Learning to Write in England 1540-1850

A resume of a talk given at the Royal Society of Arts on II May 1967

By Joyce I. Whalley
Date Added: 17/07/2009


If I were to attempt a strict resume of my talk to the Society without all the slides from the National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum which accompanied it, the result would look more like a list of names than an historical account. For this was basically the content of my talk: an historical account of the development of English handwriting through three centuries, illustrated by examples from both the teacher and the taught. It would also take me too far into the realm of non-italic handwriting to be included in the JOURNAL of this Society. Nevertheless, I must point out here, as I did when considering the subject of my talk, that italic handwriting (or for that matter, any handwriting) does not exist in a vacuum. Handwriting has a history and a development; however concerned we are with contemporary styles, or with those of any specific period, it is as well to be aware of other styles and other periods.

My opening date of 1540 was rather arbitrarily chosen in order to include one of the manuscript treasures of the National Art Library; nevertheless it is quite a good date at which to commence a survey of this sort. For by this time the art of printing was well established, and the consequent multiplicity of books had led to a demand for greater literacy. The old order of scribes, or professional writers, was no longer of such importance, but the new writing master, or teacher of handwriting, held the Key to the future. The Tudors brought a political stability to England, in which trade could flourish and education spread; business accounts, letters, diaries, literary writings, pamphlets, all proliferated during this period. It is this type of "non-professional" handwriting that I shall consider in this survey, not the work of the professional scrivener.

The earliest of the Library's English calligraphic manuscripts is a small folio volume, containing a number of different alphabets; against the large initial letters are written copies in a variety of hands-italic, secretary, court, and various mixed hands. This book, which contains dates between 1540 and 1560, was probably a scribe's sample-book, which he could show to a prospective client. An ability to write a variety of styles was an important part of the writing master's accomplishment, since different hands were used for different types of documents-the legal hand for example (of which there were several versions) was not the hand used for a personal letter. Even for letters there were two hands in common use at this time. The secretary hand, deriving from the bastard hand of the previous century, was the usual Elizabethan hand, but the italic hand, brought into the country along with humanist studies, was very much the hand of the universities, as recent studies have shown, and of the educated public as a whole. The letter of Queen Elizabeth in the Forster collection shows this clearly: written for her by an official in the secretary hand, she has signed it in italic, which, at least in her early years, she wrote very well. Unlike the practice of our own day, when the carelessly scribbled signature is frequently illegible, the Elizabethan might write an ugly daily hand, but that important part of himself, his signature, he would probably write in a fine clear italic; it was also this hand that was most used for quotations or other important parts of a document.

One of the few well-known women calligraphers was Esther Inglis, daughter of an Huguenot refugee settled in Edinburgh. The Library's little manuscript book of prayers, though reputed to be by her, is probably by a follower; nevertheless it does give a good idea of her style, and it also contains a variety of hands in the manner of the contemporary copy book.

While considering the Elizabethans, I wish to call attention to the person who recorded the appearance of so many of them - Nicholas Hilliard, the miniature painter. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a number of portraits by him, and it is interesting to see how effectively he has combined the elegant italic inscriptions with his compositions. Hilliard was trained as a goldsmith, and this fact leads to another point, namely that the calligraphic inscriptions often found on gold- or silver-smiths' work also show the influence of contemporary handwriting, and deserve study on that account. It may be objected that these inscriptions were not produced with the pen, but we must remember that writing books were themselves usually engraved, and behind both the published copy book and the engraved inscription lies the handwritten model.

This brings me to another step in the development of English handwriting. The manuscript copy sheet or sample book was limited in use. A similar set of examples engraved on wood or copper could be multiplied to carry the writing master's fame to a far wider public, and would be more durable. The Library does not possess a copy of the first English writing book, the Baildon-Beauchesne A booke of copies, published in 1570; its earliest example of an engraved English copy book is The Pens Excellencie; or, the Secretaries Delight, published in 1618 by Martin Billingsley. Billingsley offers a great variety of hands, and in the printed text which accompanies the book he gives directions for forming the letters as well as giving his views on handwriting in general. He gives reasons why everyone should learn to write, even women, though he does not expect too much from his female pupils! Since the Italian hand was considered to be the easiest to learn, it was the most suitable hand to teach to women, "for as much as they (having not the patience to take any great parnes, besides phantasticall and humorsome), must be taught that which they may easily learne, otherwise they are uncertaine of their proceedings, because their minds are (upon light occasion) easily drawne from the first resolution".

Undoubtedly the most engaging writing master of them all was Edward Cocker (1631-1676). Full of zest and devoted to his art, he produced many copy books in the second half of the 17th century, all of them with splendid names: Arts Glory; or, the Penmans Treasurie; Penna Volans; or, the Young Mans Accomplishment; Multum in Parvo; or, the Pens Gallantrie, and so on. Ready to push the virtues of his art, take on a critic, or explain a letter-form with equal exuberance, he was a competent engraver of his own works as well as a versatile calligrapher, adorning his pages with labyrinthine "strikings", and hurling a defiant verse at those who said such things had nothing to do with the art of writing. After him the increasing claims of commerce left little time for such prodigality.

For the end of the 17th century saw the beginning of a new era. With the increase of trade at home, and with English merchant shipping penetrating to ever-more-distant parts of the globe, there was a need for more and more clerks and accountants. In the busy world of commerce, what was most necessary was a good clear hand, easily learnt and easily read. So that, after the great variety of styles prevalent earlier, the English round-hand, a composite form which at its best was both practical and legible, became supreme. This hand, carried round the world by bills of lading, letters of credit and other commercial documents, gave the 18th century English writing masters a position in society which they were not to enjoy again. The calibre of these masters was fully up to the position they enjoyed, but here only one can be mentioned. This was George Bickham, who in The Universal Penman, published in parts between 1733 and 1741, gathered together examples of contemporary handwriting by all the best masters of the day, and produced one of the most splendid of English copy books.

By the mid-18th century, English handwriting had more or less reached a style suitable for all types of business, and after that there was very little development. Mannerism crept in, and a weakening of the letter-forms. In the 19th century, the Education Acts carried the knowledge (if not the art) of writing to a far wider public; the first official handbook on the teaching of writing in government schools was published in 1843. From that date until the revival of interest in the handwritten book later in the century, and the subsequent work of William Morris, there was little concern about the style of handwriting being perpetrated in the schools.

With this background in mind, it is easier for us to place in perspective the revival of interest in handwriting in our own day, and the part played by the Society for Italic Handwriting.