Thursday, October 20, 2011

More on Edward Johnston by Tom Costello

Thanks to Tom Costello for sharing his eloquent appreciation of Edward Johnston that he originally posted on the Cyberscribes website.

A propensity for patience. A proclivity for precision. A passion for perfection.

If Edward Johnston had heard those attributes ascribed to him, his reaction may have been, “What a penchant for pomposity!” - but this modest chap, eschewing gratuitous embellishments in his life as well as his craft, would never have expressed that brusque sentiment for he was, as his student and friend Noel Rooke described him, a man of “exceptional courtesy.”

Acknowledgement of Johnston’s significance in the revival of the calligraphic art sometimes removes that achievement from its context as a particular manifestation of the Arts & Crafts movement, a practical aesthetic philosophy that grew from a desire to revive the skills and creativity of the pre-industrial craftsman evocative of a time that there was a simplicity and honesty in the way things were made. William Morris sought to overcome the banality of the 19th century decorative arts by reinstating the craftsman as the equal of painters, sculptors, and architects in their imaginative prerogatives, and Johnston was a devoted disciple that brought that spirit to the letter with its two-millennium wealth of expressive potential.

The Arts & Craft movement flourished most notably in Great Britain, the United States, and Germany, Johnston’s Writing & Illuminating and Lettering being published in 1906 as but one of The Artistic Crafts Series of Technical Handbooks by John Hogg in London and MacMillan in New York, and in Germany in 1910 in translation (Schriebschrift, Zierscrift und angewandte Schrift) by Johnston’s Royal College of Art student, Anna Simons. It has continued to instruct and inspire generations of calligraphers in dozens of subsequent editions for over a century.

I have always considered the literal meaning of the word ‘calligraphy’ as “beautiful writing” woefully inadequate, and much prefer Claude Mediavilla’s 1996 definition: “The art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious, and skillful manner.” I think Johnston would concur. As his daughter Priscilla wrote of her father, “...he saw clearly that the duty of the scribe was to express the meaning of the words, and this remained for him the supremely important consideration before which all others must give way.”

One hundred and thirty-nine years after his birth, Edward Johnston's story is still being written every day.

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