Handwriting is a craftsmanship

By A. S. Osley
Date Added: 17/07/2009


For a full understanding of Alfred Fairbank's life and work, it seems to me that two influences should be discussed more carefully than has been customary: those of Robert Bridges and the civil service. It was so appropriate that the essays presented to him on his 70th birthday in Calligraphy and Palaeography were prefaced by a welcome from Lord Bridges, who was not only the son of the poet but the most eminent civil servant of his generation.

Robert Bridges' brief introduction to English Handwriting (Society for Pure English Tract No. XXIII, Oxford., 1926) is a masterly distillation of wisdom about handwriting. It contains several ideas which later ran like a leit-motiv through Fairbank's books and conversation. Bridges, for example, drew attention to the lack of competent teachers in schools and the fact that 'very few of those who have to teach handwriting can themselves write well'. He noted that a common fault with even good writers is to write n and u exactly alike, and argued that shapes of letters should conform sufficiently to accepted use, this being a point of good manners as much as of good writing. Bridges also invoked (as Erasmus had before him) the analogy between speech and handwriting; 'any real illegibility in writing to a stranger is a wider breach of good manners than indistinct utterance in talking to him'. Again, I often heard Fairbank quote Bridges' aphorism that 'true legibility consists in the certainty of decipherment', which depends critically on the consistent and accurate formation of letters.

But perhaps Fairbank relished above all the sentence with which Bridges opened his discourse: 'Handwriting is a craftsmanship'. Tract XXIII was continued in Tract XXVIII, which both showed a fine example of Fairbank's hand (he was described as Calligrapher and Departmental Clerk at the Admiralty) and printed in line-block reproduction his earliest published reflections on handwriting. They were entitled 'Penmanship'. He strikes the Bridges note from the outset. 'The introduction to the tract under review commences with an important statement: "Handwriting is a craftsmanship"'. In his Handwriting Manual of 1932, which incidentally had a quotation from Bridges among the prelims, he wrote 'Handwriting is a handicraft', and in The Story of Handwriting of 1970: 'By some, handwriting may be thought to be just a dreary necessity we have to accept and cope with. At its worst, it fails to be legible, has little or no value, and is a nuisance. Happily at its best it is a graphic craftsmanship, giving pleasure both to those who write and those who read, and a challenge to our skill and taste'.

The mark of a craftsman is his identification with the tools of his trade. It is therefore not unexpected that Fairbank, by then a leading calligrapher with an inquiring mind, should have been a pioneer in investigating the relationship between pen-movement and letter-form. Tract XXVIII contains the earliest report of his findings, which he was to develop as time went on. He has one highly illuminating passage, unfortunately too long to cite here, in which he analyses the four main rhythms of fluent hand-writing, and associated letter-shapes, derived from the ways in which letters related to n and u, and the diagonal ligatures, are made, and assesses them for speed and legibility.

So much for the young craftsman's association with Robert Bridges. Elsewhere in this issue, Mr Jack Cole has written of Fairbank's earliest years. It is a chilling thought that, had he not been transferred from Chatham Dockyard to Whitehall at the right time, his interest in illuminated MSS, which set the course for his later attainments, might never have been kindled. In the economic stagnation of the inter-war period, the career of a permanent civil servant was the ideal post from which a young man could cultivate deeply an outside interest: the hours were short, the job secure, the responsibility not onerous, and the pay regular. Furthermore, the environment and standards of the public service, as it then was, favoured some of the qualities that are characteristic of the craftsman. Even the changed conditions enforced on the office by the war - long hours, tension, pressure of business - were not a complete disaster. They effectively terminated his career as a calligrapher. Yet the Phoenix arose. Fairbank turned to the propagation of the italic hand and research into its origins. A rich harvest was garnered.

Fairbank, however, always spoke of his Admiralty job with a certain lack of affection. He felt, unrealistically it seemed to me, that he would have won greater success as a full-time letterer or type-designer. Indeed, he was convinced that Stanley Morison had prevented him from realising this ambition and did not conceal his bitterness. In later years, when his genius was widely recognised, it irked him to be employed in the modest middle ranks of a hierarchic organisation. This was natural. He must have felt like a giant among pigmies. When the time for retirement came, it was as though the giant were liberated from his fetters and bursting with pent-up energy.

