Having evolved over many thousands of years of human history, handwriting has, these days, mostly been replaced by emails, texts and the dreaded emojis. Yet instead of becoming the exclusive pursuit of library stack-dwelling, lorgnette-wearing manuscript dweebs, it has been embraced by millennials and become the subject of a major new exhibition.
In April, the British Library opens its spring show, Writing: Making Your Mark. It will contain samples of writing from an ancient wax tablet showing a long-gone child struggling with their Greek homework to Sit Walter Raleigh’s commonplace book, alongside fishing permits from ancient Egypt scratched on to broken pottery, hand-copied Bibles in ornate calligraphy and Mozart’s composition notes.
Although the exhibition also includes printed material, it is handwriting that really grabs the attention. “It says something about the inventiveness of humanity,” says Adrian Edwards, curator of the show. “There will be examples of well over 30 different writing systems. Writing satisfies this inherent need to keep records: there’s a need to get a permanence for our words and thoughts, to continue their lives after ours; and to communicate with the afterlife.”
Seeing the handwriting of someone you admire can feel like holding their hand through the mists of time. Publishers have been wise to this for a while: Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note, which contains, for example, a job application written by Leonardo da Vinci, a scone recipe from Her Majesty and Iggy Pop’s advice to a young fan, was a huge Sunday Times bestseller when it came out five years ago. It spawned a sequel, Letters of Note Volume 2, a spin-off, Lists of Note, both compiled by Usher, and a rash of other titles such as Simon Sebag Montefiore’s recent Written In History: Letters That Changed The World.
The latest addition to the orthographile’s bookshelf is Taschen’s The Magic of Handwriting. Here is Oscar Wilde’s letter dashed off to Bram Stoker, cheekily requesting theatre tickets; here is a Cecil Beaton photograph of Pablo Picasso, signed by both men; here is Napoleon’s list of Italian bishops, complete with doodles; here is the young Queen Victoria’s birthday greeting to an uncle in neat, careful script. As with all these volumes, photographs of the original are accompanied by transcriptions, but it is the original that thrills and seems to offer a glimpse of the human. Sigmund Freud signs his name with a lower-case ‘f’ – is he subconsciously ashamed to bear his father’s patronym?!; Maria Callas has a languorous, sweeping scrawl; Rasputin’s illegible scribble adds to his air of mystery.
Perhaps thanks to this flurry of publications, handwriting has become fashionable again. Where once sending an email to thank someone for dinner would have felt modern and chic, now it is the effort of writing a proper card that is really appreciated. Dolly Alderton, the journalist, bestselling author and millennial guru, says “I love receiving hand-written cards and letters because seeing someone’s handwriting gives you another degree of closeness to them. It is so personal, to see an idiosyncratic scrawl especially for you on the page. It’s almost as if some of their identity seeps out of the ink.” Recognising someone’s handwriting on a letter gives a delight that cannot be replaced by seeing a text message ping up on your telephone screen. It would be a tragedy if this was a pleasure lost to the digital natives.
Taking time to write also taps in to the mindfulness movement that has been on the rise in the last year or so: Kirsten Burke’s Little Book of Calming Calligraphy and Amy Latta’s Hand Lettering for Relaxation are are just two of some 20,000 calligraphy titles available on Amazon. From Hackney to Herefordshire, there seems to be a growing interest in calligraphy workshops. Perhaps they are unconsciously following in the footsteps of the Duchess of Sussex whose love of calligraphy is widely known; she is said to have fallen in love with it during handwriting classes at catholic school.
Alice Gabb a ‘lettering artist’ (@alicegabb), who runs regular workshops in east London, has seen a rise in clients over the past eighteen months. ‘You cannot rush, you have to slow down, and before you know it, two hours have passed without any urge to touch your phone.,’ she explains. ‘I think it’s good for the soul to take yourself on a little adventure to a lesser known part of London, drink tea with other fellow humans and do something creative.’ Meanwhile, bullet journaling and ‘listing’ (inspired by Dominique Loreau’s L’art de la Liste) encourage people to take time over basic admin tasks, making them things of beauty to be celebrated in their own right. No one’s suggesting that you frame your tax bill, but well-organised, jolly-looking to-do lists will, at the very least, encourage you to complete the mundane tasks. So pick up a biro, write a note, scribble a list or pen a long letter. As Adrian Edwards of the British Library puts it, “the future of writing is in our hands.”