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The Great Copperplate Myth | Article

Last September 2016, I was lucky enough to visit my teachers Amanda and Keith Adams at their house in Catalonia for five days of private instruction and conviviality.

During those days, Amanda showed me an article called “The Great Copperplate Myth” by Peter Gilderdale. I was fascinated by the points that Peter discusses and I thought it would be great to share it with more people as Copperplate calligraphy has gained a lot of interest in the recent years, so we can re-visit these points again from a new perspective.

A few years back, Peter taught a workshop on broad-edged Roundhand at Summer School in Winter in Melbourne. Since then, Peter has been mastering the technique and he is getting closer to being able to demonstrate it fluently.

I haven’t tried this technique on my own but I am personally interested in questioning things and reviewing the origin of the word copperplate.

The article below was published at Letter Arts Review in 1999 (Vol. 15 Issue 1, p38). I hope you find this all interesting!


The Great Copperplate Myth, 1999
© Peter Gilderdale

When I phoned a colleague during the course of this research, she admitted to turning the page as fast as possible whenever she came upon anything about copperplate. Please, in the interests of historical fairness and justice, do not follow her example now…

Each age rewrites its own immediate past. Currently, for example, postmodernist writers and critics are looking back at the last century and creating a definition of “modernism”—one which at times tells us more about ourselves than about the subtleties of the history of the period. This article, however, goes a step earlier and examines how what one might term “modernist prejudice” has effectively robbed calligraphy of a significant part of its history. It shows how, over the last century, a mythology has built up around so-called copperplate writing, and that the accepted history and practice of copperplate are distortions stemming from no small amount of ignorance, supposition, and ideological antipathy.

The myth in history

A single example sums up the treatment copperplate receives in current calligraphic literature. John R Nash and Gerald Fleuss include a chapter entitled “A Brief History of Calligraphy” in their book Practical Calligraphy (1992). This is a generally measured and sensible account, but having covered the Renaissance and the development of printing, the authors characterize modern calligraphy by saying:

A vigorous and craftsmanlike tradition of pen lettering, based on Black Letter survived in Germany until World War II…. In Britain, however, any pretence at a sound typographic and calligraphic tradition had, by mid-19th century, virtually ceased to exist… [p.23]

And that is as close as we get to a discussion of the copperplate tradition. Yet this tradition had dominated European writing for well over two centuries during the period when writing was available to a far wider segment of the population than it had been during medieval and Renaissance times.

The quote seems to tell us that copperplate is not a sound tradition. On the face of it, the authors are quite justified. Calligraphic historians unanimously agree on the fact. According to Albertine Gaur in her comprehensive and scholarly A History of Calligraphy (1994):

As a style it lacked individuality and character (though it looked pleasant enough), and in the opinion of many, copperplate writing, with its rigidity and lack of originality, bears much responsibility for the final decline of Western calligraphy. [p.176]

This is a big claim. But then according to Joyce Irene Whalley (1980):

Generally it may be considered that in the 18th century calligraphy ceased to exist, although of course handwriting continued to flourish. The paradox can be explained by the fact that while more and more people were encouraged to write well, there was little concern for calligraphy as an art—let alone a fine art. Writing was a practical subject, and such it was to remain for a great many years. [The Art of Calligraphy, p.243]

This belief that copperplate is somehow a degenerate commercial offshoot of a lofty and noble artistic tradition is one of the central principles of the copperplate myth. It is also the most easily disposed of. As Gaur points out: “…calligraphy had always been largely utilitarian in the West, never a major art form which justified its own existence, bestowing status on those who had mastered it.” [p.178]

Fig. 1
These sample hands were written by Joseph Champion, and reproduced by George Bickam in his Universal Penman (1743) Plates 210 and 211. They show the various names that were used for these scripts during the eighteenth century; the term “copperplate” is notably absent.

This should have been self-evident, and the fact that such major calligraphic histories can make such a blatantly incorrect assertions requires explanation. The answer can be found in the notion of the artist / craftsperson which is at the core of Edward Johnston’s twentieth century calligraphic revival.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts movement, led by John Ruskin and William Morris, had emphasized the moral value of honest craft labor—as opposed to the dehumanizing and mechanical work fostered by the Industrial Revolution, with its division of labor. In the Arts and Crafts world view, there was no distinction between artist and craftsperson. Both were employed in bettering people’s living environment. Both saught harmony and simplicity and both had to remain true to the essential nature of the materials they used; for the movement abhored all artifice.

