Calligraphy Comes Back
A LONDON air raid led Egdon H. Margo of Sherman Oaks, California, to take up his fascinating and profitable hobby of calligraphy!
It happened during the blitz raids of 1943 while Margo was stationed in England. At the siren's sound he ducked into the nearest doorway. It happened to be a book store with specimens of calligraphy, or "beautiful handwriting," on display. Egdon Margo looked—and admired—and decided then and there to be a calligrapher, bombs or not.
Today, the calligraphic art, long neglected, is experiencing a renaissance, and Margo is one of its leading exponents in America. In California, Margo finds that the demand from motion picture stars and other celebrities for personalized stationery and from many other sources for announcements, scrolls and awards is increasing to the extent that it takes all the time he can spare from his advertising business for his profitable hobby.
Margo is convinced that the revival of interest in calligraphy means more than new commercial opportunities for its exponents. "A reaction against the mechanical age in which we live is starting," he says. "A man's handwriting is one of the few things left which link him to his own individuality. By the practice of calligraphy, resistance against regimentation is strengthened."
After the eventful air raid in London, Margo wasted no time in beginning the serious study of calligraphy. He procured a copy of Edward Johnston's "Writing, Illuminating, and Lettering," the basic textbook of modern calligraphers, obtained the necessary materials, and started in. He wrote all of his V-mail and other correspondence according to the principles of "beautiful writing. His friends were surprised, but delighted!
During the war, at every opportunity, Margo practiced his art. A leave was not an opportunity for sightseeing and relaxation, but a chance to practice calligraphy. He used up reams of paper and bottles of ink. When the war was over, he was an accomplished calligrapher.
AFTER THE war, Margo worked for a time in Washington, D.C. Here, in addition to his other duties, he started teaching classes in calligraphy. His students represented an interesting cross section of official life, and included a Hindu prince of royal blood attached to the Indian embassy. He also gave instruction to patients at the Army's Walter Reed Hospital, where the practice of the art proved of definite therapeutic value.
In 1948, Margo went to California to set up an advertising agency. Soon, in his spare time, he was giving instructions in calligraphy at an art school, the first such course ever offered in Los Angeles. Among his students were veterans who were paraplegic, as well as others suffering from nervous instability. There was a remarkable improvement in their condition resulting from the relaxation of tension experienced in the course of their work at "beautiful handwriting," a creative effort that brings the satisfaction of accomplishment.
Margo's first commissions for calligraphic work came about through his business contacts. He was in touch with several theatrical agencies, to whom he presented advertising copy done in a calligraphic hand. This was well received, and was proudly shown to people in the entertainment and moving picture world. This was something new and different in movieland, and the idea caught on. Movie stars began to send in commissions for personalized stationery done in calligraphy. Today, Margo has filled commissions from scores of celebrities, including such well-known stars as Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, Marge and Gower Champion, Dick Powell, June Allyson, John Huston, George Gobel, and Ray Anthony, besides directors and other officials.
"I find," says Margo, "that my calligraphic work advertises itself. I receive commissions through word of mouth, through one person telling another and showing my work. Besides, I sometimes do without compensation, awards, scrolls, and certificates for churches, hospitals, and civic groups. Frequently a member of the family or friend of the person receiving this free work will be so interested that he will place a commission for his personal or business use." This donated work is usually presented to an individual for outstanding merit or accomplishment in religious, civic, education, or institutional work. It is always highly prized and the object of much interest by others. Additional commissions come to Margo through the printer who handles all of his work, and keeps a display of Margo's calligraphy in his windows. Work done for the scholarly Huntington Library has led to an interest by book collectors in obtaining personalized bookplates.
Thus Margo combines his enthusiasm for an artistic hobby with a profitable undertaking. "The first fees that I received," he says, " were not high—ranging from $10 to $25 for a name, title, or scroll—and I still do not overcharge for quality work." However, with his increase of proficiency and reputation, his fees have been larger. Recent advertising copy in calligraphic hand done for business organization has been especially profitable.
Margo usually attempts to adapt the style of his calligraphic work to the interests and background of the individual who has placed the commission. Thus, for a theatrical artists' manager of Irish descent, he executed a letterhead in the old Irish script. For a producer and collector of Oriental art, he employed a modified version of Persian handwriting.
When Margo receives a commission, he prepares several alternative specimens which are offered to the patron for his choice. The one selected is then sent to the printer for preparation of a plate. The printer is paid for the plate by the patron, but it is usually left in his hands so that reorders for printed material can be placed readily when needed.
THE ART of calligraphy, once flourishing, then neglected until recent years, reached, a height of perfection among the monks of Ireland during the period from the second to seventh centuries. The famous "Book of Kells," written by the monks in the Abbey of Kells, is known as "the book beautiful." The elongated Celtic characters, called "insular half-uncials," are done with a quill. Equally beautiful is the book of "Lindisforme Gospels," written in the same style in England about the year 700. The influence of these works can still be traced today, Margo says.
Actually, good handwriting was fostered and developed largely by monks in various areas. St. Jerome was a pioneer in the art, and originated artistic "uncials" (or inch-high letters).
In the eighth century, the Emperor Charlemagne invited Alcuin of York, an English monk, to organize an educational system for his empire. Alcuin devised the first alphabet of small letters, which displaced the older "uncials." Alcuin's script is reflected today in the Carolingian type face.
