Ewan Clayton’s Entering the Curve

Clayton's "Entering the Curve" workshop was held in the Peter Cooper Suite, as known as the Clock tower.
Clayton’s “Entering the Curve” workshop was held in the Peter Cooper Suite, also known as the Clock tower.

In early June, I attended the 3-day weekend workshop Entering the curve: an introduction to five hundred years of cursive writing 1150-1650 at Cooper Union’s Type@Cooper in New York City.  Ewan Clayton, a professor of design at the University of Sunderland, UK and co-director of the International Research Centre for Calligraphy, instructed the workshop, whose attendees were a mix of seasoned and novice calligraphers with diverse academic and occupational backgrounds. Most of the calligraphy classes and workshops I’ve taken over the years have focused on technique rather than the history of calligraphy; therefore, this seminar’s historical perspective was of real interest to me.

Clayton is a great storyteller, who fascinated the class by making history come alive with his engaging stories, many of which will likely be in his soon-to-be released book, The Golden Thread: A History of Writing. One interesting thread Clayton discussed regarding calligraphic hands throughout the centuries was the ‘re-purposing’ of fast hand versions of formal hands, which were then formalized into newer and slower variations. For instance, Roman minuscules were developed from a fast hand version of Roman capitals and later formalized into carolingian. Clayton illustrated the transformation of the Roman capital ‘H’ into the lowercase ‘h’ by lettering it quickly, where each stage revealed how the upper right corner of the letter diminished.

One of the highlights of the workshop was Clayton’s demonstration and instruction on quill cutting. The quills we used were shed naturally and each student had an opportunity to cut their own quill and later practice writing cursive hands with it. The Cutting Quills segment was recorded and edited by fellow Type@Cooper faculty member Hannes Famira and can now be viewed online.

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The workshop was well balanced with plenty of time for us to practice many types of cursive hands and also discuss their historical applications. I especially enjoyed lettering Humanistic exemplars, which is a hand that has strongly influenced modern-day type design. According to Type@Cooper‘s program director and faculty member Cara Di Edwardo, who visited during the workshop, “The humanistic hand of the 15th century is the most important model for lowercase letters. Those printers who set up shop in Italy in the 15th century and the French printers of the early 16th century modeled the first Roman typefaces from the contemporary book hand, humanistic. These early designs have been revived many times in the 20th century and are prized by fine printers. In the pedagogy of typeface design, the humanistic hand is fundamental to understanding the anatomy, weight distribution, and proportion of text faces.”

Page from the Book of Hours of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Bologna, c. 1497-1500, humanist minuscule with decorations.

Clayton’s Entering the curve workshop gave me a better understanding of the origins and development of many cursive hands. It was certainly worth the journey down to NYC from New Hampshire and I look forward to learning more about the history of writing in his upcoming book.

Ewan Clayton’s The Golden Thread: A History of Writing, published by Atlantic Books, will be available in the UK on September 5, 2013 and February 11, 2014 in the USA.

The Golden Thread

Following is the publisher’s synopsis of the publication.

The Golden Thread is an enthralling and accessible history of the cultural miracle that is the written word. It is an invention that has been used to share ideas in every field of human endeavour, and a motor of cultural, scientific and political progress.

From the simple representative shapes used to record transactions of goods and animals in ancient Egypt, to the sophisticated typographical resources available to the twenty-first-century computer user, the story of writing is the story of human civilization itself. Ewan Clayton marks each step in the historical development of writing, and explores the social and cultural impact of every stage: the invention of the alphabet; the replacement of the papyrus scroll with the codex in the late Roman period; the perfecting of printing using moveable type in the fifteenth century and the ensuing spread of literacy; the industrialization of printing during the Industrial Revolution; the impact of artistic Modernism on the written word in the early twentieth century – and of the digital switchover at the century’s close.

The Golden Thread raises issues of urgent interest for a society living in an era of unprecedented change to the tools and technologies of written communication. Chief amongst these is the fundamental question: ‘What does it mean to be literate in the world of the early twenty-first century?’ The Golden Thread belongs on the bookshelves of anyone who is inquisitive not just about the centrality of writing in the history of humanity, but also about its future.