My admiration for the work of Irene Wellington, one of the finest calligraphers of the 20th century English revival movement, was almost completely formed by the wonderful book More Than Fine Writing (originally published by the Overlook Press, New York, 1987 and recently republished). I ordered a copy of this fascinating book from John Neal several years ago and found myself entranced by calligraphy of the finest workmanship, often combined with lively and heartwarming drawings. Irene’s work might seem quiet compared with contemporary American calligraphy, but it is the bridge between the historic re-creation of calligraphy as taught to her by Edward Johnston and its full flowering into the art form practiced today. Much more than Johnston, she inherited the decorative legacies of the Arts and Crafts movement and so stands in direct line not only to him but to Ruskin and William Morris. If EJ showed how to do calligraphy, Irene showed what it was for.
More than Fine Writing is drawn primarily (but not wholly) from the collection of her work which is now housed in the Crafts Study Center at the Holburne Museum in Bath, England [author’s note: it has been moved from this location – if anyone can tell me where it is now please do). The collection is unique in that it is almost a complete record of Irene’s working life. She never threw anything away, so there are boxes full of rough drafts and working notes, giving an unusual opportunity to see what choices she made in her endless revisions, to see how she grew and stretched as an artist. The book gives a fine feeling for the scope of the collection, which I was fortunate to be able to see some of during a trip to England in 1997. For those who can’t visit, the book offers a comprehensive treatment of her work with over 100 illustrations, plentiful details in the captions and many inclusions of the early working drafts. It is rare to be able to see so extensively into the working habits and decisions of a calligrapher.
The book includes much of Irene’s formal work, the documents for the Queen and other worthies, as well as art school assignments, teaching papers, and the personal pieces done for herself or gifts to friends, which contain so much of her unique emotional approach. The eight introductory essays by Heather Child, Heather Collins, Donald Jackson and Anne Hechle are full of biographical and historical information, reflections on her career as a teacher, information on her tools and materials, and perspectives on her place in modern calligraphy. The book finishes with a chronology, bibliography and a listing of her main works.
An early piece done while at her first art school shows Irene struggling to learn her own style, while clearly under the influence of Edward Johnston’s 1906 book Writing, Illuminating and Lettering (using the half-uncial hand taught in that book, a hand she had to unlearn, strangely enough, when she later studied under Johnston himself). The piece, “The Defence of Guenevere” (1925) shows the effect of the Victorian-style illumination manuals which were still current in her day, but we can also see the beginnings of Irene’s own expressive and naturalistic style, in the treatment of the horses, knights and ladies on the decorated page. Irene’s illustration was always very direct and free from superficial sentimentality. She was brought up on a farm in Kent in southern England, with great swathes of time spent in the fields and woods, and her work is always alive with foliage and animals, angels and flourishes.
The book’s jacket reproduces one of her wonderful, complex collages (and for this reason I can always find it in an instant on my bookshelf), in which she assembled bits and pieces of early drafts and drawings into marvels of interest and complexity. Irene was a great keeper of things and in collages she was able to use some of those bits. One of her collages contains a piece of her mother’s exquisite copperplate handwriting. But even before the later collages she had done pieces which divided the page up into sections. Some sketches show the different ideas and trials for a work, eventually working back to a much simpler idea. You can see she was always trying to reign in the extravagant decorative impulse. See the exuberant piece entitled “Upon Being Given a Norfolk Turkey for Christmas” (1950) to see the quintessential Irene, a spontaneous expression of gratitude done in three days time. A design like this might spring full-blown from her imagination onto paper but more often there is trial and error, endless reworking.
Perhaps my favorite pages of the book are the endpapers, a feast of closeups of her writing, the lights and darks of the ink on the paper, the fine hairlines and flowing rhythm of an uncial, an italic, some handwriting, the letters flowing right off the page. They give such a feeling of the scribe being right there with you. These pages are beautiful, with no captions or borders, just the writing overwhelming the page. For me these pages perfectly exemplify the words Irene herself wrote at the end of her author’s note to The Irene Wellington Copybook, a writing manual, published in a omnibus edition in 1977:
“Go ahead and let the letters move forward, dancing, their feet scarcely touching the ground.”
Irene was a superb maker of letters, and her skill in this underpinned all her artistry. Her letters truly danced, and I am grateful that this book has gathered together so many fine examples of her writing. There are few better books for examples of the marriage of illustration and calligraphy than this one, and I return to it often. It repays much patient study of its details.
Written for the newsletter of John Neal, Bookseller, for the re-issue of this book.