To someone imbued with an arts and crafts philosophy (and the potency of the Johnstonian tradition has kept that philosophy alive much longer in calligraphy than elsewhere), the medieval scribe can be seen as an artist, as can Renaissance and modern scribes. But how is such a calligrapher going to react to the picture Whalley gives us of the writing teachers of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries? They are portrayed as engaged in commerce; writing books praising themselves and putting down their competitors, resorting to flourishing to draw attention to their work, and using a style of writing which derives not from the natural flow of the pen, but from a foreign medium—the copper plate and the burin. In such a context, it is not hard to see how they could be perceived as less than true calligraphers—let alone artists.

Engaging in commerce was not a favorite occupation of the early twentieth century avant-garde, who were resolutely antibourgeois. Similarly, the modernist “form follows function” aesthetic revolts against gratuitous embellishments like flourishing. It is, however, the last of these charges leveled against the writing masters that is the most insidious. David Harris (1991) defines copperplate as “A monoline cursive script drawn with a flexible pointed nib, based, as the name suggests, on the cursive script originally engraved on to copper plate.” [p.117]

This shows how completely taken for granted this relationship between the script and the plate is now perceived to be. The point is labored endlessly by Whalley and every other writer I have found that has actually dealt with the period. Alfred Fairbank, for example, in a section on pens in his highly influential A Book of Scripts (1949) says:

The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commercial hands require a flexible pointed pen held so that the downstroke…is the result of a pressure that splays the pen. Seemingly the aim was to imitate the strokes the engraving tool produced. Therefore it could be said that the pen was not master in its own house. A threat to good handwriting today is the ‘ball-point’ (an ink-pencil rather than a pen!) [pp.29-30]

It is not hard to see the propagandistic elements of this piece of writing. Fairbank invokes the arts and crafts and modernist prejudices about commerce and truth to materials, and then plays on contemporary fears by introducing a perceived analogy with the (then very new) ballpoint pen. To me, though, there are two other vital points.

First, it is immediately after this quote that Fairbank introduces the term “copperplate-hands.” Significantly, in the earlier “Historical Sketch” chapter he refers to the style as either “Round Hand” or “Running Hand.” I do not know of any published research into the etymology of the calligraphic label ‘copperplate’, but Fairbank’s original terms certainly reflect what the styles of writing were actually called. In George Bickham’s Universal Penman (1743), for example, scripts that today’s writers would link together under the generic name copperplate are labeled round text, round hand, and Italian hand (fig. 1). This suggests that the usage of the word copperplate as a label for the script was not contemporary with the development of the style.

A thorough examination of this word’s derivation is clearly needed. Thus far, I have not found it used in nineteenth-century texts, nor does Johnston use it in Writing, Illuminating, and Lettering (1906). If its origins date from either the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, then one would have to conclude that the word copperplate itself, far from suggesting its origins—as Harris assumes—was probably invented as a description based on that later period’s beliefs about its origins. Whether it was also expressly intended to convey negative connotations to an arts and crafts / modernist public is unclear (though if it were, it would be in good company—the term Gothic was invented as a putdown too).

Fig. 2
Fronticepiece to An Essay in Writing by John Bland, (1740).  A fine engraved example of the writing of the period, the text of this plate also makes it clear that original calligraphy was a collectable item at the time. (Courtesy of the Newberry Library)

The second point is Fairbank’s use of the word ‘seemingly’. What this actually means is that he has no solid evidence to back up his contention that the letterform derived from the burin and not the pen. A statement like this really needs to be supported by some type of primary source material. This could take the form of either: 1) statements from individual scribes—either from their copybooks or from other sources, or 2) careful analysis of the original manuscripts’ writing (not the engraved copybooks) by contemporary calligraphers and engravers.

