I love how Pinterest helps me stumble on great images, but I hate how often they are orphaned of sources and attribution. Tumblr (and frankly, the rest of the internet) has similar problems, but Pinterest almost seems to encourage the bare, context-less image. My personal policy is to always link to the original source (which in the case of Regency and Georgian art and artifacts is often a museum or auctioneer website) or to a Wikimedia Commons page which includes information about the piece. Sometimes when I come across a really great orphan image I turn detective to find its source, and in the case of this sheet of penmanship practice I’m really glad I did!
As you know, I’m obsessed with 18th and early 19th century handwriting. I’ve looked at engraved and printed copybooks, cut my own quill pens, and followed advice on how to practice my letters. But material evidence of how real learners practiced their penmanship is rare- the pages they covered with first shaky attempts are much more ephemeral even than personal letters of the period. So imagine my delight when the above image came across my Pinterest feed. At the top, a writing master has written a model phrase with an elegant slant, delicate hairlines, and bold straight strokes. Below, the learner has done his best to copy the phrase, but struggled to recreate the elegance of the model. I can relate! Nonetheless, the learner proudly signed his name to the page- twice! Where did this gem come from? The pin as I came across it merely said “Uploaded by User.” Sigh.
Google’s ‘Search by Image’ feature is a lifesaver in these situations. If you’re very lucky, it will turn up (in addition to many redundant Pinterest links) a page that is evidently the original source for the image- like a blog post containing photographs snapped by the blogger. More often, you’ll come across pages that aren’t the original source, but may include more information to help you locate it. Unfortunately, most museum collection websites aren’t indexed by Google, so if you learn that a painting or print is in a particular museum you will need to search the museum’s own collection database. More and more large museums are making high-quality digital images of their collections available on their websites, but even small private collections will often make public images of some of their highlights. Every museum has different policies about using their images, but there is a strong case for faithful reproductions of public domain works being considered in the public domain themselves. This gives impetus to the Google Art Project and the Wikimedia Commons, which aim to make high-quality digital images of public domain artworks available freely. Although many of these images may be free to use and share in a lot of online contexts, they should be used responsibly, and for me that means sharing the context and source as well.
In the case of “Abandon Every Sin” I was pretty lucky. My image search led quickly to an online teacher’s guide hosted at Villanova University’s Falvey Library that included this image. The page linked to the Library’s digital collections, where I could view full page scans of the entire manuscript book that this page is a part of! Armed with this information, I filled in a description when I added the pin to one of my Pinterest boards. Then I edited the pin to add a link to the online guide as the ‘Source’, so my followers would be able to click through to read more. Here’s the pin on my “Handwriting and Typography” board, an orphan no more.
The teacher’s guide, prepared to help introduce students to primary source research, discusses the book and the historical figures who were involved in its making. It’s a fascinating story! The main part of the book was a journal kept by Patrick Hayes, a 17-year old Irish-American boy who accompanied his uncle, Commodore of the American revolutionary navy John Barry, on a voyage to China in 1787. Michael Hayes apparently commandeered the diary to use the extra pages for handwriting practice sometime later. In addition to “Abandon every Sin,” his writing teacher had him practice the phrase “Be not hasty to judg” [sic]. For some reason Michael and his teacher did not write out phrases starting with C, D or the rest of the alphabet in this book. Such models were easy to find- George Bickham’s copy book includes a list of “Moral Maxims Alphabetically digested for the Practice of Youth in the Round-hand.”
Michael really made the book his own- on a blank page at the beginning of his journal, Patrick had written a title page: “Patrick Hays his book, January the 19 1787, Patrick Hayes, Wrote abreast of Java Head.” (image below) Michael appears to have added two lines below that, copying his brother’s writing and adding his own name! Strikingly, these additions are attributed to Patrick’s older brother Michael. If that attribution is correct (that is, it wasn’t a Michael Hayes of a later generation who made these marks), Michael was learning elegant penmanship later in life than his brother did, and was imitating his younger brother’s style on that title page. According to the teacher’s guide, the Hayes brothers had grown up poor in Ireland, and only joined their uncle in the young United States after their parents’ deaths. Was Patrick the prodigy of the family, using letters and writing to better himself like Benjamin Franklin had in the previous generation? Did Michael work more menial jobs in Ireland, only gaining the opportunity to refine his hand later in life? What was Michael thinking as he inserted himself into his own brother’s title page? Was he jealous of the younger man’s early success or dreaming of his own meteoric rise, now that he’s learned the essential accomplishment of penmanship?
I can’t answer all these questions with Patrick and Michael Hayes’s book, but I am so delighted that investigating this pinterest orphan led me to learn about their family, and to identify this page as the work of an adult learner of elegant roundhand writing. Whatever his story, I can relate to every shaky stroke of his pen as I learn elegant penmanship as an adult.