calligraphy in the cold
A subjective story of living as a calligrapher in Oslo
[written ca. 2013, edited 2023]
My father, Patrick Byrne, an Irishman living in London, gave me a broad edged pen when I was nine years old. I had only briefly met him before, It turned out to be one of those moments which create ripples, felt many years later. It was one of those refill Osmiroid fountain pens with a lever on the side which could be pulled to fill the pen with ink. He demonstrated on a napkin how it could be used to create dense, pointed gothic letters and flourishes on a paper napkin, which has been lost along with who knows how many transient notes and doodles over the years, writings on napkins, beermats, envelopes and receipts. My mother had met my father in Cheltenham in 1963, when she worked there.
According to my father, his father and grandfather were both ‘calligraphers’, but in the tradition of Irish storytelling he was in the habit of embellishing the truth, which probably was that they simply had nice handwriting. He was an amateur calligrapher himself, and he sent me a few pages of printed exemplars, and eventually Johnston’s ‘Writing, Illuminating & Lettering’ from which I tried to rule lines for a manuscript book spread and write a more or less corrupt ‘round hand’. After these initial attempts at calligraphy my pen was put in a drawer for a few years, only to be picked out again during my years at upper secondary school (the Norwegian equivalent being ‘videregående’ school, ages ranging from 15-16 yrs to 17-18 yrs, when I wrote a paper on ‘The History of writing.
Later, working as a waiter in a café in Oslo, I wrote out ‘today’s dishes’ on a blackboard in the café, as well as bits of poetry in my spare time, quotes from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman and others using a homemade bamboo pen and pointed brushes as well as my Osmiroid. I also remember going interrailing, getting stranded in a caravan in Assisi for several days, it rained incessantly, I wrote out several verses from the Buddhist Dhammapada. My letterforms were inconsistent, unsharp and uninformed, but my interest in literature and calligraphy had awakened, as well as at least a certain familiarity with the broad edged pen.
I did my first commission for a neighbor, a business card, the calligraphed text being photographically transferred to an aluminium cliché, from which the cards were printed. The letters were written in an ill conceived italic form, and I remember vividly being fascinated with the reproduction itself, as if some strange magic had ocurred that had transferred writing to print. This fascination with the connection between the written and the printed word has stayed with me, leading eventually to investigate the (often hidden) relevance of calligraphy to typography – & viva versa.
At the same time, I did a commission for a festival for a small town, LIER 150 ÅR, in which I had a sudden and never-to-be-forgotten encounter with the falseness and arrogance of the commercial advertising industry. I had been told to make a heading for a magazine, but found to my surprise that they had used it as a logo for the whole arrangement, printing it several times in a modified form, where they had themselves tried to put the ÅR (‘years’) inside the 0 of 150, in their own bad writing. It hasn’t been the first time I have encountered violations of copyright laws over the years. Letters are not ‘sacred beings’ to most people, funny as it may seem.
My father sent me a leaflet from Roehampton Institute (Digby Stuart College) and again one of those ‘rippling moments’ took place. I was equally stunned by the beauty of the calligraphy (the whole leaflet was handwritten by Lindsay Castell) and that such a place even existed: Other people who took a serious interest in calligraphy above an amateur level.
Ann Camp had started the education in calligraphy and bookbinding at Roehampton during the seventies as a program for teachers. Her philosophy is outlined in her essay on education in Heather Child’s ‘Calligraphy Today’, 2nd edition. It had evolved into an open program for anyone interested, and had students from several different countries. I was told I needed to put in extra work, as most people who had enrolled had taken evening classes already, something that was non-existent in Norway at the time. I am greatly indebted to Ann Camp, whose keen eye and sharp observations helped me get through a first year which was pretty tedious: I threw away most of my old rusty nibs and materials and started afresh, with solid models and strict practice. It proved to be revelating. My main struggle was with ‘the foundational hand’, which was to be written in approx. 4mm x-height, consistently throughout several MS book pages. I had chosen a Walt Whitman poem. ‘I sitting look out upon’, well, several pages of inconsistent writing. They had a room called ‘the quiet room’ to which I had retreated to practice before making the finished piece. Apparently I made no progress. Then, after many lines of practice something ‘clicked’. I got into a writing rhythm that seemingly carried me along without too many worries. Ann Camp came in a few moments later, and immediately pointed to the exact place where my writing had become effortless. ‘There!, something happened there, did you notice?’.