The calligraphic hand differs from the Roman lettering inherited by the countries of Europe. Uncials, half-uncials, and the Carolingian script were a departure from the Roman, and a further great change took place when, in the Middle Ages, the Vatican decided to turn over its vast body of routine work to a special group of monks whose job it was to turn out as much work as possible. This resulted in a new hand, with the pen slanted at a forty-five-degree angle for speed. Although they worked rapidly, the more able scribes produced beautiful calligraphic work that came to be known as cancelleresca corsiva, or the chancery hand. In England, this became known as the "Italian hand."
Among the historical exponents of this chancery hand, the most famous is Ludovico degli Arighi, the "master of calligraphy." Arighi was a scribe in the Papal Court. He wrote a book on the principles of writing, "L'Operina," in 1522, that contains the basic calligraphic principles of today.
The "Italian hand" was taught by the English writing masters at the time of Queen Elizabeth, who herself learned this style. This was written with a blunt-edged pen that produced thin and thick strokes as the pen moved up and down. Arabesques and flowing curves were introduced in moderation. Later English masters introduced the round "gentleman's hand," abounding with ornate flourishes, often to the point of illegibility. However, many of the English writing masters became wealthy, teaching their art to the nobility.
In America, Abiah Holbrook taught the "gentleman's hand" to Colonial New England. John Hancock and Paul Revere were leading exponents of the best handwriting of the day. In the new United States of America, the first copy-book was written by John Jenkins of Boston in 1791.
The nineteenth century was the period of the great decline in the art and practice of beautiful handwriting. The typewriter and office machines completed the downfall of calligraphy begun by the printing press. In older times, a man was judged by the skill and beauty of his or his scribe's writing. Now, mechanization took the place of individual expression and, although more people learned to write, their efforts fell far short of true calligraphy.
CALLIGRAPHIC SCRIPT, says Margo, is not only pleasing to the eye, but, with practice, it is rapid and easy to write. And, although guided by artistic principles, it is far from being a standardized handwriting, and offers each person the opportunity to develop the style that is most pleasing to himself. There are, of course, certain historical styles that can be adapted for particular purposes, such as the uncials and half-uncials of St. Jerome and the Irish monks, the Carolingian of Alcuin of York, the medieval book style, the chancery hand of Arighi, adaptations of Persian-Arabic, and other variations. In tracing the development of calligraphy, it is found that each nation introduced certain characteristics into basic patterns.
In addition to doing calligraphic work on commission, Margo now teaches a number of students, as time from his advertising business will allow. These students range from a trapper in Northern Canada to an inmate in a penitentiary. Margo receives mail from all over the world, from students, fellow calligraphers, and enthusiasts. A correspondent in South Africa recently advised that calligraphic standards are being set up for the Johannesburg police force!
The number of highly skilled calligraphers today is still small, and they are residents of many countries. However, they are leaders in the great revival of interest in the art. Among beginners, strangely enough, the most lively interest in beautiful handwriting is shown by ministers, doctors, and theatrical people. Several persons for whom Margo has done calligraphic work have become his students.
Margo uses his own calligraphic script in all of his daily work. Materials that he uses are largely determined by the job in hand. For commissioned work, he uses a 100 per cent rag content imported paper. For daily work, he uses an English flat-edged fountain pen. For special jobs, reed pens, goose quills, and wooden spatulas are used. His ink is a free-flowing non-carbon black, or ordinary fountain pen ink for daily purposes. A recent importation of ink from Germany has proved very useful.
WHEN MARGO starts a calligraphic job, he places the paper, parchment or other material on which the work is to be done slightly to his right and straight, without being slanted to right or left. The angle of the pen to the paper changes, according to the kind of script being written, varying from forty-five-degrees to the horizontal for the Italian hand to an almost straight up ninety-degree for certain block-style medieval book letters. Except for ligatures and other special effects, the letters are formed separately, unless the copy itself requires a cursive style.
Margo emphasizes that the arm and wrist must be kept in a relaxed condition while the fingers execute most of the required movement. With practice, he says, calligraphic script can be written in this way without strain or fatigue, even after extended periods of work.
In Margo's home he has an extensive collection of books in several languages on the art of calligraphy, as well as a variety of original early manuscripts. For the beginner making his first approach to calligraphy, he has found these books especially helpful:
Edward Johnston: "Writing, Illuminating, and Lettering."
Grailey Hewitt: "Lettering for Students and Craftsmen."
Alfred Fairbanks: "A Handwriting Manual," "A Book of Scripts," "The Dryad Writing Cards."
Wilfred Blunt: "The Sweet Roman Hand."
Aubrey West: "Written by Hand."
These books, and other useful volumes on the subject, should be available in any large public library.
Margo's professional affiliations are numerous: secretary of the Society of Calligraphers in Los Angeles; member of the Society of Typographic Arts, Chicago; member of the Society for Italic Handwriting and of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators in England, and of Scribes in France. His work has been exhibited in England, on the Continent, and throughout the British Commonwealth.
Egdon Margo's enthusiasm for the calligraphic art is contagious. One of his greatest satisfactions is finding other people who are interested. "I have taken out my car at midnight and driven across the city to explain a point to a student of calligraphy," he says.
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.