Over the past few months I have taken to studying Spencerian and American Business cursive. This summer I have been extremely lucky to have attended a fantastic workshop with Master Penwoman Barbara Calzolari. At first glance the scripts look similar and easy to master however, once you actually get into them they’re anything but. The technical details in the scripts are mind boggling and that’s just if you’re approaching it as a right-hander!

First impressions like any other form of calligraphy your materials matter; a lot. It’s no different with Spencerian. For instance, you can’t use just any old nib lying about – here a few recommended nibs: The Nikko G, Zebra G, Gillot Hunt Imerial 101, Gillot 303, and the Leonardt EF Principal. All of the mentioned nibs are exceptional maybe apart from modern Gillot 303’s, if you come across vintage you’re onto a winner.* (As fortune would have it, at a recent Glasgow Scribes meeting another member off loaded vintage pointed pen nibs to me and among the bag there was a box of vintage 303’s - happy days!) When it comes to ink and paper you can use the same materials I discussed in previous blog posts. Rhodia papers, walnut ink, sumi ink, and iron gall are perfectly acceptable. Another little piece of info I found out - if using stick ink, Chinese is better quality than Japanese, who knew? As for business cursive Pentel Slicci 04mm are considered the best if not using an extra fine nib fountain pen. If you want to use a white pen for dark paper Pilot Choose Gel Rollerball pens are a good option.

The easiest way for me as a south-paw to approach Spencerian and American business is the same way I do with any of my pointed pen endeavours, at a 90 degree angle and penning the letters towards my torso. What I find most difficult with these scripts is achieving their fluid rhythm. When I first started learning pointed pen I used to do pen lifts after every. Single. Stroke. That’s not to say you can’t lift your pen when you go outside your direct line of vision you can but, within that your nib or pen shouldn’t really lift off the paper. That’s difficult for me; and that’s where and when your drills come in handy especially the famous cross drills exercise. I’m not a massive fan of drills simply because they bore me to tears but, I do get the sense that if you want to excel and progress in these scripts there’s no avoiding them…unfortunately. Along with these cross drills there are also finger movement drills and whole arm movement exercises to help instil muscle memory, the great calligraphers out there are not joking when they say they spend hours upon hours doing drills. Spencerian in particular is based on ovals.

When you go beneath the surface and start to really understand these two stunningly beautiful different but similar scripts you grasp the genius of Platt Roger Spencer. British/European penmanship and flourishing circa George Bickhman in the late 17th to early 18th century relied heavily on circles and depicted an elevated stylized form of handwriting; these examples were mainly produced for engraving and made beautiful penmanship accessible to only a select few who went to study the art. What P.R Spencer developed was revolutionary. The system is rooted in nature, with its ovals and graceful parallel lines taking the centre stage. His handwriting system, made up from a few basic strokes (7 principles in total) is considered by many as “the most beautiful style ever known”** and was taught to school children for nearly a century and has clearly stood the test of time. Everything is taken into consideration, even the angle of 52 degrees allows for maximum speed and ease to enable whole arm movement. He also understood that it is far easier for us to draw ovals than a perfect circle (an oval for whatever reason is far more pleasing to the human eye.) that’s what make the majuscules in Spencerian so elegant. The distinguished Master penman Michael Sull also commented (in an unexpected video call during the workshop) it’s also just as important to consider the negative space created by the lines to achieve a balanced, even letter. I feel that nothing is too insignificant to consider when it comes to these scripts and that’s what I love about them.

Lastly, as I don’t want to rattle on too long about but, the ideology behind Spencerian can be seen everywhere. Barbara Calzolari explained that it can even be demonstrated in figure skating and there is no better example than German gold medallist duo Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot the synchronisation in their routine mimic the graceful curves found in Spencerian majuscules. You only just have to look and you'll find in the most unlikely of places the building blocks of spencerian.

I’m only at the beginning of this journey but, I will do my utmost to learn and master these stunning scripts. It’s important to keep these scripts alive well past the renaissance they’re clearly enjoying at the moment.

(This post in hindsight has more to do with Spencerian than Business Cursive…it’s easy to get carried away with the former)

    *John Neal Bookseller stocks retooled Gillot 303’s and are reported to be far superior to previous models.
    **Quote taken from Theory of the Spencerian: System of Practical Penmanship.