Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 114
October 1997


Protogothic Transitional Hands

By Frances Manola

Lecture given July 16, 1997 at the Grolier Club, and sponsored by the Society of Scribes, the Grolier Club, the New York Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers, Jersey Shore Calligraphy Guild, and Island Scribes.

This lecture was held half-way into a five-day workshop given by Ewan Clayton and Ward Dunham at Stevens Institute in Hoboken. There was a fine turn-out, since many others besides those in the workshop attended.

The two lecturers, so di fferent in their physical size and styles of speaking, stood on either side of the screen as the slides appeared, and when one was talking, the other might inject some of his own ideas. Before showing the slides, each told something about himself. Ewan ("yew-en"), a British calligrapher, is slight in stature and moved quickly back and forth and up to the screen during the lecture. He grew up in Ditchling and studied at Roehampton Institute with Ann Camp, having previously lived for four years as a Benedictine monk. He now divides his time between commissions and lecturing. Ward's fascination with the broad-edged writing tool began in southeast Asia in 1964 with a chisel-cut bamboo pen which changed the course of his life; his studies in formal calligraphy were with Georgianna Greenwood. He is a founding member of the Society of Scribes, and we met in that now famous workshop given by Donald Jackson in 1974.

Ward, a large husky man, made the initial remarks - the solemn announcement of the recent death of two fine and influential English calligraphers - Heather Child and Nicolete Gray. Ewan then began the lecture by revealing its purpose. To refresh your memory we are reproducing the heading which Ward had designed for our postcard and flyer showing the Carolingian and the Gothic which have little resemblance to each other.

Protogothic Transitional placed between those two styles, represents the many evolving hands, moving from the round to the straight and broken strokes of the Textura Quadrata. The Carolingian minuscule with many variations had been used for several centuries in the writing of manuscripts, but as the need for more speed and economy of space grew, the roundness of these letters gradually straightened and became more condensed, saving the cost of precious and costly vellum. Whereas the overall appearance of a page written in Carolingian letters was one of lightness and spaciousness, as the strokes became heavier and closer, the page took on an overall darker texture which led to the general term "blackletter". In medieval times and earlier there was so much movement back and forth across borders, fighting of wars, winning land and then losing it again, that it is hard for us to realize how important it was for each country to have a national identity, and the handwriting in their books helped to establish this. Architecture strongly influenced these letter styles, the round Roman mimicking the Roman arch, and the Gothic letters resembling the breathtaking peaks of the Gothic cathedral. The Carolingian letters were the basis of the Roman type which we use today, and we were treated to many examples from fine illuminated manuscripts and, mixed in with them, was a slide of the tranquil view from Ewan's cell when he was a monk.

Ward and Ewan then got into a discussion of a sense of play in the creative process, and the slides took a di fferent turn. This group commenced with a slide of one of Ewan's inventions which has become synonymous with his name. He has been doing a great deal of innovating with letters, never losing sight of its appropriateness or the meaning of a quotation. One style is shown here from a poem by Rumi, with a translation for those of you who think it can't be read. At first glance it may appear to be abstract, but as Ewan said, "You can read it; it does say something."

He then told of the great fun and inspiration that came to him while creating this fanciful lettering. He spoke excitedly of the wonderful design and texture which resulted, transforming the page itself into a work of art. This then led to a discussion of the subject of legibility, since all calligraphers were taught that letters must be easily read because their message has to get to the reader. Yes, but is there a situation when legibility may not be of first consideration? The answer is obvious, that if you know what a phrase or quotation says, then you can play with the letters and make them into a texture or design, at which time it becomes an art-form. As Ewan showed us the letters he loved so much, he was very intense in his enthusiasm for them.

Ward spoke of his great love of everything Gothic. From the beginning of his studies with the broad pen, he was strongly attracted to blackletter, and even other objects that were black and massive. He spoke of a heavy black metal Viking helmet he had seen in the Tower of London. He showed us a slide of it, and it is just possible that no one else at the lecture might have been impressed with it. But his enthusiasm made us all think of it in a respectful way. From his first glimpse of it he was so captivated by this helmet that one of the guards took it out of the cabinet and let him try it on. This delighted Ward so much that he was able to have a fiber glass copy made for himself. Now things have progressed even further, and an exact copy is now being made for him in black metal similar to the original. He also has a great sense of awe concerning the great Gothic cathedrals, which sometimes took as long as 200 years to build. They were especially wonderful when we realize that nothing on that scale had ever before been accomplished. The engineers were learning on-the-job, and it was understandable that sometimes an area would collapse and have to be redone. He feels they are greater than anything done during the Renaissance.

Ward urged everyone to visit the Cloisters, the part of the Metropolitan Museum which is up in Fort Tryon Park [at the top of Manhattan] and easily reached by [a Fifth Avenue] bus. It holds many medieval treasures, and the goblets, chalices and cups contained there are dear to his heart. He then spoke of the massive sculpture of Balzac by Rodin in the Museum of Modern Art Garden - a favorite of his. This is a familiar piece to me, as my office in the old Whitney Museum once looked down upon the garden.

Ward and Ewan have been collaborating and giving joint lectures for about two years. This link-up is particularly interesting because of the opposite direction their work has taken - Ewan's with its emphasis on the round, open forms of the Carolingian, and Ward's obsession with everything Gothic. This lecture pointed to the transitional writing between their two favorite styles, blurring their di fferences, but beyond this, it showed the harmony of their feelings about art itself. The personalities of our two lecturers captivated the audience. Ward's enthusiasm shone through his calm demeanor, while Ewan's wiry figure jumped up and down, ran over to the screen where his work was appearing and seemed to be trying to get into his own creation - to touch and hold those letters. A good time was had by all, and this was a tribute to the humorous, yet in-depth coverage of the subject matter.

Frances Manola
August 30, 1997