My other tutors included Gaynor Goffe, Tom Perkins, Gerald Fleuss, and Jen Lindsay, as well as visiting tutors including Donald Jackson, John Woodcock, Ann Hechle and Alan Blackman. Tom taught drawn letters and stonecutting, opening up a world of typography for me and pointing to the work of Hermann Zapf, who later had a strong impact on my own work. Gaynor was very good at getting me to ‘stop thinking and start working’, her motto being ‘just do it!’. Jen Lindsay tried, at least, to teach me bookbinding, although I must admit to being genetically indisposed.
Ann Camp suggested I apply for Fellowship of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators (SSI) in my last year (1989), for which I was unanimously elected next to youngest and only (to this day) Scandinavian Fellow.
I was honoured to be asked to make the logo for the Society of Scribes and Illuminators in the mid 1990s.
I felt that my journey into the field of letters had only just began. I was looking at work by people who used advanced techniques, like rotation of the pen angle, pressure variation, retouching / building up with the corner of the nib. Techniques that were not really taught at Roehampton, at least not consistently (built up ‘versals’ and the Canute Charter hand being exceptions to the rule). Julian Waters, John Stevens and Hermann Zapf were great sources of inspiration.
Upon arriving in Oslo I started taking on various commissions, ranging from names on diplomas to book covers and headings. This was during the transition period where old methods of reproduction would gradually make way to new ones.
I haven’t yet had the privilege of doing anything in letterpress, though I have admired many books printed in letterpress from Gutenberg’s time up until today. But I have used Letraset, photo setting and old photographic techniques (PMTs). Just after returning home in 1989 I started teaching in a private school for graphic design. During the first of two years the students had two days a week doing calligraphy and lettering. The idea was to give the students an understanding of forming letters with the broad edged pen, in order for them to gain a better understanding of typography. I arranged two workshops with teachers from abroad before the school went bankrupt: One with Julian Waters and one with Brody Neuenschwander.
The Mac and the PC rapidly took over the production of typography and graphic material. Having experienced art directors setting Futura Extra Bold next to my renaissance italic and other more or less horrifying typographic violations I was exalted to get my first Mac, and some beautiful Adobe Originals typefaces: Adobe Garamond, Minion, Trajan, Lithos. Finally (or so I thought) I should be able to create my own compositions integrating calligraphy and typography. That was not always the case: Typography had become everyman’s craft, and in the early days of the Mac desktop publishing became somewhat of a nightmare for sensitive and perhaps over-sensitive calligraphers. Still, I taught myself PageMaker, and much later, InDesign, and have been teaching book design for graphic designers alongside the calligraphic practice.
I wrote Hermann Zapf in 1992 and asked him if I could visit him in Darmstadt. He suggested I wrote a handbook of calligraphy for the Norwegian market, and so I did. I designed it as well as I could at the time, although the publisher didn’t exactly do a good job proofreading. It really taught me about book design. I concur totally with Jan Tschichold’s statement ‘I learned more from my mistakes than I ever imagined’. But also ‘I regret very much that calligraphy is so little studied in our time among our so called book artists’. And graphic designers, I might add. In 1998 I was hosting four programs on Norwegian television about calligraphy, and I also made a simplified handbook for that program.
I have exhibited several times over the years, using text of my own choosing, with the exception of an exhibition of alphabets which was the result of my work with poetry and my disappointment in the fact that people rarely bothered to read texts that I had written. Making alphabets and presenting them as art may seem futile, as an empty exercise in style, devoid of meaning. Yet we never ask why a Japanese calligrapher repeats the Ensō circle as a contemplative exercise for years and years.
The types of commissions I have had over the years have ranged from book covers ( I have mainly been asked by the authors & not the publishers for some reason), names for packaging (lots of cheese, for some reason), certificates and names on certificates, logos for various companies, titles of various kinds. It goes without saying that many clients have been difficult to work with: It isn’t easy to convince someone that some things just ruins letters, and that they should respect your know-how, especially when the most common belief is that ‘anything goes’. But I have had some really rewarding and nice collaborations, the main one that springs to life is the logo I made for Cappelen Damm.
