Capital, capital!*

Detail of "Formation of the Capitals", plate in John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813.
Detail of “Formation of the Capitals”, plate in John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813.

Lately, I’ve been practicing English Roundhand capitals with my quill pens. After a long time working with lower case letters, it’s fun to let loose a little and swoosh around the page!  John Jenkins, the American writing master, gives a whole new set of “principal strokes” for forming the capital letters, and you can see how much more room for swooping there is compared to the lower case strokes.

Like the lower case letters, Jenkins groups most of the capitals together by shape. For example, P, R, and B all begin with a downward “Body stroke” that curves gracefully back up to the top so that the pen is ready to form the head of each letter.

-Formation of the Capitals, John Jenkins The Art of Writing, 1813.
“Formation of the Capitals” plates 1 and 2, John Jenkins The Art of Writing, 1813.

The system breaks down a bit, though, in trying to get all the capital letters onto two plates.  Somehow O is missing entirely, and there are two versions of the letter V. One, at the bottom right of the image above, is just a lower case v enlarged, while the other is a pointy letter like N, M, and W.

"Formation of the Capitals" plates 3 and 4, John Jenkins, the Art of Writing, 1813.
“Formation of the Capitals” plates 3 and 4, John Jenkins, the Art of Writing, 1813.

Although I find all the curvy strokes really fun to play with, they also make it more difficult to get the letter forms just right.  With so many compound curves and so few parallel angles, it’s hard to get them all arranged proportionally.  Most of the letters are designed to be made in just a few connected strokes, so one is expected to make all those complex curves without lifting  the pen from the page! For a few of the letters I actually traced my models to get the feel for them in my hands and to see what they looked like on my paper.  Getting the size of the flourishy curves at the beginning and ending of the letters right is a challenge, too- too small and they look cramped, but a little too big, and they draw attention away from the important strokes of the letter.

Ugh, it's a start anyway.
Ugh, it’s a start anyway.

For comparison, the capitals from the 1787 edition of George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant have a few stylistic differences but are mostly similar. If Bickham were grouping letters though, he’d put P and R with D rather than with B. Interesting! I think I prefer these more droopy initial flourishes on letters like I and J- they don’t  run the risk of looking like the cross stroke of the T:

Capitals from plate 9b of George Bickham, The Young Clerk's Assistant (1787 edition).
Capitals from plate 9b of George Bickham, The Young Clerk’s Assistant (1787 edition).

*Since I’m a huge fan of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series, whenever I look at the titles of John Jenkin’s plates, all I can think of is Sir William Lucas:




In Search of a Good Hand

John Jenkins, American Writing Master (with student doodle!)
John Jenkins, American Writing Master (with student doodle!)

The first Accomplishment I want to acquire is writing- an authentic regency writing hand.  After all,  The Polite Lady warns me “But it is not only an useful it is likewise a polite qualification; nor should any one pretend to the character of an accomplished woman who cannot write a distinct and legible hand.”

The handwriting I’ve seen in Jane Austen’s letters and manuscripts, as well as that of her contemporaries, is not always distinct or legible. But each letter usually slants exactly the same way, and there are enough commonalities among very different people that they must have been trained to follow similar models.  How can I find those models? A book titled Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge (There was a stiff competition for ‘Best Companion’, it seems, based on the number of books that use some variation of this title) tells me to carefully copy good examples of handwriting, and that:

In selecting examples for imitation, engraved specimens are to be preferred to written : for the engraver working deliberately and mechanically with his tools, and re touching the plate until his work be to his satisfaction, is able to produce letters, words, and lines, much more regular and uniform in shape and proportion than any which, unless the writer be singularly accomplished indeed, can be executed by the hand and pen.

This seems like good advice, but how am I going to find the right engraved specimens? What do I search for, since my period sources do’t give me specific names? I had heard of “Copperplate” and “Spencerian” handwriting styles, but they belong to the later 19th century. To achieve their graceful thick-and-thin lines, calligraphers use flexible steel nibs that only replaced quill pens in the 1830s or so. I discovered that what is now called English Roundhand, an ancestor of Copperplate handwriting developed in the 17th century, was popular through the early 19th century. It also accords well with my sources, which often mention a “round” hand in contrast to “running” or “Italic” hands.

As for engraved specimens, George Bickham‘s name comes up again and again. In The Universal Penman, he collected fine examples from the best  English writing masters and published them as engraved plates. More relevant to my needs is his slim volume The Young Clerk’s Assistant; or Penmanship made easy, instructive, and Entertaining, first published in 1733. Google Books has a full text of a 1787 edition, It contains examples of round and other hands, and LOTS of “moral maxims” to practice copying.  The title may sound rather masculine, but there are poems and epigrams specifically aimed at young ladies as well as young gentlemen.

 Unfortunately, Google Books’ scan is too washed out to be a good model- it doesn’t capture the fine hairlines that are an essential part of the letter forms. I acquired Dover’s reprint of the 1733 edition, only to find that it doesn’t include my favorite plates titled “To learn round Hand without a Master”, which had large letters both separately and joined. They instructs me to “Write each article on this and the following page forty times over in a Copy-Book ruled with double lines.” Here they are from that washed out scan of the 1787 edition (Click to see a larger):

Bickham-p8 Bickham-p9

Since The Young Man’s Best Companion told me to practice writing each character large and carefully, I felt I needed to look further for models.  I found it in John Jenkins’ Art of Writing, an American manual from 1813. The International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH) hosts high-quality scans of some hard to find writing manuals, and Jenkins’ book is the earliest they have. The paper it’s printed on is russet with age, but the hairlines stand out clearly! I de-colored and cleaned up a few of the plates that show the basic strokes and the small letters:

Jenkins Plates 1Jenkins Plates 2

John Jenkins is a big believer in teaching through “dialogue,” by which he means memorized questions and answers about the theory and practice of writing. I don’t find that very helpful, but I do like his method of presenting the basic pen strokes that form all the letters. The hardest elements for me to get right are the slope of the letters and the delicate hairline curve at the top and bottom of many lines, and his basic strokes emphasize learning those skills.  A close comparison of his letterforms with Bickham’s shows that they are not identical, but they are definitely in the same family.

Jenkins also has the ladies in mind in his volume, as this elegant page shows:

“If you would win a Pen of Gold Learn first of all your Pen to hold” To Write with ease & Elegance / is a most Useful, Polite and / Necessary Accomplishment / For all Young / Gentlemen and Ladies. / By diligence and care Your Writing will be fair
“If you would win a Pen of Gold Learn first of all your Pen to hold”
To Write with ease & Elegance / is a most Useful, Polite and / Necessary Accomplishment / For all Young / Gentlemen and Ladies. / By diligence and care Your Writing will be fair