"Calligraphy is the art of fine writing, communicated by agreed signs; if these signs or symbols are painted or are engraved on wood or stone we have that extension of writing known as lettering.... Calligraphy may be defined as freehand [writing] in which the freedom is so nicely reconciled with order that the understanding eye is pleased to contemplate it." -- Stanley Morison

Ironically, at a time when personal handwritten communication is at an all-time low, the craft of calligraphy is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Whether the words are made with nib and ink, brush and paint, a piece of charcoal, or a spray can, the letters are made with determination and invention. The results, in any medium -- including digital -- can be stunning.


Many support groups have sprung up, workshops are given everywhere with some talented practitioners travelling internationally to teach, a glorious magazine, Letter Arts Review, inspires excellence with every issue, and websites proliferate.

Samples may also be seen on The Art of the Book '98 and The Art of the Book '03 exhibition pages, specifically Prize-Winning Entries and Calligraphy.

The Aphabet

From the beginnings of time when people began to scratch marks in the dirt with a stick or on a cave wall with charcoal in an effort to communicate some concept to a neighbour, through to today's "grunge" typography, letters are symbols for thought. As Morison says, we must agree on the meanings of those signs for there to be meaningful communication (as opposed to a communication of emotion we might get when looking at a page of script in a language we don't understand, such as a page from the Book of Kells or the Koran).

Fortunately for us, the signs used today, for most languages, have been standardized for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, allowing us to read -- and know -- what our ancestors thought. In the West, 23 of the 26 letters we use today were given their essential shapes by the Romans in carved inscriptions. Some letters were borrowed from the Greeks (who in turn borrowed them from the Phoenicians) and some were new; J, U and W have been added since, but generally these letters have remained unchanged as capital letters in all the western European languages. However, capital letters are time-consuming to write. Fine if you would spend the time carving them into marble, but the daily needs of religion, commerce, government, and scholarship -- from the time of the earliest writing -- demand a more fluid or cursive style of making letters on other surfaces such as papyrus, animal skins or cloth.

Styles of Writing

Lapidary writing, that is, suitable for inscriptions or monuments, is formal and stately. Great care is taken in forming the letters as befits the solemnity or importance of the event being documented. Capital letters are used, sometimes exclusively, and the text area -- whether a paragraph or a page -- is often ornately decorated.

Cursive, or "running" writing, or script is done quickly and the shapes of the letters are changed slightly to facilitate speedy formation. Used for taking notes or recording transactions, it is much less formal in appearance than lapidary lettering.

Bookhand is the name given to a type of lettering more formal than cursive but still less formal than lapidary. It must be easy to read in mass (ie, a paragraph or a page) which means the letters must be clear and distinct, yet it must also be written with some speed. Various forms of bookhand have been used to transmit the tale of western civilization.


Many different implements have been used over time to make letters: sharpened sticks in wax or clay, brushes, reeds, metal nibs, felt or nylon markers. Each tool has a profound effect on the letters made.

A brief, illustrated history of the calligraphic heritage of the roman alphabet is here, and many links to other calligraphy sites can be found here.

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