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Johnston's Contribution To Calligraphy

Aug 17, 2007
Calligrapher Edward Johnston contributed a lot to the modern world of calligraphy. Looking back through the ages it can be seen that calligraphy has played an important part in the development of civilization, and that it has manifested itself in many ways and through many agents. It can first be seen on papyrus in Egypt in the hieratic writing of the Papyrus Prisse dated about 2500 B.C. It is next observed in Greece where it had been practiced since the third century B.C., and later turns up in Rome in the shape of Roman Uncials. Under the monastic system it took the form of fine writing on vellum, which continued, in varied style until the fifteenth century. During the next century beautiful italic hands were produced in the chancelleries of Italy, which were also engraved on wood and metal, thus serving as examples of fine work for future generations.

The passing of Edward Johnston the calligrapher in 1944 and Graily Hewitt the illuminator in 1953, both pioneers in the art of writing and illuminating in England, has left a gap in the production of decorative MSS. that cannot easily be filled.

To Edward Johnston we owe the rediscovery of the master tool, the framed panel of writing as decoration, and freedom and sharpness in formal handwriting.

The tool that Edward Johnston rediscovered was the Roman reed pen, which had been used as a substitute for an Egyptian brush. This was a very thin reed or cane chewed so that the frayed end became a small flat brush. This Egyptian brush had been in use since about the year 4500 B.C. and had been in constant use for writing the hieratic and demotic scripts until the third century B.C. when the Romans made contact. The reed then became a substitute for the brush and was cut with a chisel edge. It may therefore be concluded that the Romans were the first to cut a reed, which became the ancestor of the quill pen.

The outcome of the use of the chisel-cut reed was undoubtedly a script known as Rustic, which was carved in stone, painted on walls and written on papyrus; it became one of the common scripts of Rome probably before the year 1 A.D. and may have influenced the formation of the Roman capital.

The chisel-edged pen when pulled into a curve gave the stroke gradation; it also gave the oblique strokes variety of width, producing a capital letter form of great beauty.

It seems that when the capital letter had been carved so perfectly in the first century A.D., the writers of the time who set themselves to produce fine scripts did their best to follow the capital; they, finding it difficult to write the angular strokes, turned as many as convenient into curved ones, hence they obtained the Uncial Hand, which in time broke down to a half-uncial, which ultimately became the beautiful writing of medieval Europe. It was this fine writing that fired Edward Johnston as a young man to study formal hands; it was the rediscovery of the master tool that gave him the opportunity of forming modern writing.
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