Starting in the 1520s, European penmen began to put out printed pamphlets that taught people how to write speedily, legibly, and beautifully. Through these so-called “writing-books,” writing-masters demonstrated their calligraphic skills through elaborate samples in different scripts, and codified the rules of good writing too. Interestingly, this means that the explosion of (fast, multiplicative) print carried along the (slow, intensive) technique of writing by hand, rather than leaving it behind.
The most prolific writing-master in early modern England was Edward Cocker (1631-1676), who issued no fewer than 16 writing-books. Cocker’s endless productivity was matched only by his tireless self-promotion: the ubiquitous use of his signature on his calligraphic specimens, exuberant language encouraging would-be writers to attain excellence, grandiose claims to superiority on his title-pages, and frequent use of literary tropes like self-portraits and dedications, he sought actively to elevate himself from “teacher” or “scribe” to “Author.”
Of course, writing-masters like Cocker were ultimately teaching a workaday, utilitarian skill, using commonplace building blocks (pen-strokes and individual letters). And legibility was the foremost requirement for good writing—after all, there were only so many ways to write an “a” before it was no longer recognizable as one!—so masters were quite constrained in terms of how much they could innovate, especially via books that were intended (at least in theory) to be used without a teacher’s guidance. Yet handwriting was much revered at the period, and these printed calligraphic booklets have been much analyzed then and since. The ability to write could be traced back to Biblical times, and as such was considered a divine gift. Additionally, and more importantly, writing had a special hybrid status: it was considered both an art and a skill, both beautiful and useful, both natural and manmade. Take the full title of Cocker’s Arts Glory (1669): the samples, we are told, are “adorned with many curious knots and flourishes, to render them pleasant as well as profitable.” This characterization of the book as doubly beneficial was obviously intended to increase its sales appeal. As well, the title-page boasts that the work contains the “directions, theorems, and rare principles of art”—connecting “the authors knowledge” to art through science.
Let’s now look to Penn’s collections for a unique instance in which this duality comes to the surface. On the verso of the title-page of Penn’s copy of Arts Glory (Furness Z43.A5 C63 1669) appears the following six-line homage to writing:
If any Art of Nature may haue praise
Then writeings commendacion wee may raise
This makes man Mainly difer from a beast
and wisdoms gloss upon his face to rest –
It hath described mens facts & fates soe well
as if one from the graue were raisd to tell –
As it turns out, this copy of Arts Glory once belonged to the calligraphy historian and collector Daniel Walter Kettle (1849?-1912?) . In his privately-printed pamphlet, Pens, Ink, and Paper: A Discourse upon the Calligraphic Art (London, 1885), he notes that “In a copy of Cocker’s ‘Art’s Glory’ (1659) in my possession, occur the following lines in Manuscript upon the back of the Title, bearing upon this subject.” Despite the wrong date (“1659” instead of 1669), the idiosyncratic spellings (“writeings,” “difer”) are a strong indicator that Kettle was transcribing from what is now Penn’s copy. Continue reading