Extraordinary Writing Masters

By Margaret Horton
Date Added: 17/07/2009


THE DELIGHTFUL BOOK on Edward Johnston by his daughter Priscilla calls to mind other writing masters; like cobblers, and perhaps for the same reasons (isolation and the exacting nature of their craft which nevertheless leaves the mind free from time to time to wander and speculate) they are sometimes unusual beings, original, philosophical and strange. Aubrey thus describes an Edward Johnston of the 16th century, William Oughtred, whose father was writing master at 'Eaton College': 'an ingeniose artist at the pen' who 'understood magique', he 'studyed late at night, had his tinder box by him; and on the top of his bed staffe, he had his ink-home fix'd. He had dressed himself, thus, an old red cloak cassock that had been black in dayes of yore, girt with an old leather girdle, an old fashioned russet hatt, that had been a beaver, tempore reginae Elizabethae. . . . He taught all free. He could not endure to see a scholar write an ill hand; he taught them all presently to mend their hands.' Three centuries later the interesting figure is still around; in 'The Boy's Country Book' William Hewitt describes his writing master 'a tall slender man, with a long thin countenance and dark hair combed backwards. Who does not remember his snuff box, opened with 'its three systematic raps; and the peculiar jerk of his elbow when he felt himself bound to refuse some petition? He was a most perfect master of penmanship.' This extraordinary person had learnt swimming from a frog 'having one end of a string tied to its leg and holding the other in his mouth and thus pursuing it and imitating its movements.'

Ingenious and inventive to a peculiar degree writing masters certainly have been. One remembers Edward Johnston's chalk-holder with its 'beautiful arrow-eighteen inches long and made of a light whitewood' 'for demonstrating to the students that the nib's 'edge was constant.' Then there was Ezreel Tonge, D.D., who as early as the mid 17th century 'taught children to write a good hand in 20 days by writing over, with black inke, copies printed from copper plates in red inke.' Aubrey sagely adds, however, 'as the boyes' temper could endure it, without tyring him.' Mrs Gaskell must have drawn from life the writing lady who made her ink by hanging it in a bottle behind the house door so that 'it gets a good shaking every time you slam it (all the better if you are in a passion and bang it).' With ingenuity still more fantastic the Elizabethan Peter Bales managed to write (according to Isaac Disraeli) the whole Bible in an English walnut no bigger than a hen's egg -'the nut holdeth the book' - a feat apparently surpassed by a Greek artist of classical times, who enclosed his gilded letters in the rind of a grain of corn.

And writing teachers neither bright nor wise still catch the eye with their queer habits and assiduity: 'I always knew she was a fool,' says Elizabeth Grant's mother of her governess in 'Memoirs of a Highland Lady'. "'My dear," said my father in his calmest. manner, "What did you expect of a person who writes on satin-paper with a crow-quill!'" Then there is the peculiar behaviour of the teachers who do not teach, like M le Chevalier in Mary Browne's 'Diary of a Girl in France' in 1821: 'He used to sit down at one end of the table and never move; he had a curious squeaking voice. . . Euphemia one day said, "Pray is that man sitting down there, mending pens, a writing master?'" In the bad old days of 1750 there was appointed to Mayfield, Sussex, a schoolmaster called Mr Gale. Finding the school roof leaked, letting in snow and rain, he stopped up the holes as well as he could and set the scholars to copy and re-copy the following extempore verse:

'Abandon every evil thought
For they to judgment will be brought’.

He then adjourned with his cronies to the Star Inn. One has to admit that this race of teachers has not entirely disappeared from the scene, though their behaviour is more circumscribed and circumspect.

Writing teachers of the past have in fact something to tell of neglect and misunderstanding. I once found in a bookseller's catalogue an account of a manuscript of the 18th century by a writing master called Martin, who taught at St Bees School, Cumberland. (I have often wondered what became of this apparently fascinating manuscript, embellished with pen drawings of birds, animals, flowers, emblems, hunting scenes and containing Martin's autobiography in verse as well as examples of penmanship. The cost was unfortunately £45!) It is pathetic to find him at the age of eighty-four caught by a decline of interest in penmanship:

'In poverty I now am cast,
And a poor pauper is at last.'

In Tolstoi, however, we have a writing master of another order. Like Edward Johnston he laid great importance on the making of real things - 'on the things they made being real and being really things.' A charming picture of a child writing because he had something he badly needed to put down: 'Semka, standing in front of the great writing table with a big patch of sheepskin on his back, with his girdle unloosed and his hair tumbled, was writing very crooked lines and constantly dipping his pen in the ink.' The account of the school in Yasnaya Polyana shows Tolstoi happy always to watch and to learn, to listen and to wait: 'R- asked for a new book and began to copy his exercise. The idea pleased them all . . . "I want a copybook" and calligraphy became the fashion.' A cheerful spectacle like that of Alfred Fairbank being taught by infants!