishes" in a greeting card, you can, in a way, consider yourself to be a letterer. And while what you are doing has roots in the past of thousands of years ago, you are part of a fairly modern tradition.