Alphabet: The Story of Writing, Donald Jackson

Donald Jackson is one of my Big Calligraphy Heroes – that man is an inspiration. This video is one that my first calligraphy teacher showed us, way back in Calligraphy 101. I remember that class being after I had stayed up all night working on my portfolio for the semester, so I was a liiiiittle bit sleepy, but I was still really into this movie!

The first two parts are here: Alphabet: The Story of Writing, parts 1 and 2.

Part 1 is about the origin of the alphabet, up to and including the Roman Empire. Part 2 starts with illuminated manuscripts and Carolingian, and includes some really useful information about how to prepare and cut your own quill pens. Quills are amazing to write with, but don’t let the great DJ fool you – they’re really hard to cut, if you’re not used to it! And at the end, the section on illumination is also really useful. I work with gold leaf as often as I get the chance to, and although I’ve read about one million books, it’s the images from this movie that stuck with me the most. Also … it’s just beautiful to watch.

And the second two: Alphabet: The Story of Writing, parts 3 and 4

Part 3 starts of going further into the process of illumination, including how to remove mistakes – and how to spot them in medieval manuscripts. Pretty cool. Then a quick diversion to the development of Gothic and of Italic before reaching (dun dun DUNN) the invention of the printing press. And of engraving; all my etiquette books even from the 1950s talk about engraving wedding invitations, and this movie is a really cool look at how it’s done. I wish I had an engraver and a print shop at my command! Part 4 is about the rise of the steel pen and the fountain pen, definitely interesting to the modern calligrapher.

It is the calligrapher who will shape the letters of the future, says the narrator. And in a way, she’s right; the variety of modern fonts is attributed to Steve Jobs taking that calligraphy class at university. (But I bet if he didn’t, someone else would have. Humans are just really into writing. We wouldn’t have tolerated 1980s computer fonts for long.)

This movie was made in 1980 … so it’s a little older than I am. But it’s not like calligraphy techniques have changed in thirty years, not enormously. I use a more modern version of gesso which is a little more forgiving of humidity and a lot easier to acquire (I just buy it in jars, no lead, plaster and fish glue for me!) and I totally blame that for my gilding not turning out like Donald Jackson’s. It’s absolutely the medium, right? Not the skill of the gilder at all … nope, couldn’t be.

You do kind of have to pretend you’re watching it in, oh, say 2000? Sometime when 240p was the highest imaginable resolution and nobody minded the odd VCR flicker. I don’t think a high-res version of this movie even exists. But it’s a valuable resource, if you’re interested in calligraphy. (And if anyone does know where I could buy it in 1080p, let me know!)

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4 thoughts on “Alphabet: The Story of Writing, Donald Jackson

  1. When I was teaching calligraphy about 15 years ago, I’d show snippets of the Donald Jackson – The Story of Writing to my class during their tea breaks. Back then it was only available on video cassette, but now it’s on Youtube.
    I love it, so very informative and facinating and you can see why Donald is the Queen’s calligrapher, his is an expert calligrapher to the highest degree.
    Regards Jan (Melbourne).

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  2. Hello, I’m just wandering what copperplate pointed nibs, inks and practice papers you prefer. Thank you for any advice. I’m just starting to learn copperplate. I already know about 6 of the broad edge pen scripts.

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    1. Hi Jan! I recommend practicing on Canson bleedproof paper (with guidelines placed underneath), with walnut powder ink – cheap and plentiful. The question of nibs is a complicated one. I find that I use different nibs for different paper surfaces constantly, and I definitely have my preferences; but other calligraphers also have their preferences and some love nibs that I hate, and some hate nibs that I love. Unfortunately there’s no shortcut to knowing what will work best for you as it’s very much a matter of finding the right balance for your hand. I prefer to start students with a Blanzy 2552, but these can be hard to find; my own preferred practice nib is a Leonardt EF Principal. I hope that helps!

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