A Pilgrim's Progress

By Humphrey Lyttelton
Date Added: 29/09/2009


My first experience of any kind of handwriting instruction was at private school where several pages of ‘copy-book' were a regular punishment. The model was a standard copperplate and the texts were solemn precepts which, I suppose, were intended to prepare us for adult life. 'Hack no furniture' is the only line that I recall, and I have since done my best to observe it.

The punitive copy-book didn't do much for my handwriting, judging by the legible but indisciplined scrawl that I carried into my twenties. My father, George Lyttleton, had a beautiful, flowing hand, but I didn't know at that time that, when he was about forty years old, he had reformed it almost overnight. He went off on a week's golfing holiday taking with him Edward Johnston's Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering, and came home with his rapid, 'Victorian' scribble converted into flowing italic. He bought broad nibs, too, and, from then on, all the little notices around the house -lists of telephone numbers, drawer labels, reminders to switch off lights and so on - were written in careful script.

My father was a master at Eton and, in the mid-Forties, he and Wilfred Blunt (then Art Master at the school) made a combined assault on the dismal standard of Eton handwriting. One 'spin-off' from that collaboration which has benefited me was a handwriting collection which my father started then and which I found higgledy-piggledy in a drawer long after he died. I have had great fun putting it in order - Nyrex display- books with plastic 'sleeves' are a godsend in this respect - and adding to it, too. About once a year, I get a letter to my Monday night jazz programme on the B.B.C. written in a good italic hand and I have to confess that it gets dealt with very much more quickly than the other run-of-the-mill enquiries as to who played trombone with Louis Armstrong in February 1935! It's rather sad to find, on investigation, that most of these hands originated around 1945-50 and no later, although I suspect that this says more about the age-group of my listeners than the state of contemporary handwriting! ~ I inherited all kinds of handwriting stuff from my father's desk - boxes of Mitchell nibs of all sizes, several study pen-holders (a far cry from the miserable, stunted things that are offered today, if you can find them) and a small jam-jar full of shot-gun pellets which someone had recommended as a handy way of cleaning metal nibs by dipping them rapidly in and out. I should add, too, that I found a drawerful of prised-open 12-bore cartridges with enough gunpowder in them to have demolished his huge roll-top desk. I wonder he didn't blow his hands off!

It was from my father, then, that my interest in calligraphy derived and it has grown slowly over the years. My problem is that, as an itinerant ~ I musician, I am very rarely desk-bound. So I have had to evolve writing implements which are easily portable and can be used without ostentation in hotel lounges and backstage dressing-rooms. Buying fountain pens with ready-made italic nibs is all very well, but half the fun in calligraphy is making your own pens. So I buy ordinary school fountain pens - Platignum, Osmiroid, you name it, I've got it - and doctor them in the way set out by Jacqueline Svaren in the Society's JOURNAL Number 88. In short, this means cutting the 'blob' off the tip of the nib (I use a pair of those Wilkinson extra tough scissors with orange handles for this), honing the back of the nib-tip on a smooth carborundum stone to get a 'chisel' profile and lightly rubbing down any rough edges. My favourite 'home- made' pen at the moment is a chunky Schaeffer 'No Nonsense' pen, clearly named without my fussy administrations in mind!

As for practice, well, there is surely no limit to the opportunities that modem life provides once you have hurled the typewriter and the ball- point pen out of the window. Scripts, articles, letters, cheques, official forms - I make an amateur calligraphic meal out of all of them, to the extent that I actually look forward to doing my V .A. T. accounts! And whenever I settle down to watch television, I have a writing pad on my lap (a W. H. Smith's A4 Layout Pad with Guide Sheet, to be exact - it's good, hard paper and, at 57P for 80 sheets, it doesn't hurt when you find that you have used up a dozen sheets on practice words while watching 'Coronation Street' !).

Nowadays, I murmur the names of Edward Johnston, Alfred Fairbank and other masters with the same reverence with which I speak of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. And I continue to write and aspire, asking no more of my practice than that I shall be able to say, at the end of the day, that it has given me enormous enjoyment and kept me from hacking furniture, so far.