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Art Focus: Calligraphy

Calligraphy, the art of decorative handwriting (the word calligraphy translates as ‘beautiful writing’), began back in ancient Egypt with the famous Book of the Dead, and the hieroglyphics that were used to create it. Never before had anything so instructional also been so beautiful. And in China in 3000BC, calligraphy was considered to be the very highest art form, and those who practiced it were revered and highly sought after. The same is true of Arabic calligraphy, which is still used today.

The western style of calligraphy came much later, around 600BC, and it wasn’t always about making documents look attractive. When it was first created it was so that the written word could easily be copied over and over again. There were no printing presses, no computers, nothing that would make the job an easy one, and each book – mainly religious texts, although Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Beowulf and the King Arthur stories amongst others would also have been written in this way – had to be copied out by hand. In order to make the chore less time consuming and easier on the eyes (there was no electricity, so everything was written either in natural light or by candlelight) calligraphy was used.

Calligraphy writing was an incredibly specialised job since not many of the population could read or write. The style of western calligraphy changed over the centuries; originally it was known as Caroline script, and it was created by Alcuin, the Abbot of York. He gathered together a number of scribes specifically to copy out texts, and he taught them all how to use his special style of calligraphy so that all the books would look the same. Eventually this style – which included large characters and took up a lot of space on the page – evolved into the more recognisable Gothic script, the characters of which are smaller and therefore less paper was used when copying out the texts.

A calligrapher doesn’t need many specialist tools to create their written art; a pen, ink and paper are the most important items. Calligraphy pens (called ‘dip pens’) differ to the standard ink or fountain pen in that their nibs are more flexible, allowing them to spread out more when being used. This is what gives a piece of calligraphy its different ebbs and flows. Also, a dip pen doesn’t use a cartridge – it is dipped into the ink, much like a quill would have been. Dip pens can come with a range of different nibs which can be changed depending on the look you want to create.

The ink used should be water-based as it is thinner and easier to move about on the paper. Oil-based inks stick and blob and end up in a mess more times than not. Speaking of the paper, it needs to be high quality (practising on standard copy paper isn’t a problem, but it won’t give you the look you’re hoping for) with a good absorption rate. Vellum or parchment can also be used.

In Chinese and Japanese calligraphy a brush is more often used. This gives a different final look and works well with the intricate patterns and lines of the sinograms.

If you want to try calligraphy for yourself, there are courses and events in Kent to get you started. Here are just a few of them…

Calligraphy Workshops // Kent Adult Education (various locations)
Kent Adult Education often runs free calligraphy workshop sessions across the county. These taster sessions talk about the different styles of calligraphy as well as the history, before allowing those taking part to try it for themselves. KAE also runs a variety of different calligraphy courses from beginner to expert.


The Calligraphy Studio // Sandwich

Julia Baxter offers 10-week adult calligraphy classes from her home in Sandwich, but she also offers private tuition. Julia works as a full-time scribe and can often be seen at historical events where she will demonstrate the art of calligraphy.


Beginners’ Calligraphy // Sun In The Wood Craft Days // Sittingbourne

Whether you are a complete novice or have some calligraphy experience, this day will bring out all of your creative talents. It starts with a brief introduction to using nibs and quills, then explains how the letter is formed using inks and colours. Learn more about gilding (the art of laying gold leaf as practiced by the medieval monks in their traditional illuminated manuscripts). Your day will take you through all the various stages needed to create a gold leafed letter to take home mounted and framed.

No previous experience of lettering is necessary! The day costs £55 and includes a light lunch, snacks and drinks throughout the day, all materials, course notes, and your finished project to take home with you.


Calligraphy Workshops // The Cinque Port Scribes (various locations)

The Cinque Port Scribes was set up in 1992 and is open to anyone with an interest in calligraphy and the lettering arts. Throughout the year its members run various different workshops catering for a number of different styles of calligraphy including large brush calligraphy, Anglo Saxon lettering, the principles of design, and illuminated lettering.

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