Perhaps his attitude to the civil service mellowed. He encountered frustration in the research for his Italic Hand in Tudor Cambridge, produced in consultation with Professor Bruce Dickins. On 18 January 1963, he wrote to me as follows: 'This very morning I had been saying to myself that I had been kidding myself that it had more value than that of a periodical. . . . The minor art or craft of handwriting would not be taken seriously though I had brought to the surface a considerable chunk of palaeography and a new view of Elizabethan life and times. At one time it seemed that I would never find anybody at Cambridge who would be interested! In a sense it is a product of the sort of patience one develops in the Civil Service: such as by doing a lot of work without expecting much to come of it, but nevertheless doing it with some (small) passion.'

Although I have singled out two formative features and could have mentioned others which he himself freely acknowledged – Edward Johnston, William Morris, Graily Hewitt, Lawrence Christie – Fairbank brought his own innate dispositions to bear. There was above all the determination to set the highest standards and maintain them without compromise. In a letter to me dated 28 January 1964, he stated: 'I think the Society is approaching a disastrous schism: whether it shall stand only for italic or compromise by supporting something less good: modified italic, bastard italic, mixed italic. If it lowers its standards I do not see how I could ren'lain on the Committee. This is for me a terribly serious matter'; and three days after: 'I have often told my students that about every 50 years there has been a change in style, and italic (as I understand it) will be superseded, perhaps in my lifetime. But all the modified, compromise and bastard italic I see are steps in the wrong direction. If you teach people to read some will read Shakespeare and some Tit-bits. All this I know. When I see a system that is not a climbing-on-the- band-wagon by some Johnny-come-lately who hopes to become a head teacher or to get away from earning a living as a teacher, and is fine, I shall cheer very loudly'. On 16 January he had written: 'I used to say when young that I would not cross the road to make a protest but would try to do something better. Now my days seem full of protests'.

Although he took handwriting seriously, he always encouraged people to enjoy it. In his Manual he saw it as 'a dance of the pen'. For him the italic hand had 'an infectious quality because it is pleasant both to write and to read'. He never tried to pretend that it is easy to write legibly, which he regarded as 'civil and logical. To write with grace is friendly and generous, and adds a little to the virtues of civilised life'. He accordingly insisted that 'those who write well are those who want to write well, and the need to create the desire is a challenge which can only be met by good models and teachers who understand' (Beacon Writing). He despised those who write badly by choice, remarking that 'Men have been known to confess in a boasting way in public speeches that they find it difficult to read their own writing, as if this was amusing and socially acceptable but, of course, they would never boast that they mumble when speaking'. He never mistook the icing for the cake. 'A handwriting which has abstract beauty is not necessarily legible, for there is beautiful bad writing: a writing perhaps having a melodic flow and a quality of line and pattern but which is too undisciplined, too little related to traditional alphabets, or too free to allow words to be read without difficulty' (Handwriting Manual).

Fairbank attached the highest importance to sound models. The purity of letter-forms was paramount. The writing master should not introduce (as many of them do nowadays) selfish idiosyncrasies: 'an exemplar should be exemplary'. The Handwriting Manual tells us that 'a model is not an indication of what the developed hand should resemble, for exemplars are written slowly and with precision so as to make teaching clear and to indicate the desirable movements, and they need at first to be copied slowly' and 'in a sense a model is but a guide to the beginning of a personal journey, the directions one takes later being a matter of private inclination'. An exemplar should conform to certain principles: 'for example, one cannot invent entirely new forms and expect everyone to read them: the letters must be recognisable and within our tradition.' He was confronted with this very problem when he worked on phonetic alphabets for Robert Bridges and subsequently for Sir James Pitman. While he saw Arrighi's hand as a peak in 16th century script, he recognised that it was not an entirely satisfactory model for teaching children in the 20th century. Fairbank's superb feat was to combine elements from Tagliente and Lucas and fuse them with his own instinctive grasp of cursive letter-form into a simple, modern hand. Like a Mozart piano concerto, when all the hard work has been done, it seems so easy and inevitable.

The model, then, 'is like a sign-post; it points the way but does not take it'. What lies at the end of the journey? The mastery of a fast, cursive, legible hand, in which the individuality of the writer is given full play in a disciplined framework. This is what the going is like:

Pupils must have a criterion before they can attain a measure of success and satisfaction. Exactness, accuracy, care: these are related qualities which are essential to the early stages of teaching the craft of penmanship and are right for the handwriting lesson when fundamentals have to be learned and acquired. At these early stages there is no thought of the final fluent style when individuality has emerged with corresponding speed of writing (though individuality is there from the beginning). The child has to develop a mastery of hand and pen and also the ability to criticise his own performances. The teacher unfolds his purpose simply and with clarity, from step to step, and then the pupil soon recognises what is good or fair and why it is so. Progress goes by care, encouragement, and self-criticism (Beacon Writing).

