Calligraphy

A century ago, in the era of Edith Wharton and Henry James, decorum was manifested in the tiny details that supported the social order. A little of that world lives on today in the refined practice of wedding calligraphy.

An ancient art that has always been used for ceremonial purposes, calligraphy is the ornamental, stylized writing that has come to be associated with the most romantic and dramatic of ceremonies -- the wedding. It is most notably used to address the invitation, but the simple lines, delicate curves, and elegant flourishes of calligraphy make it perfect for many other elements of the festivities as well.

"The envelope for the wedding invitation gives guests their first impression," says Gail Brill, an invitation designer and calligrapher in Greenwich, Connecticut, "and sets the tone for everything to come." That includes menus, place and table cards, and table numbers that are often written out in a calligrapher's hand.

Calligraphers can also make decorative maps to help guests find their way from the religious service to the reception, service booklets for the ceremony, the title page for a guest book, cards for wedding favors, or gift baskets for out-of-town guests. Some couples ask a calligrapher to write invitations to such other events as the rehearsal dinner or bridal luncheon -- or even the wedding invitation itself -- then have them printed.

Although most articles that bear calligraphy, like a wedding booklet, can be saved, most are evanescent. So why this explosion of fine -- and typically expensive -- writing? Perhaps it's a reaction to the age of e-mail. This isn't the first time technology has created a handwriting backlash. In sixteenth-century Europe, when people first began to acquire printed books, some of the aristocracy reacted by having their books handwritten.

The handwritten message sets a wedding apart as a distinctively personal occasion. And long after the wedding, the frenzy of glorious writing can spill over into the bride and groom's new life. A calligrapher can write the title page and captions in a couple's wedding photo album, and design the monograms for writing paper and bookplates for their new library.

The Elements
The foundation for calligraphy is the same: pen, ink, and paper. But what each calligrapher creates with these materials is inherently different, depending on individual style. Often, a calligrapher will add to the basics and use special pen tips, brushes, even paint to achieve desired effects. Colored inks and papers can also tie calligraphy to a theme or reflect the season of a wedding.

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The word calligraphy is derived from the Greek kalli for "beautiful," and graphia for "writing," and although the techniques and materials have evolved over time, those we now use date only to the mid-nineteenth century. When the ancient Romans incised their square capitals in marble, the technique, chisel on stone, dictated the style: separate letters.

When medieval monks used quill pens to write on vellum or parchment made from animal skins, they were able to add flourishes. And later in the twelfth century, when parchment was replaced by paper, which the Moors in Spain first made from unsized rags, scribes and secretaries developed a more informal, faster cursive hand (called italic because it was developed in Italy) for the secular documents they turned out daily.

Early inks were problematic -- one, made of oak galls and iron salts, called encaustum, turned dark brown with age. For another, carbon was mixed with gum and water; the ink stayed black but tended to flake off. By the mid-nineteenth century, inks were made of colorfast aniline dyes that could be applied with steel dip, quill, or fountain pens. With the improvement of paper (ink spread and blurred on the blotting paperlike surfaces of the early Moorish papers), the materials now used by calligraphers finally came into use.

Each element -- the paper, ink color, and style of writing -- can influence the effectiveness and choice of calligraphy, and therefore all of them should be considered together. Calligraphers recommend paper stock, including envelopes, with a smooth vellum surface. Highly textured papers, especially those made with pressed flowers, have a nubby fiber that will catch the tip of a pen. Ink can smear on shiny coated stock. Even with the best materials, calligraphers are fallible and ask brides to order extra envelopes; an additional 15 per 100 usually cover slips, errors, and blots.

Paper in a color other than the traditional white or ecru can call for the use of colored ink. Black ink, for instance, will not read against a navy-blue card; it is necessary to use an opaque ink, like white, instead. Calligraphers also caution brides against having envelopes printed by thermography, a technique that can alter the surface and make it more difficult to write on.

Coordinating Styles
A calligrapher will often match the style on the envelope to the invitation's typeface (above).

By Machine
Machine calligraphy (below) is a less expensive approach that mimics the hand-wrought, but without its charming individuality. Some programs well up the ink to suggest a freshly dipped pen.

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To convey the style of a wedding -- formal, casual, or themed -- countless typefaces are available both for the printed invitation and the calligraphy. Some stationers and calligraphers suggest that the type of the invitation and the calligraphy match; others prefer they be different, but complementary. All experts agree that the type should work well together. Most brides choose the type for the invitation before they find a calligrapher, but a good "scribe" can reproduce virtually any typeface -- if it is obscure, the printer can fax the full alphabet to her.

To find a good calligrapher, couples usually ask for suggestions from a stationer, friends, or their wedding planner. It's a good idea to start looking six months in advance and to book the calligrapher no less than four months before the invitations are to be sent out.

Ask to see writing that matches type on the invitation or styles she might propose to coordinate with the typeface. Most calligraphers have style sheets as well, and these are helpful to see, as they often represent their best work. If a meeting can't be set up in person, samples should be mailed rather than relying on a fax for an idea of what the finished product will look like.

Style Sheets
A calligrapher's repertoire includes her interpretations of classic engraver's styles. For formal weddings, the flourishes of the English or London scripts are the most popular. Styles like classic and pointed-pen italics are more appropriate for casual events or a rehearsal dinner. An ornate style like Spencerian script, however, will not be found at an engraver; ask your calligrapher to design the invitation with this old-fashioned, stylized writing, then have it engraved and the envelopes calligraphed. Styles, above: handwriting, English script, rook script, Spencerian script, and pointed-pen italic; styles, below: Venetian script, St. James, Berkley script, italic and London script.

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When assessing the work of a calligrapher, look to see that words and lines are arranged in a pleasing balance, which is a sign of a calligrapher with a well-developed artistic sense. But as calligraphy is an art form, it's important to remember that the same style can be executed with distinctive variations; the couple who likes flourishes will be attracted to a more ornate execution of letters, while another might prefer a quieter hand.

Although professional calligraphy can't be matched for its beauty, it is not the only way to create a handmade look. Mechanical, or robotic, calligraphy is another, less expensive way to achieve a similar effect. But since the essential nature of calligraphy is that it is done with a free hand, mechanical or computer-generated simulations look a little flat by contrast.

A bride or groom with particularly attractive handwriting, however, can add a lovely personal touch. Or a talented bridesmaid or family member can inscribe all the names and numbers as a wonderful gift. But whoever wields the pen, the art of fine writing links each wedding with traditions, both those of the past and the ones a bride and groom start in honor of their marriage.

Scripts
Not all scripts (above) adhere strictly to traditional styles. Most calligraphers add touches uniquely their own, from ornate flourishes to very simple scripts.

Handwriting
A more casual way to address an invitation is with handwriting (below, left), a style between personal writing and formal calligraphy.

Invitations
A calligrapher can design invitations (bottom right) that can be used to make plates for printing.

Extras
Calligraphy on menu cards, place cards, table numbers, maps, and cones for sugared almonds (bottom middle) unifies the style of a wedding.

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