Italic, Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

By Wilfrid Blunt
Date Added: 17/07/2009


I have been asked to give you today (Mr Blunt was reading this paper at the Conference of Educational Associations Meeting in January) a brief survey of the progress that the italic hand has made recently, and to take a look at the future.

Italic is some 450 years old: its revival in England goes back to the beginning of the present century. For the publication, in 1899, of Mrs Robert Bridges' A NEW HANDWRITING was the first audible protest against the bad state of handwriting in this country, and the model that she advocated, 'Italianised Gothic', was what we should now call italic. Edward Johnston's WRITING AND ILLUMINATING AND LETTERING (1906), though suggestive, dealt chiefly with the formal hand, Dr Robert Bridges' two TRACTS ON ENGLISH HANDWRITING (1926 and 1927), however, were concerned with cursive and gave examples of splendid freely-written hands, a few of which were italic. In the thirties came Mr Fairbank's A HANDWRITING MANAL, Graily Hewitt's HANDWRITING: EVERYMAN'S CRAFT, and the writing cards of Mr Fairbank and Marion Richardson, while behind the scenes was increasingly felt the influence of Mr Stanley Morison and of that splendid veteran Sir Sydney Cockerell. But as yet there were no signs of a popular revival.

Came the War, and we had other things to think about than handwriting. In 1946 I approached a publisher and suggested that I should write a book. He told me that there was no interest whatever in the subject. Apparently there was enough, however, to warrant a new and revised edition of Mr Fairbank's MANUAL (1947) and two years later his BOOK OF SCRIPTS (the King Penguin) met with considerable success. Though dealing chiefly with formal hands, and only incidentally with italic, it did much to stimulate interest in writing in general. You do not need to be reminded of how much Mr Fairbank has done for calligraphy.

Yet it was only in the present decade that handwriting hit the headlines. Mr Aubrey West's WRITTEN BY HAND (1951) set the ball rolling. I think we owe an immense debt of gratitude to that man of mystery, Mr West. He was not a gentle scholar, buried deep under folios in the manuscript department of the British Museum. He was not a poor pale provincial usher teaching calligraphy to unwilling schoolboys at dawn. He was an energetic business man. He roared around the country, making penmakers manufacture pens, inkmen brew inks, papermakers devise papers to meet the needs of italic. He played a part in the revival that nobody else could have played.

Since 1951 there has been a quite fantastic spate of italic manuals, copybooks, writing cards, wall charts and the like, and there are no signs of any immediate abatement.

In 1954 alone at least eleven 'teach yourself' italic books and cards were published.

The newspapers were full of articles on italic. Competitions were held. Italic spread to advertising. Italic was news.

It obviously became necessary to have an organization which italic enthusiasts could join, and so the SIH was formed. Now here we have been singularly fortunate. Not every society finds the perfect President and the perfect Chairman. Lord Cholmondeley, our President, has been an inspiration to us all and a most generous benefactor. And no-one who has sat under Mr Joseph Compton could possibly wish for a more kindly or a more efficient Chairman. I think we can be proud of what the Society has achieved; it now has members all over the world. There are strong contingents in South Africa and in the United States, in Canada, Australia, and in many parts of Europe. We have members in Uruguay, Guatemala and Venezuela.

Esthonians, no less than Etonians, are learning italic, and I understand that a Mr Villu Toots is writing a manual, in Esthonian, to help them to do it.

It is curious that relatively little interest has been aroused in the Latin Catholic countries. In France 'la plume de ma tante' and also perhaps 'l'encre de ma tante'have militated against progress: the French need a Monsieur Ouest. Italy, the home of italic, ought to be - but apparently is not - favourable soil in which to sow the new italic seed, though the Catholic convents in England are among our most active supporters. Turning to Spain, though it is true that General Franco's nephew acquired a nice italic hand at Downside, the General shows no signs of making it the official script of his country.

The Society has organized travelling exhibitions which have toured the world, and no less than 25,000 teachers attended an exhibition held last October in New Jersey. At one such exhibition, in New Zealand, a specimen of my own writing was shown. A visitor observed two perplexed children attempting to read it. Said the one, 'I wonder why they put that one in'. The other answered, 'I expect it's to show you how NOT to do it'. Now what these children would have read - had they been able to read it - was the following: 'Handwriting must be speedy. I would rather advance swiftly with my own poor pen, than creep laboriously in the footsteps of even the great Arrighi himself’. I will NOT write slowly. For one thing, I just haven't the time. But principally because I believe that a cursive should be a running hand and not a crawling one. That rather humiliating little story brings me to the last matter that I wish to discuss: the future.

It has often been said, by the opponents of italic, that italigraphers all write the same.

We who believe in italic have always pooh-poohed the idea. Nonetheless, I have long had the uneasy feeling that there was more than a grain of truth in the charge. All those who write a careful round hand also write similarly. But that does not excuse us. The trouble is that those of us who acquire italic as adults rarely, if ever, succeed in absorbing it right into the system. We can most of us write tolerably well when we write slowly: but when we write freely we revert to old bad habits. I get quantities of letters from unknown correspondents written in italic and almost all of these are written in self-conscious hands. They have an 'Aren't I clever?' look that is pretentious and distasteful. They affect me in the same way as do the clothes of a man or woman who is overdressed.

Yes - the charge of preciosity can still, with justification, be levelled against much italic that is being written today. And I enormously admire the writings of Mr Percy

Lubbock, M r Stanley Morison and Mrs Wellington, to take just three names that occur to me on the spur of the moment, just because, as Mr Morison himself so well said, 'they do not exhale the scent of some calligraphic cosmetic'. I believe that in the next twenty years we shall get these freely written, yet controlled, hands, because I believe that the children who are learning italic today, and writing it at present rather primly, will, as adults, develop fine individual hands. These children have the great advantage over us in that they have learned italic in the cradle. They are the lucky ones, and the enormous interest that is being shown in schools through-out England is a most encouraging sign.

It is to the next generation that I look to set us free.