In similar vein he wrote in an article for The Schoolmaster in 1960:

The teaching of handwriting is not just the teaching of a fundamental skill. Because it requires observation, self-discipline and precision, and is also creative, it is therefore character-building. Vive la Plume!

An exemplar is, after all, a static thing. It has to be brought to life by the teacher. 'Unfortunately copy-books cannot show movements: they show shapes and it is for the teacher to make clear how the shapes can be made by the necessary movements'. Fairbank, like Robert Bridges, soon recognised that the key to handwriting instruction in schools was a supply of trained teachers. After the war, and particularly when he had retired from the Admiralty, he concentrated on this deficiency. He estimated that over 1000 teachers had attended his courses. He also taught children, and his books are permeated with a sympathetic comprehension of their needs. This amalgam of exceptional manual skill, profound historical study, and wide practical experience with teachers and children accounts for the unique authority of his writings. His teacher-pupils were quickly introduced to his famous dictum that 'handwriting is a system of movements involving touch'. In The Story of Handwriting, he elaborates on the theme:

When one sees a trail of vapour from an aeroplane streaking across the sky, it is evidence of movement but it is not serving a purpose. Conversely the movement of the pen makes a trail of ink and, in laying that trail, we make the shape of letters. A copy-book shows shapes and by the shapes the pupils learn to make the correct movements.

 And, in the Manual:

Writing is performed by movement: it is a dance of the pen. When looking on handwriting we do not see the motions of the pen, but the trail of ink laid by the pen when it was in contact with the paper.

Thus, by movement, we breathe life into the static exemplar.

Movement, however, is only one factor. Fairbank saw that handwriting is a system. 'The alphabet may be regarded as one large family with closely related groups within it'. So he taught the alphabet in stroke-related modules, following the practice of the early writing masters. Those who propose innovations based on the scratchings in pre-historic caves or on late Roman scrawl, before the Western alphabet letters had shaken down into a family, seem unable to grasp that such changes are irrational and cannot be fitted into a logical scheme. Other parts of the writing system include the nature of the pen, the way in which it is held, pen-angle, slope, stroke-sequence. They stand or fall together.

Fairbank's efforts were crowned with success in the late 50s and early 60s, when italic handwriting became extremely popular and was adopted in many schools. The counter-revolution was already under way. Schools were flooded with non-directional, ball-point 'writing instruments', many of them cheap and nasty, whereas italic teaching relied on the use of an edged pen held at an angle of about 45°. It was not, however, hard to demonstrate that Italic could be written legibly with these things. More fundamental was the change in the social climate, as a result of which good workmanship, discipline and drill became dirty words. These attitudes spread rapidly to schools, though they ought to be bastions rather than sluice-gates. The ideal towards which things appeared to be moving was that of the teacher as a 'chairperson' presiding neutrally in a learning area where children, by some mysterious osmosis, were educating themselves as they did their own thing. Many of the little victims were subjected to lunatic fads, such as 'creative writing', in which handwriting is somehow picked up as a by-product. Handwriting could not flourish in such conditions; it was shouldered out of the curriculum. In the last few years, however, when the throw-away ball-point was already becoming obsolescent and an affront to conservation, we have seen signs of reaction against pedagogic anarchy, so that there is some prospect that interest in handwriting in schools may revive. When that happens, Fairbank will come into his own again.

In this appreciation I have tried to let Alfred, as I shall now call him, speak with his own voice. I knew him for over forty years. To begin with, our relationship was that of congenial office colleagues. I learned much from him; in return, I was able to help him with my knowledge of Latin and modern languages. For, as the tributes in this issue prove, Alfred, more than any other handwriting reformer, acquired an international reputation, which was reflected in his correspondence. It gave him immense pleasure when Italic won acceptance in parts of the United States. He once told me: 'I have said that italic might ultimately thrive in the U.S.A. rather than in this country'. A shadow was cast over his last days by the withdrawal of the former Western American Branch. On 19 November 1962 he had written to me prophetically: 'We have had the fear that an American Society for Italic Handwriting might take the body of our membership, and this would be disastrous to our finances if it came about'.

We collaborated more intimately when, at his instance, I became editor of the JOURNAL. I assumed the task only because he urged it on me and I wanted to make something worthy of him. It was always in mind that I might suitably relinquish it on his death. The sad moment has arrived - thankfully at least ten years later than I estimated - and so I now bow out, saddened by the loss of a dear friend.