Calligraphy: The Art of writing or why I bought a Fountain Pen

I don’t know about you but I hate pens. Not all pens but just the cheap throw-away biro type pens that we all seem to have to endure these days. The sort of pens that 20 years ago would be attached to the end of a chain at banks or medical practices. Sufficient to write out your name and a few details but only barely so and only very functionally with no pretensions given to the aesthetics of writing or the beauty of indeed eligibility of what was being written which after all is surely the most important point behind writing anything down. If people can barely read-it then why bother.

When I was a school in the very late 70’s and all of the 80’s much effort was put into handwriting. We’d practice for hours every day writing with pencils. Just keeping letters and lines spaced evenly apart was a battle even with lined paper and most people until they were well into their teens were constantly berated for their handwriting and always striving to evolve their style and write more clearly but also more sophisticatedly. Woe betide anyone who had written an outstanding essay in any subject if the handwriting was spot on as the teachers would stress how the awful end product entirely ruined the whole effort. Heaven help those who were left handed or more gifted on the sports field, music class or the laboratory.

Then of course came the arrival of computers in a big way. Those who grew up in the 80’s like me swiftly saw their years of effort and toil forgotten almost overnight and soon after the older generations who had spent all our lives telling us how bad our writing… well they forgot how to write as well.

Not that the need for hand writing has disappeared entirely. People still write but at a more basic level, almost as if we had been sent back in time 600 years with paper now not being rare and expensive but seemingly restricted in size to Post-It notes. We might write shopping lists, Christmas and Birthday Cards and sometimes at work it is necessary to write compliment slips or cheques.

However unlike 600 years ago it seems for most people writing is not valued at all. It simply is functional. People don’t want to write, they barely want to read and what they do write and read is so ugly that who can blame anyone for not wanting to read and write more.

In the past though great pride was taken in writing. Writing and paper was precious and often a work of art in itself. Centuries or even millenia ago it was often only a few religious people who could write and they spent their entire lives copying out holy texts and devoting every bit of creativity and energy to making their works not just worthy of God but able to impart the reader with the glory and magnificence of the message.


The Gospel of Matthew as written by monk Eadrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698AD

The image above is the beginning of a Gospel written in a monastery in an island just off the coast of Northumbria, then as now a remote isolated place. The writings that were penned here were considered treasure as much as working texts and when the island was raided by Vikings despite the murder of many monks and the looting of more traditional treasures, this book was smuggled to relative safety in mainland England and still exists today being on display in the British library in London.

Signature of Queen Elizabeth I

Signature of Queen Elizabeth I

Centuries later and amongst others, monarchs would take great pride in their ability to write. The signature above is of Queen Elizabeth I who was queen from 1558 – 1603. She was a busy lady being queen of a prosperous and increasingly powerful land. She could have just signed off documents quickly as ‘Liz’ but no, she took time and effort to sign her name. To take pride in her writing and show everyone whether they could read or not that this was an important and powerful person.

All this is all well and good and whilst our forebears took great effort to make their writing as beautiful and to us, almost illegible as possible; there is a group of people that took things to a totally different level where Calligraphy was the most prized and honoured profession. That is the area of the Middle East where scholars and writers in Egypt, Iraq and Iran amongst others would produced the most beautiful writings imaginable. Islam frowns upon depictions of people on the walls of mosques and so where in the West we’d have glorious paintings of saints or biblical scenes in glass windows they would decorate their walls with beautiful scripture showing the beauty and magnificence of God.

The shahādah

There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God.

This later developed into more modern creations such as the one below:

zoomorphic calligraphy

Zoomorphic calligraphy in the shape of a fish.

The image I found below just today is from another WordPress site,

 Darwish's Horse

Calligraphy at it’s most astounding.

This is actually a poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and is written in a 16thCentury Ottoman script. The poem is entitled ‘Take my horse and slaughter it’. As Arabic is written from right to left with the beginning of the poem starting at it’s head and the culmination at the end of the tail of the horse. For those interested in it’s English translation, here it is below.

