Calligraphy and illumination, at their finest in the astonishing beauty of medieval manuscripts, have during the course of the twentieth century established themselves as thoroughly contemporary art forms.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Edward Johnston, considered to be the father of modern calligraphy, redefined the use of the edged pen. Mainly due to his studies, analysis and teaching, present day scribes are producing hand-written documents to rival even the historical masterpieces.
One of Johnston’s early students, Graily Hewitt, researched 14th century methods of laying gold leaf, conducting experiments over many years into the composition of gesso as a raising preparation. Through these experiments he recovered the lost art of raised and burnished gilding and his work has inspired exciting developments in late twentieth century illumination.
The traditional body of work for the scribe today includes presentation addresses, freedom scrolls, Patents of Nobility, ecclesiastical service books and memorials, diplomas and certificates and decorative panels of poetry and prose.
Calligraphy has also been the basis for other lettering disciplines such as letter carving in wood and stone, letter engraving on glass and in type design, where it underlies many of the century’s most influential type faces.
Significantly, the demand for calligraphy in work for reproduction in media such as newspapers, magazines, film and television and graphic design is growing.
There is an increasing interest in collecting works of contemporary calligraphy and private individuals as well as public bodies are among the patrons of the craft.
The Society of Scribes and Illuminators
The SSI was founded in 1921 in the UK by early students of Edward Johnston with the aim of advancing the crafts of writing and illumination. Today it is the international focus for professional calligraphers and enthusiastic amateurs, drawing its membership from the United Kingdom, Ireland, continental Europe, the USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and the Far East.
The SSI is and has always been a non-profit organisation. There are no owners, no shareholders, no external investors, and all profits are 100% reinvested for future activities of the Society.
Membership of the SSI
Fellowship of the Society, gained by peer election, demands technical accomplishment, a mature appreciation of historical models and the ability to adapt these for use in contemporary work.
Lay membership, introduced in 1952, is open to anyone who, through their interest and support, wishes to help the SSI advance and promote the craft of calligraphy. Lay members receive the SSI journal and newsletters, may attend the Society’s meetings and workshops and in addition are invited every year to submit a piece of work for inclusion in the Lay Members’ Exhibition at Capital Letters Day. Exhibitors may also request a written critique of their work by a Fellow.
A recently introduced category, Friend of the SSI, is for those who are interested in the Society and its activities but who do not wish to attend meetings or submit work for exhibitions including Lay Members’ Exhibition and Capital Letters Day.
The SSI’s highly respected journal, “The Scribe”, is published twice a year, and a newsletter carrying up to the minute reports of special interest to practising calligraphers is circulated to members four times a year.
Promoting calligraphy through exhibitions has always been an important feature of the Society’s activities and since 1922 major London shows have been mounted at venues such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Crafts Centre, the National Book League, the Central School of Arts and Crafts, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Leighton House.
An exhibition was sent to New York in 1938, arousing enthusiasm for the craft in the US, the beginnings of an involvement which has in recent years burgeoned to epidemic proportions.
It is hoped in the future to mount exhibitions on a regular basis at venues around the UK, bringing calligraphy to a much wider public.
The SSI has published the now standard text book on the techniques of the craft, ‘The Calligrapher’s Handbook’, edited by Heather Child. Also available are several slide sets of work carried out by those at the top of their profession.
The Society’s Library, which may be used by any member, houses over 500 books and periodicals, some of which are otherwise unobtainable. A recent, much prized addition to the Library is ‘London’s Handwriting’ by Colin Banks, published by the London Transport Museum, a handsome folio study of Edward Johnston’s 1916 ‘Underground Sans’ typeface illustrated with prints taken from the original wood blocks.
Maintaining a tradition of fine lettering
For committed students with a high level of ability, the Society runs a Creative Development Course which comprises two weekends a year for three years with a team of six Fellows as tutors. Through set projects, critiques and discussion, the development of a personal direction is encouraged. This is the only course in the UK at this level outside full time education and in recent years it has helped to produce several new Fellows for the Society.
Many of the Society’s members teach and lecture in continuing, higher and adult education.
Great changes have taken place in calligraphy since the craft was revived by William Morris and Edward Johnston. The Society of Scribes and Illuminators’ commitment is to moving forward into the twenty-first century whilst maintaining the high standards of professionalism and excellence which have always been its benchmark.