Gemma Black, gifted calligrapher, artist, and engaging speaker, presented the first program of the 2017-2018 season to an eager roomful of members of the Colleagues of Calligraphy on September 15. In “Looking Back to Looking Forward” Gemma illuminated the fascinating history of calligraphy and other writing systems, from the early Egyptians to the 21st century. Gemma hails from Tasmania, Australia, where she’s taught calligraphy, paper making, and other artistic endeavors for 25 years. Her outstanding work testifies to her being an Honoured Fellow and Fellow of the prestigious Calligraphy & Lettering Arts Society in England.
Gemma began with the earliest, perfunctory uses of writing systems, commerce: when you’re selling your ox, a simple impression in clay is all that’s needed to document the transaction. She showed examples of Egyptian hieroglyphs, one of the earliest pictograms for communication, and cuneiform writing, consisting of triangular wedge marks in clay tablets. I had never heard of Boustrophedon (“as the ox plows”) writing from ancient Greece, where not only the direction of writing changes (left-to-right, right-to-left, on alternating lines), but sometimes the letterforms are mirror images on alternating lines.
Fascinating! Of course she progressed to discussing the famous Trajan column of Rome, explaining that the inscribed letterforms are the pinnacle of Roman writing, our “prime specimen” for study.
The remainder of her overview of the early writing systems described the evolution of writing in Christian religious texts; this is calligraphy as we know it today. The Lindisfarne Gospel preceded the Book of Kells, if only by a couple of years (698-700 AD). Lindisfarne was the work of one monk, Eadfrith, documented by its intact colophon.
But the Book of Kells was more cosmopolitan, and scribes wasted no space: she described folio 34r, the historiated Chi Rho and some of the symbolism there. She verified that, in fact, it is an X, not a P, as common misperception has it. Eliciting much laughter from the audience, she showed her photos of a 10th century psalter and hymnal, which was, in her words, “smaller than an iPad, larger than an iPhone.” She explained how archivists now actually encourage fingers touching old vellum documents, since cotton gloves tended to get caught on pages, bending them and causing the ink to flake off. Oils from human skin softens the vellum, making it less brittle.
The second half of her talk covered the 20th & 21st centuries. Her first example was the typeface for the London Underground, designed by Edward Johnston (1872-1944). We were amused by photos of Johnson’s great posture when writing/designing—with or without a cat on his lap!
Gemma continued with David Jones (1895-1974) known for giving away his calligraphy, rather than selling it. She talked excitedly about the work of Irene Wellington (1904-1984), who created the lettering for Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne & coronation address. Recounting her own visit to Buckingham Palace to view the original vellums Irene created, she was unexpectedly offered a chance to see the changing of the guard, from inside the palace. She jumped at the opportunity, of course, but not before she was informed that “the most beautiful, expensive pants [she had] ever owned” were not sufficient, and she had to run out to Marks & Spencer to buy a day dress!
She continued her whirlwind, worldwide tour of many calligraphers, with special nods to Gaynor Goffe and Dennis Brown, friends & mentors to her, and Sharon Zeugin with her grackle writing, showing how artists use local influences in their calligraphy.
Lastly, Gemma described some of her own splendid work, showing the breadth of her talents. She related a story of how she did the cover for the book “Revelations of Divine Love”—but that the book designer took liberties with the layout, rotating her artwork; the result was a difficult to read book title.
Another work of hers was the phrase “Civility costs nothing and buys everything.” She showed a video to demonstrate her creation of “La Serenissima,” a nickname for Venice, as it was once known as the Most Serene Republic of Venice. Gemma is a MacLaren, having Scottish, English, Irish, & Australian Aboriginal ancestry, so she showed us the magnificent MacLaren Coat of Arms she created. Always the teacher, she also showed us her students’ work in Fraktur.
Gemma was particularly proud of three recent works of hers (2008-2013): The Apologies: the “Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples,” the “Apology to the Forgotten Australians & Former Child Migrants,” and the “National Apology for Forced Adoption.” Each exquisite work is an apology from the government of Australia for failed former policies. They are on display in hermetically sealed cases at Parliament House in Canberra.
After this tour of so many wonderful pieces, she surprised the audience with a slide of a simple postcard. But it was no ordinary postcard. It was a postcard sent many years ago, titled “Greetings from the Calligraphy Connection, Minnesota!” and included a poem about calligraphy on the back. After some audience reminiscences about the event, Gemma extolled the great calligraphic talent we have here in Minnesota. We, in turn, were honored to have benefited from her erudition.