Fairbank did not have this. His major source was Ambrose Heal’s massive study The English Writing Masters and their Copy-Books. Interestingly, at no stage does Heal claim a causative link between engraving and writing. He does, however, quote the seventeenth century writing master John Ayres who, in his Tutor to Penmanship (1698), describes the nature of the revival of writing after the onslaught of printing: “And then Writing began to Revive again: about which time they found out the way of Engraving Writing on Copper Plates…” [Heal, p. Xiii]

This is hardly solid evidence, and later writers provide little additional material. I have only found two who refer to original sources at all. The first, Donald Jackson, in The Story of Writing, p. 113, notes that Cresci (the calligrapher who first advocated the flexible pen) disliked what the engravers did with his letters. Another Jackson (Dick) mentions some writing manuals in which the writers advocate the turning of the paper to create certain flourishes—a technique clearly borrowed from engravers. [Copperplate Calligraphy, p. ix] Again, neither quote proves a causative link between engraving and letterforms. The first simply demonstrates that Cresci was aware that the burin could distort the integrity of his written forms, while the second refers only to a few flourishes—but not to letterforms.

None of these quotes supports Fairbank’s statement, but there is primary evidence which, at least partially, contradicts it. Whalley [English Handwriting 1540 – 1853, p. xvii] quotes Richard Clarke who, in 1758, wrote:

Mankind in general [looks] upon them [the engraved plates] as the sole production of the engraver, and not of the writing master…. All engraved writings are first designed and wrote by some master, or drawn in backwards by the engraver…. For as it is impractical for the engraver to produce an elegant piece of engraved writing, without the assistance of the master in forming the design for him, so it is likewise impossible for the penman to multiply his performances, and transmit his works for posterity without the aid of the able and judicious engraver.

Fig. 3
From George Shelley, The Second Part of Natural Writing, (1714). This illustration shows the different types of pens that were used for the various scripts used in the Eighteenth century (refer fig.1). For example, pen 2 was used for Square Text and German Text; pen 4 for Round Hand, Round Text and Italian Text; Pen 5 for the Mixt Secretary. The Engrossing and Set Secretary used pen 6, and the Set Chancery used Pen 7. (Courtesy of the Newberry Library)

Even more revealing is the fact that there are examples of engravers expressing the same sentiments. The following longwinded but crucial piece is from John Ayre’s engraver, John Sturt, and quoted in (of all places) Heal:

Many who are ignorant conceive mighty things of Engraven copybooks and that no Written Copy can ever be so correct as that which is engraven which Opinion altho it has proved Beneficial to me as other Engravers yet the love I bear to Truth, as well as a particulour Honour and Respect to the Ingenuous Masters in Writing and their Art, obliges me to declare (tho thereby I pass a self denying Act against myself) that this Opinion is by no means true. [Ayres, Tutor to Penmanship (1698) quoted in Heal, p. xiii-xiv]

It is easy enough, nowadays, to imagine engravers developing a burin-based script and then somehow imposing their will upon the hapless writing practitioners, but if this were so, why did they continue to engrave such large numbers of pieces including Roman and Gothic lettering? The fact is that (at all but the smallest sizes) the engraver would have had to make multiple incisions to simulate a calligraphic letterform—so there would have been relatively little difference in the difficulty of engraving one type of alphabet or another. Indeed, is there any reason to believe that these engravers were not skillful enough to copy whatever was asked of them? In the following text, written for a calligraphic collection, the engraver goes out of his way to advertise his accurate translation of the writing:

An Essay in Writing…Written by the late eminent Mr. John Bland and carefully copied from his admir’d remains, found in the collections of the curious (by) J. Howard, London. [Peter Jessen, Masterpieces of Calligraphy, pl. 64] (see fig. 2)

This raises another important point. Calligraphy was collected at this time. The writing masters did not spend all their time on work that was to be engraved. Their original work was evidently valued. The fact that their copybooks are now the most accessible sources for their writing should not blind us to the fact that much copperplate calligraphy never went near an engraver—or was only engraved at a much later point, as in the example above. Why then should the scribe use scripts that were not natural to the pen, or try to teach such styles to people whose work was very unlikely ever to be engraved?

