Home > Uncategorized > An art history of handwriting?

An art history of handwriting?

‘Style’ is a curious thing. As an art historian its a major concern: trying to understand the twists and turns of this or that motif, from the way a given artist’s personal way with a brush changes over time, to the choices made by architects about entire buildings: Gothic or Classical? Ionic or Corinthian? These architectural decisions of course, are relatively self-conscious: I want it to look like this. Painterly style is seen as less so — as being a side-effect or expression of personal choices driven by self-expression and aesthetic preference — but even here there is a strong element of conscious choice: one of the reasons we are able to look at something and call it Impressionist, or Quattrocento, or whatever. But I’d never really thought of handwriting in this way before. In some cultures – the Islamic and Chinese worlds, for example – writing is the highest of arts; but even there, much writing is much more workaday than that: simply a way of recording information, of fixing words for future reference, of communicating the prosaic. Yet handwriting, like art, moves in broad stylistic waves; and each of us develops a way of writing that is to some extent an expression of our personalities, but which also, consciously or not, fits into a broader cultural context of how the handwriting of a particular kind of person ought to look. There is a sense then in which all our handwritings render us artists. I’m struck by this as I crawl my way through these churchwarden’s accounts, watching the C16 inch its way into the C17, and the C17 make its way forwards to the modern world. These are workaday attempts to record ingoings and outgoings, likely to be scrutinised at the end of the financial year and then ignored for the rest of human history. Until a trainspotter like me comes along, trawling dull lists of payments for insight into the past. Here they are, stacked up in great volumes in the record office, recording the ‘bread and ale’ bought for the bellringers after they marked the mayor’s entrance into the city in the 1680s, a treat that becomes ‘tobacco and ale’ by the 1700s: newly fashionable drugs (2010: ‘line of coke and lager?). Marking the purchase of ‘nayles’ to fix doors, the constant repair of bell ropes, the purchase of ‘gunshot to kill birds in the church’. Becoming fuller and more exacting as they move into the pomp and red tape of the C19. And all the time, the handwriting gradually evolves. It changes its style. And what is so striking is that it moves in broad phases that align with the broad developmental patterns of art itself, and which in turn are somehow hung from the great invisible superstructure of History. So these wills and title deeds from the 1490s are carefully written by trained clerks, rounded, squashed and relatively legible, in spite of often being written in another language: Latin. Forty years later, the Latin has vanished except as an occasional word; so too have the trained clerks. Everything is written in Secretary Hand, which sounds very efficient but is in fact, in the hands of the local churchwarden, one of the hardest things on earth to read – even though it’s now in English. This curious, slightly nightmarish way of writing, all to-us distorted and compressed letter forms and unfamiliar ways of making marks, it strikes me, is the handwriting equivalent of Elizabethan and Jacobean art. This is a world in which Classical motifs are squashing themselves into a way of thinking about how things should look that is still late Gothic. A world in which a Great Disjuncture has occurred, the mass extinction of the monasteries, and is still being played out; in which every aspect of visual, religious and increasingly political culture is being violently contested. A world in which visual things are rarely beautiful, and can be even rather nightmarish, if certainly impressive. One might better call this Jacobethan Hand than Secretary Hand. This does not mean that the words themselves have problems. It’s a version of Secretary Hand that Marlowe, Shakespeare and others presumably used to form some of the greatest combinations of letters into words and words into sentences ever attempted in the English language; in which the King James Bible and its predecessors were, I imagine, first drafted. Thank God that printing is by now reasonably commonplace, or we’d have trouble reading words which underpin so much English literature and song ever since. Indeed printing, I suspect, is one of the  reasons for all this: people are no longer dependent on handwriting to make books: if something needs to be legible and understood by enough other eyes, it can be printed. Indeed I suspect handwriting is deteriorating for comparable reasons right now: as everyone is word processing, and every text can be spellchecked and published automatically, we are each, when writing by hand, increasingly likely to fall into a C21 version of sixteenth-century writing. Post Modern Hand. When did you last see someone’s handwriting? We used to see it all the time. But then, in the 1680s and 1690s, look what happens: it’s still Secretary Hand, but somehow it’s stretching out, becoming legible, reasonable, straightforward. By the early 1700s its morphing into a kind of italic, fully-formed by mid-century. I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons for this that historians of palaeography, or education, of whatever, have uncovered: what strikes me now is that again, ordinary writing is lining up rather neatly with broad phases of development in artistic style, and in turn, with history itself. The backdrop, then, to this change in the way the sexton and the carpenter write out their receipts to the churchwardens is Wren, Hawksmoor, the belated but brilliant tide of a truly understood Renaissance; Newton, the Royal Society and later the Enlightenment; the gradual, painful accommodation both religious and political that marks the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, etc. The term Italic is right: the culture that comes from Italy. These are Whiggish historical clichés, of course, yet it’s very hard not to read these men keeping their accounts in no-doubt rather cold parish rooms, and watch the way the letters move out of the nibs of their pens over the striding decades, and not see history itself come into focus, or feel the modern world hurtling into being, as Jacobethan Hand becomes English Baroque Italic, and before you know it the age of machines and Empire and near-universal literacy is upon us: I have yet to study Gothic Revival Hand, Historicism Hand, let alone Brutalist Hand. But perhaps I’ll know them when I see them.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. David Cannon
    December 11, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    Fascinating; though it reminds me of your own curious, slightly nightmarish way of writing, sorry, I mean ‘Post Modern Hand’!

  2. December 11, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    well landed, Dave!

  3. December 11, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    It’s funny, I get that language is a symbolic representation of thoughts, feelings, imaginings, reactions to experiences. But I hadn’t thought of the handwriting itself as a symbolic expression of experience. Beautiful…and poignant. We’ve lost that with printing…

    I also love how the daily life of people so long ago comes out as you peruse these records. It brings them to life, fleshes them out. It’s easy to lose that connection, that people long ago were people. Maybe that should be obvious but I don’t think it always is.

  4. December 11, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    Interesting points!

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