Proud and humble characters

A History of Calligraphy
April 21, 1995

Albertine Gaur, formerly deputy keeper of the department of Oriental manuscripts and printed books at the British Library, brings a welcome breadth of viewpoint to the main objective of her book: to explore the history of the place of the calligrapher within the context of three totally different and well-defined calligraphic traditions - Islamic, Chinese and western. She reminds us that we cannot divorce the practice of calligraphy from the cultural context of society and that the position of a calligrapher within a hierarchical society determines his value.

Only in the Far East has calligraphy existed in its own right as a creative art form acknowledged as embodying the individualistic essence of an otherwise communal culture. In Islam, the status of calligraphy remained high because of its perennial association with the production of religious texts in a religious and largely non-industrial society. Western society, by contrast, has traditionally regarded professional scribes as pen-pushing hacks - humble collaborators in books largely treasured for their illuminations, or in more recent centuries as purveyors of ingenious curlicues and copybooks.

Indeed almost all of the output of western scribes since the mid-13th century has been "market driven", created in secular workshops by tradespeople. (In 14th-century Paris a carpenter was paid twice as much as a scribe. In New York of 1985 the same applied.) When Gaur comes to discuss the relative value of contemporary calligraphy in western society the significance of her focus on the calligrapher's place becomes very clear. Present-day western calligraphers may see themselves as graphic artists but what does this mean if society defines them as artisans and their work as a minor craft activity?

Labels should not matter but they do; collectors are simply not prepared to pay the "art" prices required to nurture or support the development of a living calligraphic tradition whereas in Japan, as Gaur points out, individual pieces of contemporary calligraphy still change hands for as much as £1,000,000 at frequent and prestigious exhibitions.

While she does not quite answer all the questions she raises about our society's attitudes, Gaur does a great service by tackling them as well as many other aspects of the three main calligraphic traditions across the centuries. Her plentiful illustrations are well-chosen and she writes at a rattling pace with scholarship enlivened by anecdotes and a proper concern for the importance of the calligrapher's tools: reeds, quills and brushes; and the materials: papers, vellum and inks - those low-tech creators of the alphabetic forms which still profoundly influence the pages, computer screens and streetscapes of our own time.

Donald Jackson is a calligrapher, author of The Story of Writing and co-author of The Calligrapher's Handbook.

A History of Calligraphy

Author - Albertine Gaur
ISBN - 07123 03480
Publisher - British Library
Price - £20.00
Pages - 232

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