In a chapter in Heal on the development of handwriting, Stanley Morison, an enormously influential typographer and researcher wrote:

Again, the tool of the copper-engraver produced an excessively brilliant line which tempted pupils to employ a correspondingly fine pen. The writing of the last half of the sixteenth century thus came to be dominated as much by the technique of the engraver as by that of the writing master’s style. [Heal, p. xxvii]

This appears simply to be Morison’s opinion, since it is not referenced to any other source; yet Morison was hardly qualified to talk about the nature of the flexible pen. He had a major prejudice against flourishing, and against copperplate which he describes as “colourless, thoroughly unromantic, and dull….which commended it to those who wrote our invoices…” [Heal, p. xxxiii] Despite this, it seems to be Morison’s partisan views, reiterated in later books such as American Copybooks [1951] that affected later writers, rather than Heal’s much more circumspect approach.

Clearly, there is a need for further research into the origins of the copperplate style. At present, however, the available evidence strongly suggests that several myths held by modern scribes have no sound historical basis. These include: 1) Copperplate is not properly calligraphy, just a form of handwriting. [Would people have collected the work if it was only seen in these terms?] 2) The name “copperplate” proves the historical derivation of the letterforms. [The name is not contemporary with the script.] 3) This flexible pen style mimics the natural cutting movement of the burin. [Most engraving used multiple strokes of the burin to replicate calligraphy].

In reality, the current theory about the relationship between pen and burin appears plausible largely because almost every image of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century writing reproduced in histories of calligraphy comes from the engraved copybooks. Very few handwritten documents are shown—and these are almost invariably by children or amateurs. This concentration on the copybooks reflects the focus of research since Heal’s work. Such study is totally valid in its own right, but its effect has been to initiate a twentieth-century fixation on the engraved rather than the hand-written letterform. There is currently a desperate need for a publication that reproduces the original calligraphy of this period, so that we can judge for ourselves the extent to which the writing masters’ original work differs in reproduction.


Implications for the practice of Copperplate

The situation outlined above suggests that a core mythology about the history of copperplate writing was established in the early part of this century and has been followed unquestioningly ever since. On the surface it might appear to be simply a matter for pedantic historians, but it isn’t. This copperplate myth has had a distinct effect on our understanding of the practice of the alphabet.

When we assume that the cutting action of the burin provided the rationale for copperplate letter shapes, it causes us to focus solely on the action of pressure on a flexible pen. The flexible pen provides a quality of line that is temptingly analogous to the way a burin might cut metal, and as such there is no reason to seek other approaches. Instructional books therefore give a largely unified picture of copperplate practice. Susanne Haines’s The Calligrapher’s Project Book (1987) is a typical example. In it we are told that copperplate is done with a flexible metal pen, and that to write correctly we must either turn the paper at an oblique angle, or use an elbow pen. This information is not wrong per se, but if one questions the historical validity of the link between burin and pen, then it becomes necessary to re-examine some of the things that we have previously taken for granted. These include the type of pen used for copperplate, the way the paper is placed, and even the pen hold.

But first, the pen itself. Contemporary copperplate calligraphers use a flexible metal pen. We know that metal pens only became commercially viable in the 1820’s [Ray Nash p.23], and commonplace by around 1840, [Whalley, Writing Implements p.43] but it has been assumed that these metal pens replaced equally pointed flexible quills. This assumption is implicit in Donald Jackson’s assertion that the metal pen was an improvement on the quill. Readers who have seen the video of Jackson’s The Story of Writing will undoubtedly recall a memorable scene where his quill breaks under the strain of copperplate. This is, in fact, completely incorrect. My own studies of the changeover from quill to metal pen in the records of Victorian New Zealand [Gilderdale p.5] have uncovered no examples of quills breaking but several where metal pens splattered (fig. 6). There is, however, a much more fundamental reason why Jackson is wrong. The quills of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were neither pointed nor particularly flexible. They were, it turns out, broad-edged.

Now, I cannot take credit for this observation. In the first version I submitted of this article, I made the same false assumption. I was corrected via e-mail correspondence with Robert Williams, whose forthcoming article on his discoveries in the Newberry collection will be the feast for which this article is an hors d’euvre, and which should present the examples of original writing that I called for above. His finding about the broad edged quill is, however, now reasonably common knowledge on the calligraphy internet newsgroup [Ross Green, Calligraphy Digest V97.05#86] and I therefore include it here, because of its implications for copperplate practice. It means that everyone who has laboured in front of a copy of Bickham’s The Universal Penman with a pointed pen has been engaged in the equivalent of writing Trajan capitals with a metal pen — i.e. an interesting exercise but historically inaccurate.

