In Memoriam: Alfred Fairbank

Albert Kapr

Some days ago when I was completing the bibliography to an English edition of my Schreibkunst, I could see that Alfred Fairbank was one of the most productive authors of our time on the subject of calligraphy and handwriting. Although I believe that his influence is greater in the English-speaking world, yet here too in East Germany, he is known to every graphic artist and calligrapher, and the revival of calligraphy is closely linked with his name.

Unfortunately I had only a few opportunities to speak to him. In 1957, he visited an exhibition of the Art of the Book in East Germany in Arbemarle Street, for which, with Professor Hans Rodenberg, I was responsible; and some days later I heard a lecture of his which had been organised by the Society for Italic Handwriting. In the summer of 1970, when we had again set up an exhibition at the National Book League, he invited me down to Brighton, where a small display of his work had been arranged in the municipal library. There I was impressed above all by the carefully handwritten correspondence with his friends in many countries. Afterwards we took a long walk along the splendid promenade and discussed the relationship between the printed and written word. He was particularly interested in the problems of Fraktur (German black-letter type) and German handwriting as well as the various developments in writing in West and East Germany. What has specially stuck in my mind is his simplicity, his alert blue eyes, and - an uncommon phenomenon nowadays - his willingness to listen.

It was Hans Schmoller who directly stimulated my concern with handwritten script as an art-form, and Berthold Wolpe supplied me with the necessary literature. When I was fostering italic handwriting among my pupils, and in due course Frau Renate Tost was working on her thesis dealing with a new writing model for all the children in East Germany, we found that Alfred Fairbank's books were the most valuable guides. We studied the writing books of Arrighi, Cresci and Palatino as well as other fine Renaissance hands which he had brought to light. We were particularly enthusiastic about the handwriting of Michelangelo, which is so full of character. But in regard to the practical question of a new model for children - for example, the optimum space between the downstrokes of m and n and after the ligature of e, we found the best advice in the exemplars and books of Alfred Fairbank. So it is clear that, as a result of our search for a guide, something of his style has been embodied in the East German school model.

Looking back on my work, I have to admit that I have been constantly indebted to English artists and colleagues for inspiration. As a student, my ideal was William Morris, poet, printer and committed critic of the culture of his society. Later I learned to prize Stanley Morison; a conversation with him at his flat in Whitehall Court is one of my most precious memories of England. His own compositions, his activities in unearthing the treasures of the finest classic type-faces for the Monotype Corporation, and his extremely wise thoughts about the connexion between script and religion have made a deep impression on me. Finally, it was Alfred Fairbank who in his fashion drew my attention to the relationship between everyday handwriting and formal calligraphy, and stirred my interest in developing handwriting models for our schools.