Saturday, October 19, 2019

J.M. Bergling and the Golden Age of Penmanship, Part 5

(Continuing from Part 4)

These technological changes encouraged the growth of extravagant drawing-based alphabets, such as “Rustic” (above) and “Leaf Cipher-Letters.” Highly embellished initial capitals can be hand drawn with a pen or brush using inks of various colors or tinted shades. Some of the ornamental initial alphabets are presented with a variety of stylistic treatments, such as the “Ornamented French Script” or the “Ornamental Initials.”

“Old English” remains the standard for formal settings, such as diplomas, but it is difficult to execute well, especially if speed is required. It succeeds best with a steady rhythm and even spacing using a square cut nib. Sometimes good results can be achieved by executing all the vertical strokes first, followed by the diamond shaped feet. A pointed pen adds the finishing touches, sharpening the corners and serifs and completing the hairline strokes on the capitals and on the lower case “a” and “r.”

Two other forms of artistic writing, less familiar today, are engrossing and showcard writing. Engrossing was a particularly lavish type of decorative lettering used on resolutions, certificates, testimonials, memorials, and manifestos. The examples are by Patrick W. Costello (1866-1935), whose engrossing work was notable for being executed in limited tones of Payne’s gray or umber. Originals were as large as 22 x 28 inches, often illustrated with flags, portraits, flowers, or other pictorial devices. They reflect a culture that placed a premium on congratulatory or memorializing messages, usually presented publicly to formally recognize an individual achievement.

Bergling invited his colleague William H. Gordon to demonstrate show-card writing, a more casual advertising form. Painted signboards of the nineteenth century tended to use only upper case letters, but they were gradually replaced by signs made with both upper and lower case. The letters in Gordon’s alphabets are formed quickly and without much preliminary drawing, using specialized brushes with opaque water-based media. Practitioners in this field were called writers rather than letterers. Whether employing the brush or the pen, the student should start by thoroughly understanding the construction before attempting too much speed.

By the time Bergling’s books appeared, typewriters had already been standardized and were coming into common use for business communications. Fountain pens and then ballpoint pens became established by mid century. The Golden Age of Ornamental Penwork was disappearing. Hopefully with the aid of this treasury, a new generation of designers can rediscover artistic lettering and adapt it to contemporary uses.
Series on J.M. Bergling and the Golden Age of Penmanship
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
You can get a signed copy of Bergling's "Art Alphabets and Lettering" from my website store.
Here's where you can get the Dover book on Amazon. You can also still find a vintage copy on Amazon.


Sheridan said...

I have watched with some interest as you have posted these last five installments. I was taught how to hand letter signs at age 14.
It became an ability that served me well throughout my career. I was taught by the local sign painter that recieved his education at the Wagner School of Art in Boston. The Wagner School eventuallybecame Butera School of Art, and has since closed. I was taught how to letter using the school text that he used, which had several basic alphabets with arrows showing the direction and sequence of strokes used to form a letter. The learning to letter consisted of my taking a roll of butcher paper (bond), a #8 squirrel quill or a 1/4" Dick Blick Masterstroke lettering brush, and a can of 1-Shot Poster lettering enamel, and producing a complete alphabet (all caps) plus the numbers 0-9 in 3" Plain Egyptian (block) EVERY NIGHT after school. I would then take these completed alphabets to his shop on weekends to be critiqued, and practice some more, while he worked on paying jobs. This went on for months, until I was finally good enough to help on actual jobs he had. I still wasn't good enough that he didn't have to correct most of the letters a little to suit him.

Eventually I managed to be good enough that I could do my own work, and he sent work my way that he didn't particularly want.
I have given the same opportunity that I had been given to several people over the years, and not one person ever wanted to put in the work required to be a competent sign painter.

I doubt there are many out there who know what lard oil is, or that gelatin capsules were ever used for anything but drugs. You used to be able to tell what sign man painted what sign just by viewing the work. Each one had his own 1-stroke letter, or "plug" as they were called.

Thanks for the post.

James Gurney said...

Thanks for the comment, Sheridan. Have you seen the documentary on Sign Painters? It's good to know that there's a new generation who is willing to put in the effort to learn the art of sign painting, or as they call it in Britain and Ireland, "sign writing." I was always aware of calligraphy (both broad pen and pointed pen variants), but have been pleased to learn about show card writing (or sho-card writing), an indoor sign form which uses water based paint.

Sheridan said...

I knew a card-writer in the 70's that got his start in the 40's doing movie theaters. He would have to paint portraits of the stars like Clark Gable, Lana Turner, etc. do hand painted cardboard cutouts, and of course all the lettering for the show that was appearing. He was able to take a quill (French grey squirrel) mix the paint to a consistency that you'd swear would run right off the brush onto the card, and freehand letter the most beautiful script you ever saw. The paint though very thin wouldn't look wishy-washy either, due to it being laid down quite thick, and fast.

There were two camps of sign writers. One used mail sticks, and the other used the hand over hand method, where the lettering hand is placed atop the other hand that is making a fist. I was taught the latter, and as you may imagine, hand over hand is much quicker. It does of course take much more practice to do it well. We used mail sticks, but only if the letters were over 10 or 12 inches high. I'd like to point out also that the letters were formed with one stroke for block letters and two strokes only for the bold strokes for thick and thin (you chose the brush to do the thin strokes) copy. A professional sign writer didn't outline a letter and then fill it in, unless the letter was beyond the size of brushes available, or if you were lettering a rough surface like concrete block. You would use a "fitch" for that, but forget it, probably not many know what that is either.

There is a name for those of us who learned to do nice pen lettering, or sign writing, I think the word is the same as those animals you are most famous for painting. ;-)

Smurfswacker said...

Your readers might be interested in these excerpts from "Martin's Complete Ideas," a mid 1930s source book for show card writers. He describes the duties of a theatrical card writer and shows some handsome examples by Arthur DuVall.

James Gurney said...

Thanks for that, Smurfswacker. I also like the book "Modern Show Card Lettering Designs," which includes 2000 ready to use advertising phrases, such as: "Get What "you Want—Pay What You Can, Goods Backed by Reputation and Cash. and Good Goods Are a Little More Expensive."

MaryEllen said...

When I was an apprentice I learned lettering from Jerry Albright, an extremely accomplished showcard writer in Denver. The Letterhead movement to save traditional sign craft had roots in Denver, inspired in part by Jerry and several other master sign painters. It left me with an enduring love of gold leaf and schmaltz signs, which, BTW, lasted practically forever. Sheridan, I miss fitches, having painted walls and billboards. - another old wall dog