The calligraphers reproduced in Bickham apparently used a variety of broad-edged quills (left-oblique, right-oblique and straight edged) (fig. 3) to write the different styles of writing common at that time, and this fact lends considerable weight to the argument against the burin. If the scribes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had wanted to do work best fitted to the (supposed) cutting action of the burin, then they would have tended to keep to a single type of (pointed) pen. The use of different edges for different hands provides an eloquent argument across history showing us that these alphabets’ forms actually stem from the inherent properties of the pen.

Fig. 4
A normal twentieth-century calligraphy grip which tends to hold the pen at a relatively high angle to the paper. Note the bent thumb and the way the fingers are treated as a single unit. (Courtesy of the Newberry Library)

As a consequence of this, it seems appropriate to question the generic usage of the term “copperplate”. The tendency to use the word as a catch-all description for the writing of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries remains almost universal in countries following the British tradition, but it is less prevalent in the US, where the names of schools of calligraphy like the Spencerian and Zanerian are increasingly used. At all events, what we think of as the “copperplate” tradition is definitely a nineteenth century invention (albeit not by Spencer et al), whilst “Roundhand” is probably a better generic term for earlier work – if indeed a generic term is needed at all for the work of this period.

In terms of practice, it now becomes interesting to see how the two traditions link together, and it is in this relation that I want to discuss pen hold. Pen hold has, for some reason, never been a subject to grip the imaginations of twentieth-century scribes. Most have tended to follow Edward Johnston’s pragmatic advice:

The ancient scribe probably held his pen in the manner most convenient to himself; and we, in order to write with freedom, should hold the pen in the way to which, by long use, we have become accustomed. [p.31]

Now this advice needs to be understood in context. In Johnston’s day all children were taught how to hold their pens, and it is very questionable whether he would have said the same thing had he lived today. Nevertheless, as a result of our laissez faire attitude to pen hold, we have not realised how crucial it is to an understanding of how the Roundhand and Copperplate styles were written.

Right up until the beginning of this century books on writing (including Johnston’s Writing & Illuminating & Lettering) all recommended a way of holding the pen that few people would even think of today. The pen was held with the thumb and first two fingers only. There were many variations on this, but typically the Roundhand tradition used a grip similar to that described by Edward Cocker in one of his copybooks:

Take the Pen in your hand, and place your Thumb on that side thereof which is next to your Breast, not extending it so low as the end of your fore-finger; next to that, place your fore-finger on the top of the Pen, lower than your thumb about a quarter of an inch: Lastly, place your middle finger so much lower than that, on the further side of the Pen. Let there be very little space or distance betwixt the Pen and your forefinger, but let both that and your middle finger be extended almost to their full length: Observe also that your Thumb rise and fall at the joint, as the length or compass of the Letters require which you write, and that your little finger only rest on the paper; nor let there be the least pressure of your hand, but bear it up with an easy pulse. [reproduced in Whalley, English Handwriting, Fig. 82a].

The quill, in this type of grip was held in such a way that it crossed the index finger at the second joint. This left the pen held at a lower angle to the paper than is the case with most modern grips (see fig. 4), but it was still fairly high (fig. 6); allowing for the movement of the quill to catch the corner on up strokes — which is how hairlines were created.

During the early nineteenth century, however,  new methods of teaching writing were introduced by people like Joseph Carstairs — who tied children’s thumb and two fingers to the pen to encourage arm rather than finger movement [Morison p.27] (fig. 5). Carstairs’ writing method made the writing of hairlines with the corner of the pen (as was done in roundhand) well nigh impossible. Rather, it resulted in a very fast and nearly monoline handwriting – to judge from the example in Morison [American Copybooks p.26] and the early colonial New Zealand archives that I have studied.

This arm movement based style was to have an effect on pen hold. Whilst Carstairs himself advocated a grip that is almost identical with the traditional eighteenth century ones, it is evident from most of the nineteenth century writing manuals reproduced by Nash in his American Penmanship (1969), that the pen was increasingly being held lower in relation to the paper (fig. 5). It now ran almost parallel to the extended index finger, crossing near to the knuckle rather than at the second joint.