The two publishers Cappelen (already a large one) and Damm (which had become a large player due to the fact that they bought the rights to publish Harry Potter) were to merge, and I was asked to present sketches for their new logo. They wanted something classical, but with some originality and modernity, having used Trajan in a transitional phase. I presented them with several sketches. The only other people partaking in the process was the CEO, an in house graphic designer and an in house typographer. The whole process went smoothly.
I thought it would be a good idea to get the logo digitized, and since I am not too comfortable working with Bezier curves and points I approached Sumner Stone and asked for a quote. I had met Sumner in Ditchling during the Pen to Print seminar a couple of years earlier, and we were in respect of one another’s work. After getting his quote for the logo, I first attempted to draw the rest of the letters of the alphabet out of pure curiosity. I then asked what he would charge for digitizing all the drawings. I brought the drawings and his quote, plus my quote for the font, to the publisher, who immediately liked the idea. I made more drawings, a font consists of much more than the letters on our keyboard, I drew points, commas, question marks, an ampersand, ligatures special accents etc. and scanned them. Then they were sent to Sumner, who digitized them in FontLab. I then corrected the drawings, and over a few months of adjusting letters, spacing, adding some characters and incorporating a logo symbol (to be used alongside the word logo), the typeface was done. It is being used for signage on their building and inside the building, as well as for the publishing company’s many sub companies. I also suggested placement on books and a color scheme.
Here is an article on the making of the font, Litterat.
Another notable commission has been the Nobel Peace Prize.
Something should be said about the Norwegian calligraphy scene. But this is a subjective article about personal experiences, and it would be unfair to say that Norwegian culture has affected my calligraphy. I have worked despite of it, often uphill, meeting many obstacles along the way. Norway got the art of printing at the same time as Greenland, approximately two hundred years after Sweden and Denmark, and we have few historical manuscripts of a high standard compared with the treasures of the continent. There have been a line of tutors teaching calligraphy and lettering in the school of Arts & Crafts in Oslo, starting with Ivar Bell, who was an influential teacher who corresponded with many known figures in Europe including Jan Tschichold and Max Bill, but whose work is nowhere to be found. He was followed by Herman Bongard (featured in a Calligraphy Review article by Susan Petty), Ottar Helge Johansen & Jan Pahle. Both Pahle, Leif Bakke and Are Bjærke have designed book covers and been active in the publishing industry. Leif Frimann Anisdahl, a graphic designer of some standing, had taken classes with Zapf in Copenhagen, worked for Penguin in London, is featured in Erik Lindgren’s ‘An ABC book’, and has made several typefaces for large Norwegian companies. Grethe Dobloug designed book covers for Cappelen, and was a former student of Irene Wellington. So was Jacob Rask Arnesen, whose book ‘Levende Skrift’ is a personal manifesto to the calligraphic and typographic world.
Two former students of mine completed the course at Roehampton; Julia Vance and Hedvig Brandt. There have been a few others who have taken the course, to my knowledge. A few former students, notably Kari Kolltveit, have done good work, but the impact of teaching is hard to measure.
Yet, despite these teachers and practitioners, there was never truly a renaissance for calligraphy in Norway. Perhaps due to the youth of our culture, the scarce population, the lack of respect for aesthetical history and tradition? The status quo today is that basic drawing skills, basic calligraphy & lettering training and basic typographic skills are barely taught at all. There is no understanding for calligraphy or drawing in our graphic design schools, although calligraphy really can be used as the ‘life drawing of typography’.
Many tasks lie ahead for us as devotees of this ancient craft and art: We need to assure that calligraphy has a place in education, we need to fight to ensure the survival of handwriting in schools, that people interested in type see the connection between the written and the printed word, and also that art galleries and crafts communities acknowledge that we have a place among them as calligraphers who are not from some distant Medieval times, but that we are in fact exploring new ground, as well as having our roots in the history of our letters. Perhaps ink, pen and paper can be allowed to co exist with computer screens and mobile devices. If you are in doubt, introduce it to kids. Perhaps you will rediscover your own discovery.