Celebrating everyman's craft: the rich world of letters

Wonderful things are happening to the alphabet. It is being rediscovered by people who are again practicing fine penmanship, as well as by those who use word processors and work at computers.

And as if to confirm the national groundswell of interest in calligraphy as well as in the print process, the ABC's have now earned museum status. The Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York's decorative arts arm of the Smithsonian Institution, has mounted an unusual show called ''Writing and Reading,'' which broadly outlines the evolution of writing, printing, and books.

''As a museum concerned primarily with the messages communicated through design,'' director Lisa Taylor explains, ''it was perhaps inevitable that the Cooper Hewitt would eventually turn its attention to communication itself - more specifically, writing and reading. We thought it was time to celebrate the invention and the rich variety of forms of the handwritten and printed word.''

What the exhibition coordinator, Lucy Fellowes, has pulled together is a delightful assemblage of everything from ancient cuneiform writing tables to antique typewriters, early printing presses, quill pens, and the latest CPT (the name of the company that makes it) word processor, which both children and adults can learn to operate on the spot.

She exhibits examples of fine penmanship on official documents, commemorative and social papers, and in the notebooks of accomplished students. Calligraphy, in the form of monograms and inscriptions, is shown on tiles, metal, textiles, glass, and paper.

In exhibits aimed especially at children, the ABC's are seen in oversized alphabet blocks, primers, samplers, games, toys, and dishes, all of which suggest some of the many ways in which children are taught the alphabet.

The museum will use this current exhibition as a teaching tool and will conduct classes, lectures, and demonstrations on such subjects as calligraphy, bookbinding, and preservation.

Young bibliophiles will make their own ink and paper and create their own verse and illustrations, using calligraphic and printing techniques. They will learn print styles, book and type design, and the history of printing.

One of the features of the exhibition, scheduled to run through Jan. 3, 1982, is a regular screening of ''Alphabet: The Story of Writing,'' which was prepared for the Parker Pen Company and incorporates the on-camera demonstrations of Donald Jackson, the Scribe to Her Majesty's Crown Office in London.

One of Mr. Jackson's most recent assignments was to inscribe the royal assent giving the Queen's permission for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Mr. Jackson also recently executed a series of royal charters for every city in England and Wales. In addition, he is responsible for preparing letters patent under the Great Seal and various other ceremonial documents.

This energetic Briton points out, however, that the Queen is not his only client. He also produces illuminated documents, panels, and books for corporate and civic institutions, for private collectors, and for the Church of England. He works in the medieval tradition, using vellum or very fine parchment and writes with a quill he makes himself. He also prepares his own colors and applies 22-karat gold leaf for illumination.

Donald Jackson's fascination with letters and their shapes goes back to his childhood in Lancashire when, at age nine, he earned the title ''school scribe.'' His talent won him a scholarship to the Bolton College of Art. He later studied at the Central School of Art in London as well as at London University. He has taught calligraphy and illuminating at Camberwell College of Art.

Because of his academic background and his reputation as a royal scribe, Mr. Jackson has been able to script a multifaceted career for himself, not only as calligrapher, but as a lecturer and author. He is now in the United States to launch his book, ''The Story of Writing'' (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, $22.50) and to speak before calligraphy societies around the country.

''When I first starting coming to this country in 1969,'' he says, ''people scarcely knew what the word calligraphy meant, much less how to do it. Since then I have been going up and down the States, teaching, lecturing, and demonstrating, and I have watched this fascination grow and this thing happen before my eyes.''

Today dozens of schools, universities, and adult education centers are offering calligraphy courses as a result of popular demand, and sometimes in spite of an insufficient supply of qualified teachers.

''People love calligraphy because it enables them to control the work of their own hands, and to produce a form which pleases them. Both men and women, but women especially, have taken up calligraphy as a satisfying and creative hobby.''

''Writing is, after all, every man's craft,'' he points out. Mr. Jackson terms calligraphy ''painting with words.'' He believes that in its highest essence, and certainly as it is practiced in the Orient, it is a true art form. He also maintains that a person can make a living as a calligrapher or scribe today. Many people are doing just that, although their work may vary from routine filling in of names on diplomas, place cards, and invitations to doing important ceremonial documents and scrolls, and translating great words of literature into artistic graphic form for framing.

''Every person loves to see his own name beautifully and individually written by hand,'' he declares. ''But when quantities of a specially executed calligraphic work are desired, photo lithography now makes possible good reproduction. I am sometimes hired to work a full day or two to create some very special document. It may later be reproduced by the thousands, but it always represents my own skills and personal approach to the assignment.''

Today, Mr. Jackson says, there are at least 70 calligraphy societies in the US, ranging from the Society of Scribes in New York with 2,500 members to the Society For Calligraphy in Los Angeles with l,500 members. He has spoken before the Calligraphy Society of Philadelphia as well as the Calligraphic Collective of Chicago.

Ten years ago no such societies existed. ''When I gave my first lecture on calligraphy here,'' Mr. Jackson recalls, ''500 people showed up, and they all viewed each other with amazement, since each had thought he stood and worked alone.''

Last June the first world workshop conference of calligraphers was held at St. John's University in St. Cloud, Minn., when 400 scribes from all over the country gathered for a week of lectures, workshops, and films. ''It was a great success. It showed us all what happens when people start investing energy, time, and commitment to making something happen with their own hands. It gives them the most incredible satisfaction and pleasure.''

Mr. Jackson sees an upward surge of the hobby craft aspects of calligraphy, but foresees that that interest could decrease later, after people have tested their skills.

As part of his countrywide tour, Donald Jackson will give demonstrations in Boston, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Detroit, all mainly sponsored by local calligraphy societies.

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