Eton versus Harrow

By Wilfrid Blunt
Date Added: 17/07/2009


It was Sir Sydney Cockerell, the eminence grise of Italic handwriting, who, when exiled to Old Windsor from his house at Kew during the Second World War, first aroused my interest in 'the sweet Roman hand', and it was he who discovered the perfect patron to encourage the propagation of the script in the public schools. This was the late Marquess of Cholmondeley, who, by his generous endowment of an annual handwriting competition between Eton - where I was at that time drawing-master - and Harrow (subsequently extended to include Winchester) set the Italic ball rolling in many schools throughout the country.

Of course there had long been a general interest in the subject – the name of Alfred Fairbank immediately springs to mind; but Lord Cholmondeley's enthusiasm did much in the fifties to popularise what had previously been the preserve of a sometimes precious minority. The media decided that Italic was 'news'. Books, lectures and broadcasts followed in abundance. Eton was at first usually the victor; but when a Siamese prince captured the prize for Harrow, the television went to town over it. This was in the good old days of' Ally Pally', the late-lamented Alexandra Palace, and of V.I.P. treatment for those taking part. A car was sent to Eton to collect me and pick up the Prince en route. I well remember the disappointment of the driver, who had been expecting Siamese twins!

Lord Cholmondeley had the splendid idea that the wi1ming entries of his competition should be bound in a sumptuous volume, which now forms part of the archives of the Society for Italic Handwriting, and the illustrations shown here are reproduced from it. The editor of the JOURNAL invited me to write a few words to accompany the illustrations, and this I most gladly do. I have had enormous pleasure, over the years, from the steady progress that this elegant script has made; and if I myself have sadly declined into a cacographer, allowance must be made for arthritis, general octogenarian senility, and the labour of writing more than thirty books without secretarial aid or typewriting skill. (I have this very week published Married to a Single Life, the first volume of an autobiography and I hope to finish the second before I die).

However, I am not the first schoolmaster to teach by warning rather than example! I wish I had been directed to the fascination of Italic at fourteen, and not forty, for it is the young who can most readily acquire a fluent, personal and unaffected cursive script, and one which, even under pressure, retains the flavour of its basic structural beauty.