You, and not my craze with conquest, are my wedding.
I left to myself and its match in your devil self
the freedom to comply with your demands,
take my horse
and slaughter it,
and I will walk like a warrior after defeat
without dream or sense …
Salaam upon what you desire of fatigue
for the captive prince, and of gold for the maidens
to celebrate the summer. And salaam upon you
abounding with suitors of every jinn and man,
for what you’ve done to yourself for
yourself: your hairpin breaks
my shield and my sword,
and your shirt button bears in its glare
the secret word of birds of every sort,
take my breath the way a guitar responds
to what you demand of the wind. All of my Andalus
is within your hands, so don’t leave a single string
for self-defense in the land of my Andalus.
I will realize, in another time,
I will realize that I have won with my despair
and that I have found my life, over there
outside itself, near my past
take my horse
and slaughter it, and I will carry myself dead and alive,
by myself…

Good handwriting is not easy and I recently saw school reports and letters from a very young Sir Winston Churchill where he was chastised for his poor writing, not that it held him back in his studies or anything else. Last summer I read in a number of British newspapers that sales of Fountain pens were rising and some manufacturers were experiencing year on year increases with the Daily Telegraph (not normally a newspaper to get over-hype anything) stating sales had doubled. Apparently I was not alone in my hatred of the tawdry disposable Biro pens.

Fountain Pens were and are becoming something of a fashion accessory but also a relatively cheap and affordable luxury item. My curiosity was piqued and so on one of my many visits last summer to a National Trust House, namely Quebec House and once the home of General Wolfe who just happens to have lived only a mile or so away from Churchills future home. In one of the rooms there was an old fashioned feather quill writing pen.

A goose feather quill

A goose feather quill – writing the very old fashioned way

It took just a moment to get used to and the sharp point of the quill made a rather loud and unsettling noise as I wrote out a sentence or two. I had to dab the end in a bottle of ink every 4 or 5 words but aside from that it wrote beautifully and probably better than my writing with a disposable pen.

It was then that I decided I must buy a fountain pen. Our house is full of pens but only two of them write well and it is no surprise that they are both nearly 20 years old. They are smooth to write with and writing comes out quite nicely for a ball point pen but as they are always in demand, they disappear for months on end re-appearing when one doesn’t expect it on top of books, at the back of drawers in fact anywhere but my writing desk. However they are not real ink pens.

At Christmas I was the lucky recipient of a Fountain Pen. I was probably one of the last people who was taught calligraphy at school. My teachers would give me a bit of extra coaching as my handwriting was either expressive or a mess depending on the teacher. I had grown sick of horrible handwriting. Admittedly very few people have good writing these days, less still in busy offices and yet my writing is a statement about me. Everyone who sees my writing is at risk of thinking I am either very busy or that I never learnt to write. However I did learn to write but with a real pen.

In an instant my writing has been transformed. What used to look like a wretched spider being sucked into a black-hole has now become almost a work of art. My long loopy letters are not now a pointy mess but instead very much elegant and flowing. Whilst not a patch on writing from 2 or 3 hundred years ago, it is almost indistinguishable from the most artistic writing styles of 100 or 150 years ago. I love my writing, I am proud of my writing. I love the process of writing itself. The noise of the pen, the smell of the ink the smoothness and freedom that an ink pen brings.

If something is worth doing then it’s worth doing properly and that goes for writing too. If the pen is mightier than the sword then a Fountain Pen is very much mightier than a disposable. Throw away those cheap pens and instead of buying a pack of 10 or 20 for £5 or $5 that won’t last out the year and definitely won’t produce something anyone will want to look, go buy a real ink pen for just maybe double the price and have something you can own forever. You can write me a thank-you letter telling me that it was the best purchase you ever made and of course I will write back but thanks to modern ink it could be not just in black or blue ink but read, green, brown or anything colour that I have. Whatever the state of my writing, teacher would not have been impressed or allowed writing in colourful ink!

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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9 Responses to Calligraphy: The Art of writing or why I bought a Fountain Pen

  1. JC says:

    Loved this post! Cheers and well done!


  2. I wrote my first novel with a quill pen and loved it. Since I write about the past, it was an easy fit–though my co-workers thought me a bit odd carrying around bottles of ink. I grew up when penmanship was a big deal too and I must say that I love looking at the manuscript. I think it improved my writing! Now I write in a field with goats and they knock things over so back to the junk pens.


  3. farzanamarie says:

    Am always transfixed by the intricacy and beauty of calligraphy, have seen some exquisite pieces in Afghanistan. Such art. Thank you for sharing!


    • You’re very welcome and thank-you for your website too which is a great discovery for me. I have long wanted to visit Herat and many other places there. I hope one day I will be able to.


  4. How true – though the very mention of Afghanistan and Herat has me sinking in despondency as I am not there…if my shop sales do not do better won’t be either, which is inconceivable to me…


  5. Pingback: Coronavirus Diary 4 – From Boris with love. | Stephen Liddell

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