Despite the notion that "a legible hand is a mark of bad breeding," many people are involved in the quest for better handwriting. It may be little more than a passing phase, but fancy hand lettering is turning up everywhere --menus.
Wade Hampton, a partner in the Calligrapher's Loft in New York and calligraphy teacher at the Parsons School of Design Continuing Education program , calls the current interest in lettering a "fantastic fad." Local organizations are springing up all over the country, he says, and more established associations have expanded in recent years. The Society of Scribes in New York City, for example, has grown to more than 2,000 members.
Many people are attracted to calligraphy, Mr Hampton says, because it is inexpensive, readily available, and very satisfying. Calligraphy, he adds, is part of the reaction against our machine-oriented society.
Courses are offered by many private teachers and organizations all over the country including art schools, adult-education centers, local calligraphy guilds and societies, and even private businesses.
Mr. Wade and his partner, Patricia Ross, teach calligraphy courses to secretaries, art directors, and other employees once a week during lunch hour at corporations such as Union Carbide, ABC, NBC, Avon, McGraw-Hill, and the Equitable Life Assurance Society.
Although interest is strong in the United States and is growing worldwide, London remains the focal point for the art. In the late 1800s, an Englishman named Edward Johnston revived the art of lettering with a broad-edged quill pen. In 1906 he published the classic primer for calligraphers, called "Writing, Illuminating and Lettering."
Today, Donald Jackson, one of Queen Elizabeth II's principal scribes, ranks as one of the foremost calligraphers in the world and is well known in the US for his lectures and workshops. The Society of Scribes and Illuminators, an international organization based in London, admits only the creme de la cremem of calligraphers into its ranks.
Karen O'Neill Newman of Auburndale, Mass., one of the 80 elected craft members of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, studied at The City and Guilds of London Art School under Donald Jackson for three years. She agrees with Mr. Hampton that the current popularity of calligraphy is part of a general revival of interest in handcrafted things.
Calligraphy, she says, can give words a special interpretation that cannot be achieved with type. Many of her students want to learn hand lettering to make meaningful gifts, such as hand-done cards or quotations.
Robert Merrill, of the Boston Institute for Better Handwriting, says the great revival of calligraphy comes at a time when regular handwriting has deteriorated to the point where it is sometimes unreadable. His more serious students, he says, are interested in calligraphy for its legibility as well as its beauty.
"When people do write well, it's exceptional, and people are impressed by it, " he says.
Mr. Merrill says some students take calligraphy courses as a hobby or to make extra money on projects such as hand-lettering diplomas and invitations and addressing envelopes. Unfortunately, he says, it is not always as lucrative as they hope it will be.
Learning calligraphy takes patience and dedication. At first, many of his students dropped out because they expected to learn fancy flourishes without working up to them. Mr. Merrill remedied the problem for the most part when he learned to explain to new students, "You can't learn to run until you can walk."
In his courses, Mr. Merrill starts with the foundational Roman alphabet, which he describes as classic, simple, and architectural."The letters support themselves just as a structure would," he says.
A derivative of the Roman alphabet, the Roman uncials, were used from the fifth to the eighth century for the finest books, writes Edward Johnston in his book. Under the English and Irish, he says, handwriting based on the Roman uncials reached an "unrivaled" degree of perfection.
The rounded forms of the Roman style and its variations later evolved into the Old English or Gothic style of the Middle Ages, explains Mr. Merrill. The scarcity of paper or skins to write on at the time caused the letters to become compressed. The letter forms were angular and, in dedication to the glory of God, had a vertical thrust and pointed tops that reached toward heaven.
During the Renaissance, Mr. Merrill explains, the proliferation of writing and the desire to copy books and manuscripts for posterity required an alphabet that could be written more quickly than the Gothic style.
In Italy alone, the roundness of the earlier styles, or hands, had never been fully lost. As writing became faster, the letters became curved (more oval in shape than the circular Roman letters), and naturally slanted to the right.
The style dating from this period is referred to as "italic," and is the form Mr. Merril teaches in his classes after students have learned the Roman letters.
The italic style is visually appealing because it is light, delicate, and elegant, he says, and the thin and thick strokes of the letters make it pleasing to the eye.
Like many other skills, it takes practice to master the basics, Mr. Merrill explains. But once learned, italic writing is very fast and the cursive, or running, hand can be used instead of regular handwriting.
"To be able to write quickly, legibly, and beautifully is appealing to people ," he says.