Michal Hussain interviewed Colm Tóibín and Sally Gardner on BBC Radio 4 today about the disappearance of handwriting. “Is it time to think the unthinkable and let handwriting die out?” she asked, prompted by exam boards’ trialling exam answers input from computers, instead of being written with a pen on paper. Tóibín said, yes, he worked on a computer but he still liked to make letters with a pen and he thought handwriting shouldn’t go the way of Latin, which he was glad he’d learned at school. (He was born in 1955.)

Like Tóibín I do most of my writing on a keyboard and, like him, I’d be sorry if I couldn’t use a pen as well. I always liked the look of writing and the shape of letters. My father did a beautiful roundhand and tried to teach it to me. Instead I bought a special pen and forced myself to do to italic writing.

I never learned to write like my father.

I bought a special pen and forced myself to do italic writing.

There’s a connection between writing and printing. Edward Johnston, known for his London Transport railway type, taught handwriting at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art at the beginning of the 20th century. He completely changed the way people wrote, reviving the use of a broad-nibbed pen and kicking off a style based on a 16th-century Italian hand. By 1950, italic handwriting was the mark of what was then called “a cultured person”.

Marion Richardson modified the italic hand for children and by 1970 few people wrote in roundhand any more.

As a graphic designer I had to look at letters and the spaces between them as abstract shapes that have to be carefully chosen and arranged. Even if you know nothing about typefaces, you associate the one below with tradition and the bottom one with modernism. They’re Caslon Italic and Helvetica Bold, in case you’re interested.

A font by Arrighi, c.1523, the basis of modern italic writing.

My original membership certificate from the Society of Designer Craftsman was lettered by Hugh Spendlove, who studied calligraphy at the Central, probably with Mervyn Oliver. He also studied pottery there with Dora Billington. Billington had been in Edward Johnston’s lettering class at the RCA and told Spendlove, “The art of writing is the art of life.” She was a fine letterer herself.

Dora Billington studied lettering with Edward Johnston and taught pottery to Hugh Spendlove. She made this dish in the 1930s.

Hugh Spendlove’s lettering.


  1. Your italic handwriting is marvelously fluent, elegant, and filled with character! I& your sr3bt a mr,bear of the Society fo4 Itahlic Handwriting (, you SHOULD be! Tell the Secretary (Nick Caulkin) that I said “Hello!”


  2. I think that you actually are a much better hand writer than a fair number of the members! And I’m saying this as a handwriting instructor who has been a member of the Society for Italic Handwriting Since 1984.


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