The Write Stuff

River cursive script in the style of Emperor TaiAndrea here, musing today on writing. Or specifically, on handwriting. An old friend of mine wrote me a note about the blog I did on letterpress printing, and shared her own love of letterforms with a sample of the Zen calligraphy, which she’s been studying (and teaching) for a number of years.

I’m in awe of people who can create such beautiful art—for in my opinion, letters are true art. And that got me to thinking about handwriting. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have TERRIBLE handwriting. (right) It’s embarrassing, as I was an art major, should be able to create a nicer IMG_8608looking page than my pitiful scrawl. I try to explain it away by the fact that I’m slightly dyslexic. In typing I tend to transpose letters all the time. (You don’t want to try to read a paragraph that I type in hurry—it’s scary.) And when writing by hand, I do tend to mix up which letter comes next, especially if I try to rush. I have to be really careful at book signings to get a person’s name spelled right. (It’s actually rather stressful.)

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A New Slant on Writing

Book-cover-pride-and-prejudiceIn the Matthew Macfadyen / Keira Knightley 2005 production of Pride and Prejudice, there's a scene where Mr. Darcy is writing a letter, despite Miss Bingley's determination he shall pay attention to her instead.  It reads, in part:

Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady either on his hand-writing, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in unison with her opinion of each.

"How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!"

He made no answer.

"You write uncommonly fast."

"You are mistaken. I write rather slowly."

"How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of the year! Letters of business too! How odious I should think them!"

"It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours."

In that scFashionable letter 2 writer troy ny merrian moore 1850eHenry wallis dr johnson at cave's the publisherne, we see Mr. Darcy writing his letter using a "writing slope''.  Go ahead.  Rent the film and see. 

This 'writing slope' is a wood box with an angled surface, elevated a couple inches above the desk or table, slanted and padded with felt or leather.  See the folks at the left using these.  The man in the wig is Samuel Johnson. 

Pole In the Library 1805This writing slope might be a heavy object, made for use in the comfort of the library or study.  It might stay at home, perfectly content, and never go adventuring.  Or the writing slant might lead a very exciting life indeed … 

 

Toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, the writing slope shrank in size, sprouted handles, and transformed itself into a sort of traveling desk.  Jefferson's desk wiki2 Lap_desk_interior_view wiki

It was now both a a writing surface and a sturdy wood box for transporting and storing the impedimenta.  Like the stay-at-home writing slopes, these traveling desks or 'lap desks' were angled to provide that optimal slanted writing experience. 

That writing desk on the far right, by the way, is said to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  

The lap desk was hinged in the middle and opened to reveal the felted or leather writing surface.  Underneath each half were compartments for storing writing paper and letters half completed.  Maybe there'd be a slim drawer at the end, especially in the early examples.  In any case, you'd have your ingenious cubbies to hold ink bottles and quill pens, sealing wax, silver sand, blotters, penwipes and so on.  Some of the most elaborate lap desks had sneaky little compartments lurking behind the drawers or opening with clever, secret levers and slides.

A man's penmanship is an unfailing index of his character, moral and mental, and a criterion by which to judge his peculiarities of taste and sentiments.
                 Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield

Portable writing desk c18
This sturdy, portable writing desk was the computer laptap of the Regency, encouraging literacy and correspondence on shipboard and battlefield, at any stray country inn or during the occasional stint in prison. 

From the name 'lap desk' you'd think you could use them in your lap.  But they folded in the middle, you see, so I feel a certain skepticism.  On the other hand, computer laptops aren't used in laps either, most generally, so it is a lesson not to be so literal.

Gd writing box 2

Seeing Mr. Darcy engage in writing on his writing slope sent me to hauling out a lap desk that belonged to my grandfather.  It's about a century old, I would think, and an inexpe nsive example of theLetter breed.  The felted writing surface is worn and torn.  Some of the wood's stained.  But it got a lot of use, writing letters home.    

Gd writing desk 11aThis one for instance, on the left.  I like to think it was written using that writing desk.

Looking at all this collection of images across the centuries, I spent a while considering why folks liked to write at a slant, did it for so long, and then just seemed to lose the desire.  Slanted writing surfaces seem to peter out in the Twentieth Century. 

In what was a flash of insight for me, but may be obvious to everybody else, I decided ink flows more easily if the downward stroke is laid across paper at a slant.  On flat paper the writing is more likely to pool and blot when the ink flows with unruly haste. 
When we gave up quill pens and fountain pens, we also gave up the leisurely application of pen to gracefully slanted paper.  

… the beauty and nobility, the august mission and destiny, of human handwriting.
                 George Bernard Shaw

I see artists working on a huge slanted surface.  Anybody here use a slant for writing or drawing?  For calligraphy?