ISEA2011 WORKSHOP: Gestural Roots

Gestural Roots and Future of Roman Type (ISType Workshop Series)

Workshop Leader: Ewan Clayton

This is a two part practical (pen and ink) workshop. Please note no previous experience of calligraphy is necessary. The first part retraces, pen in hand, the development of Roman letterforms. The second part explores the potential for expressive movement around these forms.

Deeper grounding in any writing system can always be gained by looking at its handwritten/calligraphic roots. As a result of the language reform, which took place in the early twentieth century, Turkey embraced a new script system, an adaptation of the Roman alphabet. Scholars have argued that if a modern typographic culture is to flourish a study of the historic development of the Roman alphabet, including its earliest sources is important. As the calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872-1944) argued ‘Developing, or rather re-developing an art involves the tracing in one’s own experience of a process resembling its past development’ (Writing & Illuminating and Lettering, 1906). This workshop introduces such a process.

We examine how letterforms stemming from classical Greek culture came to be influenced by the same Polycleitan canon of aesthetics that inspired classical sculpture and architecture alike. Beauty, Polycleitus postulated, lay in the proportion of the parts one to another and their commensurability with the whole.

Our earliest models of Roman lettering are all incised carvings in stone but from the mid first century BCE other materials survive. They show that, under the influence of the stylus, the reed pen and brush, previously monoline letters are developing thick and thin weighting. Murals from Pompeii (before 79CE) show a sophisticated brush-made calligraphy used for public notices. Catich (1968) showed how brush calligraphy lay behind many classical inscriptional forms of the first and second centuries CE. In these same centuries cursive variations on written capitals sprang up, bequeathing us the lower case letters we use today. These letters became formalized through the use of an edged pen into the main book scripts of the middle ages. From the forms current in the few decades that followed the invention of printing in Germany in the 1450s stem the first metal typefaces.

We will trace some of these developmental pathways pen in hand. I will introduce the 7-point theoretical framework developed by the calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872-1944) as one way in which the technical factors involved can be described. But this description has its limitations; in some ways it leaves the human body out of the picture. This lacuna reflects, perhaps, the dominance of a print culture that had gradually modified letterforms so that the demonstrable connection between letter shapes and bodily movement was weakened.

Now we awake in a new era, with new technologies for communication. Calligraphic movement can once again inform the letters we make and movement itself can be shown within the electronic media that we use for reading and writing. In the second part of this workshop we look at the challenge this poses, how to reconnect with the gestural roots of Roman letterforms? We lack theoretical frameworks we can bring to this research. In searching for these we might look to other cultural traditions of calligraphy or, as in this workshop, we could make links with work from other movement disciplines. Our second session together explores the experimental potential of the work of the Austrian movement artist Rudolph Laban (1879-1958). Laban invented a method for analyzing and annotating the way a human being moves in space. We will use his analysis to explore different dimensions of expressive movement in relation to some of the letterforms we worked with in session one.
Bio of the Presenter
Ewan Clayton is Professor in Design at the University of Sunderland where he assists with the direction of The International Research Centre for Calligraphy. In 2009 he initiated the University’s new Foundation Degree in Calligraphy with Design, which runs from studios in Kensington Palace, London. Ewan grew up near Ditchling Sussex, home to the calligrapher Edward Johnston. He, and three generations of his family, worked as craftsmen in a Guild on Ditchling Common founded by the sculptor and letter designer Eric Gill. For 12 years Ewan also worked as a consultant to Xerox PARC, the lab that invented the first networked computer. Today he divides his time between commissioned work, exhibition curation and teaching. He has lectured and exhibited widely across Europe, North America and Asia. His publications cover historical material such as the Lindisfarne Gospel Book and medieval scribal depictions; the life and work of twentieth century lettering artists Edward Johnston and David Jones; Sumner Stone and the intersection of calligraphy with Digital type, and in the year 2000/1 Ewan curated the Arts Council funded exhibition Springlines the first project to bring together work by contemporary calligraphers from China, Japan, Iran, six Arab countries, Europe and North America. In August 2012, Ewan’s book The Written Word: a history of writing will be published by Atlantic Books.

Posted by:  Ebru Surek