Fig. 5
By holding the pen at a lower angle to the paper, this grip allows the nib to be splayed using much less pressure. It is fairly typical of the way the flexible metal pen was held during the nineteenth century. (Courtesy of the Newberry Library)

One of the problems that modern practitioners face when writing copperplate with a pointed metal pen is the tendency for the point to catch in the paper. Eleanor Winters notes that in copperplate the pen needs to be held low in order to avoid the nib catching in the paper [Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy, p.35], and this may at least partly explain why the pen hold changes around the same time that metal pens were introduced. Nevertheless, neither Winters nor any other writer I have found goes on to connect this fact to one of the fundamental principles on which the flexible pen operates: There is a direct ratio between the angle a pointed flexible pen is held to the paper and the amount of pressure needed to splay it. In other words, a pen held low needs singularly little pressure to achieve surprisingly broad strokes, and nineteenth century metal pens with their long slits appear to have been more flexible than quills – judging by fig. 6 which shows just how much thicker the strokes of the metal pen are compared to those of a quill when written by the same hand.

What the introduction of the flexible metal pen appears to have offered to the early Victorians was a way to regain the thicks and thins of the roundhand calligraphic tradition whilst retaining the handwriting methods that they had learnt from people like Carstairs. Whilst further research may refine my conclusions about this, illustrations from the period certainly allow us to build up a picture of writing at the very beginning of the Copperplate era proper which shows clear differences with current practice. We can establish that people did indeed hold the pen with a different grip to ours. We know also that they held it at a lower angle to the paper than we do, and that they absolutely didn’t hold their paper at an extreme angle to their bodies or even use elbow pens.

The fact that these calligraphers sat straight on to their paper was no accident. Again it is a natural result of the grip that they used. When the pen is held so that the tip of the middle finger rests on the right hand side of the shaft of the pen, the natural pivot between thumb and middle finger results in a sloped writing of around 55%. This is the origin of the slope in both copperplate and roundhand; with such a grip the slope is quite natural even when the paper is straight on to the writer. To be fair, the elbow pen was developed fairly soon after the introduction of the metal pen, but this was not because the slope was unnatural. Rather it was a logical result of trying to imitate the natural curve of a quill so that the slit of the pen faced the thick strokes. This was not a problem in roundhand, which doesn’t use pressure to achieve thicks and thins, but early copperplate writers may have struggled when using pointed metal pens, owing to the slit being side on to the stroke direction.

Interestingly, Edward Johnston’s grip, as shown in Writing & Illuminating & Lettering (1906), although it also uses only the thumb and two fingers, differs significantly from that of the copperplate scribes. He places the middle finger under the pen, and this immediately changes the natural pivoting movement to almost vertical—the appropriate slope for the alphabets he wrote. It also makes the index finger more dominant than it is in copperplate, where it is the middle finger that plays the major role in guiding the pen.

Fig. 6
Gaetano Giarré, Fronticepiece of Scuola Toscana di Caratteri Moderni, Firenze, (1821). Although from the early nineteenth century, Giarre’s pen hold (top) is typical of that used for Roundhand. The quaint but inexact engraved illustration tells us at all events that the paper was placed squarely in front of the writer, and not on a slant. (Courtesy of the Auckland Central City Library)

Whilst there are more variables involved in these grips than I can possibly deal with in the current article, I believe that the fluency of both the roundhand and copperplate hands is very intimately linked to the way the pen was held. Certainly, it is clear that the methods used by these early scribes can be studied with profit. This does not, of course, invalidate newer techniques for doing copperplate. Some are improvements on the earlier models, but just as studying the techniques of medieval scribes can bring insights into modern practice, so can the study of historical copperplate and roundhand practice broaden our range of approaches. At all events, our unconscious assumptions must be challenged. Modern copperplate practice is exactly that — modern — and it badly needs to be understood in its broader historical context. This means that if the historical sources all stress something, such as the importance of holding the pen or cutting the quill in a particular way, then we should not blithely ignore it, or assume that we necessarily know better than the original practitioners. A better understanding of these sources will enable us to disentangle historical practice from our contemporary description of it; a description that, as I have shown, is heavily reliant on a twentieth-century narrative –  the great copperplate myth.

