Society of Scribes & Illuminators

About us

Who are we?

A brief timeline

In 1898, 26-year-old Edward Johnston gave up his medical studies in Edinburgh and moved to London where he subsequently began reviving the practice of formal penmanship. In 1921 his students founded the Society of Scribes & Illuminators to promote and advance high standards of craftsmanship in writing and illumination. These aims remain at the forefront of the Society today. From the beginning, Members, later Craft Members and now Fellows, were elected by their peers on the standard of their workmanship and ability to interpret and express their ideas using calligraphy and illumination in a contemporary manner.

Exhibition of work still remains the pathway to election to Fellowship. In 1952 the SSI introduced Lay Membership and gained a body of people who support and advance calligraphy and illumination at all levels.

1970s – Now

Calligraphy in action today

Susie Leiper’s Secretary hand is used on the Royal Bank of Scotland’s polymer banknotes

Edward Johnston and his students influenced the understanding and design of public and commercial lettering throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. The original London Underground signage, with the roundel, was designed by Johnston and remains in use today with modifications. Significant carved lettering commissions and good typefaces, such as those by Johnston’s student Eric Gill, are still seen and used on a daily basis.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century Fellows of the SSI carried out numerous commissions: memorial books, signage and architectural lettering, certificates for public bodies, designs for corporate identities and work for publication. Some of this is now done by computer, but calligraphy has had a major influence on the design of digital interfaces. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, acknowledged the direct influence of the calligraphy classes he attended at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in the 1970s.

Today Fellows and Lay Members of the SSI design some of the coins and banknotes in your pocket, formal documents, memorial books and many public and private commissions that require an original one-off piece.

1930s -1960s

Writing Living Letters

 Formal work such as that for palace and parliament was made by Fellows from the beginning of the society and continues today: this Royal Cypher for King Charles III WAS designed by Timothy Noad through the College of Arms

For Johnston, calligraphy was far from being simply the revival of an old craft. Later, recalling the importance of his manuscript studies, Johnston said in a letter to Sydney Cockerell that the ideal thing would be ‘to make living letters with a formal pen.

On a fundamental level, well-designed letterforms that are beautifully spaced and arranged are easily legible and can be used to communicate a message effectively. But the shape of those letters, their size, arrangement and style of delivery can be manipulated ad infinitum to convey specific or general messages of mood, impression and emotion. A page of handwritten letters has a spirit and energy beyond technical skill that is not replicated in even the finest typeset page.

Edward Johnston’s sources were the historical manuscripts he studied. It is a common misunderstanding that he advocated that historical scripts be copied precisely and unquestioningly. That was not Johnston’s stance. Good historical scripts are starting points to be intelligently analysed as part of the learning process. This leads to a personal interpretation that can be used in contemporary ways.

Therefore, although most of the letterforms in contemporary work are likely to have their origin in historical letterforms, they are not rigid copies that merely seek to preserve the past as the ideal to be replicated. Calligraphy at its best acknowledges and celebrates the value of the past and, at the same time, looks to discover ways in which history can be interpreted as a springboard for the future.

1900s – 1920s

The Modern Revival of Calligraphy

Edward Johnston at his writing board, Lincoln’s Inn, London, 1902

Estate of Edward Johnston

In 1899 Johnston began teaching calligraphy in London at the new Central School of Arts and Crafts in Holborn at the invitation of its Principal, W. R. Lethaby, a friend and contemporary of William Morris. Earlier, Lethaby had seen Johnston’s efforts at calligraphy and recognised his potential. He introduced Johnston to Sydney Cockerell, who for a while was private secretary to William Morris and later Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Cockerell was an acknowledged authority on manuscripts and took Johnston to see significant medieval manuscripts in the British Library. These later became the basis for Johnston’s own study and his teaching. Cockerell also helped Johnston to see that the manuscripts were connected by history and by practical and theoretical traditions.

By the time the SSI was founded in 1921 many people had studied with Johnston, including Eric Gill, Irene Wellington, Alfred Fairbank and Graily Hewitt.  They and their generation were to go on to influence the use of calligraphy and lettering in Britain and also in Germany, through his student Anna Simons. 

be part of the ssi


The SSI welcomes anyone who is interested in calligraphy and illumination, at whatever level. Membership gives you access to publications, use of the SSI Library and up-to-date information regarding courses and events. In addition, Lay Members can take part in their annual exhibition and Fellows have the right to exhibit their work in public SSI exhibitions.

Lay Members

 Full membership of The Society of Scribes & Illuminators .


For those who do not wish to exhibit work or attend events.


Discount for full-time UK calligraphy or design students.


Fellowship is voted by peers in the SSI.