Perhaps it’s because I’m part-historian as well as part-artist that I cling to written messages from the past. Most, but not all, on paper; some on stone, some on clay. Some are here today and gone tomorrow (newspapers on the compost heap); some are still around four and a half thousand years after their birth (cuneiform tablets from Babylon). I’d like to consider four examples of writing: diaries, postcards, tombstones and print. They all give us wonderful insight into their times and the perspective of those who wrote them.
1. The Diary of John Ruskin (1819-1900)
Diaries are traditionally written by hand in a notebook; there are numerous examples in the English language from the past five or six centuries. One of the longest-running was written by John Ruskin, the formidable Victorian writer on art, architecture, social reform and much else besides. Handwritten and including numerous sketches of the natural world, the diaries span his entire adult life. An entry for 29/30 January 1873: ‘Worked hard on letters and portrait’ (A self-portrait for his American friend Charles Eliot Norton) This sums up in a few words his industrious, conscientious method of working – which did not exclude emotion and a magnificent command of language.
The Ruskin Museum, housing the collection of The Guild of St. George, is now situated in the city centre adjacent to the Millennium Gallery (You can enter it either from the end of Surrey St. or down the steps from Arundel Gate). There you can see displays of Ruskin’s collection of precious stones, books, and illustrations of nature and architecture.
Ruskin’s diaries - over 40 volumes of them - are hand-written with a quill pen and black ink. Quill pens, hand-cut from a bird’s feather, wear out quickly and have to be frequently renewed; a prolific writer like Ruskin would have needed a constant supply, probably prepared for him by a patient servant.
Postcards were many people’s chosen form of communication; invented in the mid-nineteenth century they are still popular today. They are only truly functional if there is a postal service to frequently collect and deliver them, plus a system of manufacturing stationery and stamps. You might want to communicate a message by writing on the card, sticking a stamp on it, and putting it in a post-box. Or, if you are like me, you want to acquire the card because of the picture on the reverse side. Either way, each postcard is quintessentially collectable; on one side a personal hoard of brief but affectionate words from friends and relatives; on the other side a private art gallery to be taken out of its boxes and contemplated from time to time. Though printed cards are around (mainly intended as advertisements), it’s the hand-written ones that are the most personal and sometimes intriguing. Whether it’s from Northern France in 1916, or Harrogate Spa in 1948, or The Great Wall of China in 2014, it’s personal, educational and an instant souvenir.
Four postcards from my collection:
3. Tombstones and Other Stones
Papers can be recycled in a moment, but stone remains. You only have to take a walk round any cemetery in Sheffield to find wonderful
examples of the stonemason letter-cutter’s art. First you have the letters, each one laboriously deep-cut into the stone slab – a myriad of letters making up a story of the people of Sheffield. A
walk round Crookes Cemetery reveals traditional Victorian designs and names – angels, open books, urns for cut flowers; names such as Staniforth, Cockshutt, Bradley, Bingley. Since the 1940’s the
Crookes gravestones exhibit names from around the world; Polish and Chinese are predominant. But the form of the memorial remains much the same, slightly changing in the 1930’s with the advent
of modest Art Deco designs. The lettering survives, but sadly the stone slabs themselves have often either toppled over, or been perforce dismantled by the Council for safety reasons.
Stone, with its long-lasting character and tendency to encourage philosophical musings, has also been much used in garden design. And nowhere is more original than the garden at Little Sparta in the Pentland Hills, designed by Ian Hamilton Finlay. Here letter-cutting has been taken to a new level; poetry and brief aphorisms are cut with great elegance and skill making the garden into a place of contemplation and delight.
4. The Printed Word
This is the most common use of the written word, adopted throughout Europe and much of the literate world since its invention in the sixteenth century, when printing effectively replaced the laborious creation of hand-written books. Now itself overtaken by the web, words need no longer be printed on paper, but can be stored and sent electronically. Paper seems to have lost its prime position in the process of written communication, but from a historian’s perspective printed paper is still indispensable.
One of my first jobs in the late ‘50’s was in a small advertising agency in London. It was my responsibility to deal with the ‘small
ads’, catering for businesses who wanted to advertise in the small ads section of local and national newspapers, usually near the back pages. I remember a few of the clients: a fortune-teller, a
coach operator, a keeper of dog kennels. Each advert had to be drawn to actual size with a pencil, attached to the text (supplied by the client) with a print specification (8 point Times Roman, upper
and lower case); then passed to someone more senior who sent it off to the paper. Later I was promoted to the design of somewhat larger ads, usually for soap powder. The humble world of print was
(and still is – the detail is all) a tightly packed mass of essential information; without it civilisation would grind to a halt!
From the humble shopping list to the Christmas and Birthday card; to those who keep a prayer in their pocket or purse, or have in their pocket a private note of the sports score or the words of a public speaker, or even a jotting of an idea or a poem; will these heaven-sent thoughts find a resting-place on the personal tablet? I’m sure they will. But the centuries of paper, of books, maps, diaries and letters – will they be succeeded by the jottings, scribblings and carefully chosen words, the treasured collectables of the twenty-second century?