Reminiscences of Robert Bridges

By Alfred Fairbank
Date Added: 17/07/2009


Our parent body, the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, was formed in 1921 and three of the original members survive: Dorothy Hutton, M.V.O., Vera Law, and I. As I recall, our S.S.I. meetings were friendly and enthusiastic. We were young and anxious to excel.

In 1924 (50 years ago!) I made a suggestion that small groups might be formed by the Society to conduct research into various features of our craft. Accordingly, three Groups were appointed, namely the Heraldry Group, the Skins Group, and the Cursive Writing Group. I think that the successes we achieved at that stage were more from bringing members together in common, though defined, interests, but it may perhaps be claimed that ultimately The Calligrapher's Handbook derived from the idea behind the Groups.

Responsibility for the Cursive Writing Group caused me to search for sound principles, and for examples from the Renaissance. (In 1926 and 1927 I made two dozen copy-books in italic style for members and their friends.)

I remember a curious personal incident that had for me surprising results. One day in January 1926 I made a hurried visit to the British Museum to look at a 'Virgil' (Add. 11355) exhibited in a show-case. Two men were viewing it and I stood near waiting for them to move on. I heard the

older man remark to the younger man that he would like to frod another similar manuscript. The younger man looked doubtful, so I butted in and

told them there was a manuscript in the Library by Mark of Vicenza. Not realizing the extent of my impudence I hurried away. Three days later, at an exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, where my I formal calligraphy was represented, I was introduced to the younger man. He was Eric Millar, the Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. I apologized and found him a kindly man. He told me that he had been with Dr E. A. Lowe, the famous palaeographer, who was seeking examples of fine; contemporary handwriting for Robert Bridges. Consequently Dr Lowe wrote asking me if I could tell him something of the movement towards better handwriting in England and my own sources of inspiration, and he referred to the Poet Laureate's interest.

Encouraged by the tract on English Handwriting published in 1926 by the Society for Pure English and edited by Robert Bridges, I sent the Poet Laureate some notes on penmanship which he liked and reproduced in facsimile in the second S.P .E. tract of 1927.

There were other memorable events which followed on from my cheeky intervention. I spent a day in Oxford teaching Dr Lowe and his family to cut a quill. I recall that lunch was a very light-hearted affair after the exacting activity. In 1930 I visited Robert Bridges and his wife at Boar's Hill a few days before the death of R.B. (They were early pioneers in the movement for italic handwriting.) Mrs Bridges rang me at the Admiralty to ask if I could come right away and so I asked for a day's leave and hurried off to Oxford. What was wanted of me was a design for

a single phonetic symbol of italic style to complete an alphabet for use in the last three volumes of R.B's 'Collected Essays'. This was a letter to express the sound of u as in union and unite. I made various designs wider R.B's supervision until I produced a design which pleased him very much. This letter has a y-like feature.

Bridges had a project for a different phonetic alphabet, which he asked me to design, one adapted to a Roman type, but the plan was abandoned for lack of support after his death.

On my departure he said to me quietly and without pathos: 'Do you understand what I want? For you will not be here again. Don't grieve for me; I shall be glad to go.' Such a reconciled and noble attitude moved me to great admiration, which partly offset the sadness.

I like to think that the 'Introduction' to Calligraphy and Palaeography was written by the son, Lord Bridges, who at the time of his death was a Vice-President of this Society.