Recent History of Italic Handwriting

Notes from a presentation

By Alfred Fairbank, CBE
Date Added: 17/07/2009


The popular interest in italic handwriting has arisen since World War II but my account goes back to the 1870's, so I shall stretch the meaning of the word 'recent' to its limits.

It has been asked whether italic handwriting is the 99th version of a Renascence hand or whether it is a 20th century hand. My answer is that it is a traditional hand. Towards the end of the 16th century it got into unsuitable company and bad ways - that is, it became copperplate, and the engraver's needle set the standard instead of the pen. We have reclaimed and revived the lost tradition. I think I can say without contradiction that not only have we rehabilitated the script but that contemporary models have a new feature – they have been simplified to a point where they can be used successfully by infants. There is no need for a child to change his style of writing; he can continue as he begins, and thus avoid an unnecessary interruption at the age of 7 or 8. Italic is simple enough for children and yet the script is so attractive that calligraphers and typographers write it with no sense of a childish activity, such as a father might possibly have had very recently when he realised that he had been playing with his son's train.

The fascination of the italic hand is widely acknowledged and accounts for the success of this society. And there is an interplay between the society and the schools. We know of fathers who have joined in this movement of reform and who are anxious and impatient for –their children to be taught italic, and we know of fathers who have re-formed because their children were taught italic.

The movement has had a mushroom growth since the War. I had written a manual in 1932 which was hardly noticed and was out of print by the beginning of World .War II. After the War four publishers wanted to take it up. I realised then that something more than a manual was wanted, and when Dr Pevsner, the Editor of the King Penguins, approached me for a book, I realised the opportunity and A BOOK OF SCRIPTS was published, and a very large edition sold out in four months. The purpose of this book was not only to give some idea of the history of writing but also to show italic as an historical and traditional hand.

Now there are several books and a large number of models on the market which are in support of the movement. Indeed, there are so many models that one is reminded of the early 18th century when Snell, Shelley, Bickham, Clark, More, Snow and others were teaching copperplate. Not only are there models available in this country; I can think of four which have appeared in the USA and others in Canada, Sweden and Holland. And there is now a Canadian Society for Italic Handwriting.

How did this society come to be formed? In 1952 it occurred to me I that the Society of Scribes and Illuminators might take the initiative and inaugurate a society of those who wished to gather together in the cause of handwriting. Miss Heather Child, the Secretary at that time, was finding herself with too much correspondence about italic, when she was trying to serve the interests of professional calligraphers. Members were consulted and agreed. So, on 25 November 1952 at the Art Workers' Guild Hall the SIH was formed with much enthusiasm. The Society of Scribes appointed Mr Compton as Chairman and Miss Hornby as Secretary. Mr Ebbage, our Treasurer, came in at a later date. We are fortunate in having Lord Cholmondeley as President. 1800 members have joined and they are to be found in 20 different countries.

The source of guidance and inspiration has been the humanistic and cursive hands of the 15th and 16th centuries written in Italy. The examples that have attracted attention were written over a period of about 200 years and consequently there are numerous versions of the early italic scripts. Perhaps the models of Arrighi are the best known. The first italic hand may have been that of Niccolo Niccoli, the Florentine scholar. This would be written about 1410. 180 years later Bartholomew Dodington, whose exquisite italic hand I brought to light, was writing to Lord Burghley from Cambridge, and I can guess that Burghley showed the letter to Queen Elizabeth I because of the charming calligraphy. About this time italic was turning towards the direction of copperplate, and eventually in this country the Renascence models were forgotten.

The roots of the revived movement began to grow in the 1870's and that takes us back to William Morris. I propose to show you now on the screen scripts which were written before World War II, as a representation of the pioneers of the movement.

(Slides were then shown as follows. Where possible a note has been

added from the lecturer's notes.)


ARRIGHI Part of a papal brief possibly by him.

WILLIAM MORRIS William Morris looked at many crafts with fresh eyes. One of his crafts was calligraphy, which he practised between 1870 and 1874. He possessed and studied illuminated MSS and he also owned the writing books of Arrighi and Tagliente. Naturally with these excitements he taught himself various scripts. This example has a rough vigour. It certainly springs from the 16th century models. He wrote no exemplar hands for the purpose of teaching. One would not expect it of him.

WILLIAM MORRIS A fascinating page on parchment. An illuminated Horace, now in the Bodleian.

ROBERT BRIDGES The interest in handwriting of Robert Bridges, late Poet Laureate, was shown in 1926 and 1927 when he edited two tracts for the Society for Pure English, but as far back as 1879 he had taken note of the loopless ascenders of the 16th century italic hands. Mrs M.M. BRIDGES Robert Bridges married a young wife in 1884 and they worked together at a great variety of artistic tasks: poetry, plays, hymns, fine printing, embroidery and handwriting.

Mrs Bridges's mother, Elizabeth Waterhouse, had an interest in handwriting, and a great-grandfather, John Hodgkin, was a writing-master. We should not be surprised then by this fine model from A NEW HANDWRITING published in 1896, that is, a year before Edward Johnston began to teach.

EDWARD JOHNSTON It is 50 years ago that Edward Johnston's classic book WRITING AND ILLUMINATING was published. In that book he showed what he called a semi-formal hand. (Slide) Its date would be about 1500. Johnston thought it would have 'possibilities for an improvement in the ordinary present-day handwriting, a thing much to be desired, and one of the most practical benefits of the study of calligraphy' .

PROFESSOR SELWYN IMAGE I cannot give this example a date, but Prof. Image seemed to me to be an old man when I was a young one. Another example of his hand is in ALPHABETS OLD AND NEW by Lewis F Day, published in 1910.

GRAILY HEWITT This is from' a leaflet with the excellent title HANDWRITING: EVERYMAN'S HANDICRAFT which he produced in 1916. Hewitt also made two copy-books published by the O.U.P. It is a beautiful script but unfortunately it lacks the diagonal join.

MARION RICHARDSON This is from her first published model THE DUDLEY WRITING CARDS. I much prefer this model to her later one which is associated with writing patterns. The pen she used here is too wide for a child's use, and that may account for the failure of this script.

STANLEY MORISON You will know that Dr Morison is a famous typographer and historian of printing. He has been writing an italic hand at least since 1923 and his influence must have been very great.

ALFRED FAIRBANK The first models I made were handwritten copy-books which I sold to friends in the Society of Scribes and Illuminators for 6d. each. That was in 1926 and 1927. The model you now see is from the WOODSIDE WRITING CARDS which appeared in 1932 but have long been out of print.

CAROLE WELLS I felt it would be a pity if I did not show a child's handwriting, so this is the writing of Carole Wells who was taught at Brentside Primary School under Miss Hooper who follows me at this meeting. Carole may be thought of as a post-war child pioneer. I show her writing at the age of nine and of twelve.

May I conclude this very condensed talk by saying that we hear of children who become more interested in and better at other school subjects through the inspiration of their italic handwriting and, what is more, we hear of difficult children whose attitude to life has been changed by their success in it.

Words can be formed to make poetry. Movements can be organized to become the dance. Handwriting, which is concerned with words and with movements, is a dance of the pen. As calligraphy, it can raise - an ordinary functional activity to a level of superb performance. We of this society wish to help it to do so.