Handwriting for Life

By Patrick Nairne
Date Added: 17/07/2009


This is a personal piece – a journey along the italic road. A few years ago an old friend gave me his copy of a book which I now treasure. It is a bound edition of two tracts on handwriting, edited 70 years ago for the Society for Pure, English by the poet Robert Bridges; both tracts are illustrated with more than 30 facsimile plates. It is a relatively rare book: how many of our members have a copy?

How was it that a copy was given to me? 'Two of the plates,' said my friend, 'show the hands of the. Nairne family. I think that your family should have my copy.' I was delighted to find facsimile letters from my father to his first cousin and from the

cousin to Robert Bridges.

Was it nature or nurture – a family inheritance or what I learned – that stimulated my life-long interest in handwriting?

Probably both, but nurture the more important. My father's family had a talent for drawing and painting, and I have inherited a share of it; but that would have come to nothing if I had not been encouraged to work at it and been influenced by the example of my father and his artistic friends.

Likewise with handwriting. My father wrote to his children when they were away at school, and his hand was an attractive model. I never tried to copy his hand; he never suggested that I should do so. But I remember attempting to imitate the hands of other boys who wrote better than I did; and I was influenced, in my early years at school, by an exacting teacher, who wrote herself in a simple, round, neat hand and did her best to make her pupils learn to form each word carefully and clearly. Not a

bad start for the acquisition of a craft.

Did I have a grounding in handwriting from copy-book work? I do not recall that. lowed most to early examples and influences at home and at school. They created fertile ground in which the seeds of interest grew later into the flower of


It was my appointment to the Admiralty, on entering the Civil Service in 1947, which introduced me to the craft of handwriting in my working life – and, in particular, to the Italic hand. In 1948 I met Alfred Fairbank, then a Senior Executive Officer and Civil Assistant to the Director of Dockyards, and encountered impressive examples of his Italic hand in routine Admiralty fIles. He worked in the Admiralty offices at Bath, where I also met Dr. Arthur Osley, a close friend of Fairbank, who was later to edit the Society's journal for many years. From them I learned that the prime value of the Italic hand – though an elegant (in Fairbank's famous phrase) 'dance of the pen' – lay in its being the fastest and clearest mode of handwriting.

Shortly after our first meeting in December 1948 Fairbank wrote me a note which briefly indicates the influence he had on some Admiralty colleagues.

I acquired Fairbank's Dryad writing cards, his King Penguin 'Book of Scripts' and his revised Handwriting Manual, published two years after the foundation of our Society. Thus inspired and instructed I set about reforming my own hand – with daily opportunities at my desk for practising the craft and improving my skill during my 34 years in Whitehall.

But I have never been able to write as well as I would wish. I am still always hoping that a new pen or a changed nib will enable me to perform better; I was encouraged when Fairbank told me that he frequently swopped pens. I now have an old Irene Wellington copy-book (which needs to be republished) I and warm up my hand in its pages. I doodle by practising the I alphabet during the duller moments of long meetings. Bi-focal glasses have led me to write too small and I listen to the complaint that the writing may look good, but nobody can easily read it. I seize on each Society journal as a fresh source of inspiration, admiring the examples of hands much better than mine. I continue to enjoy the struggle of trying to do better myself – hoping that arthritic fingers may not prove a terminal handicap in the years ahead.

I was glad to re-read the words of Robert Bridges in his second tract on handwriting: (Excellence in writing, as in all the fine arts, is rare, and can never be so familiar to the crowd as common things are, nor indeed can any man who is wholly devoid of natural perception of beauty ever be brought to understand it.'

Alfred Fairbank, in the Introduction to his Handwriting Manual, is rather more down to earth: Handwriting is a functional thing, intended for communicating and recording thought. ...

How satisfying when something ordinary and commonplace is raised towards the beautiful. Just as speech can be a delightful vehicle of words and thoughts, so too can handwriting; and so language is served.' My forebears would say Amen to that.