In conclusion

Myths are often comfortable things. They help us to cope with situations we don’t fully understand. I do not want to give the impression that the great copperplate myth was some terrible conspiracy consciously perpetrated by early twentieth-century calligraphers. It wasn’t. These scribes had to work against a general lack of understanding and appreciation of calligraphy. The extent of this can be gauged by the fact that in the 1926 Encyclopaedia Britannica not only was there no entry for calligraphy, but no reference was made anywhere to the history of writing apart from under the paleography heading—covering a period which ended with the fourteenth century. Edward Johnston is completely ignored. To add insult to injury, there is a five-page section on the history of shorthand!

The early exponents of modern calligraphy needed to see themselves as pioneers—and they were. They needed their heroes, and who can begrudge them their picture of Johnston single-handedly rediscovering the lost art of the broad pen (even if it wasn’t as lost as he believed [Green, Calligraphy Digest V97.05#86] Heroes, though, need villains. Gradually, as they built up a picture about calligraphic history, the features that the historians came to believe characterized copperplate (presumably based on the observation that the development of the flexible pen and copperplate were concurrent) almost automatically cast this alphabet in the traitor’s role. Copperplate was seen as the form that betrayed the integrity of the pen. This was a comfortable belief in the 1930s or 1940s. That this is still accepted in the 1990s, however, does us much less credit.

It is no longer necessary to cast copperplate as the villain. Postmodernism (for better or worse) has allowed us to enjoy the decorative. The last eight years have seen graphic designers pillage the stocks of copperplate typefaces, after realizing their popularity. The aim of this article has been to free copperplate of some unwarranted negative connotations. If it also helps foster a greater appreciation of the achievement of those much maligned writing masters, so much the better. I hope, too, that it may go some way to encouraging more calligraphers to research and experiment for themselves in this area, and thereby rediscover the intimate relationship between hand, pen and letter form that is at the core of both “copperplate” and “roundhand” as with every truly calligraphic alphabet.


Peter Gilderdale has degrees in Art History and Ancient History. He has worked professionally as a calligrapher in New Zealand and in Denmark, where he wrote the first do-it-yourself calligraphy book to be published in Danish. He currently lectures in Design History and Calligraphy at the Auckland Institute of Technology, New Zealand, where he is program leader of the Bachelor of Graphic Design degree course.


This article was submitted for publication in 1996 a few weeks prior to an extensive discussion about copperplate on the internet. As a result of that discussion, of another burst of internet activity in early 1997 and of subsequent correspondence, I have been able to tidy up several loose ends. I would like to acknowledge the input of Ross Green regarding the Spencerian tradition and in particular to thank Robert Williams for his useful comments as well as his help with locating material at the Newberry Library. His research will considerably expand what is presented here. I have, however, tried not to steal too much of his thunder. Furthermore, I would like to acknowledge the help received over and above the call of duty from the Newberry’s Paul Gehl and Christine Colburn.

Reading List:

The Encyclopædia Britannica. (13th ed.) London, 1926.

Fairbank, Alfred. A Book of Scripts. London: Faber & Faber, 1949 (1977).

Gaur, Albertine. A History of Calligraphy. London: The British Library, 1994.

Gilderdale, Peter. Tracing the Treaty Writer: The Continuing search for the Pen that wrote the Treaty of Waitangi. New Zealand Calligraphers Newsletter, No. 23, Autumn 1997 pp 3-6

Green, Ross. Calligraphy Digest V97.05#86

Haines, Susanne. The Calligrapher’s Project Book. London: Collins, 1987.

Harris, David. Calligraphy: Inspiration, Innovation, Communication. London: Anaya, 1991.

Heal, Ambrose. The English Writing Masters and Their Copy-Books 1570-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931.

Hofer, Philip. The Universal Penman: Engraved by George Bickham. New York: Dover, 1954.

Jackson, Dick. Copperplate Calligraphy. New York: Collier, 1979.

Jackson, Donald. The Story of Writing. New York: Taplinger, 1981.

Jessen, Peter, ed. Masterpieces of Calligraphy: 261 Examples, 1500-1800. New York: Dover, 1981.

Johnston, Edward. Writing & Illuminating & Lettering. London: Pitman, 1906 (1948).

Morison, Stanley. American Copybooks: An Outline of their History from Colonial to Modern Times. Philadelphia: Wm. F. Fell Co., 1951.

Nash, John R. and Gerald Fleuss. Practical Calligraphy. London: Hamlyn, 1992.

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