Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The History of Writing-Masters.

There is a very apt letter from James the First to Prince Henry when very young, on the neatness and fairness of his handwriting. The royal father suspecting that the prince’s tutor, Mr., afterwards Sir Adam, Newton, had helped out the young prince in the composition, and that in this specimen of caligraphy he had relied also on the pains of Mr. Peter Bales, the great writing-master, for touching up his letters, his majesty shows a laudable anxiety that the prince should be impressed with the higher importance of the one over the other. James shall himself speak. “I confess I long to receive a letter from you that may be wholly yours, as well matter as form; as well formed by your mind as drawn by your fingers; for ye may remember, that in my book to you I warn you to beware with (of) that kind of wit that may fly out at the end of your fingers; not that I commend not a fair handwriting; sed hoc facito, illud non omittito: and the other is multo magis præcipuum.” Prince Henry, indeed, wrote with that elegance which he borrowed from his own mind; and in an age when such minute elegance was not universal among the crowned heads of Europe. Henry IV., on receiving a letter from Prince Henry, immediately opened it, a custom not usual with him, and comparing the writing with the signature, to decide whether it were of one hand, Sir George Carew, observing the French King’s hesitation, called Mr. Douglas to testify to the fact; on which Henry the Great, admiring an art in which he had little skill, and looking on the neat elegance of the writing before him, politely observed, “I see that in writing fair, as in other things, the elder must yield to the younger.”

Had this anecdote of neat writing reached the professors of caligraphy, who in this country have put forth such painful panegyrics on the art, these royal names had unquestionably blazoned their pages. Not indeed that these penmen require any fresh inflation; for never has there been a race of professors in any art who have exceeded in solemnity and pretensions the practitioners in this simple and mechanical craft. I must leave to more ingenious investigators of human nature to reveal the occult cause which has operated such powerful delusions on these “Vive la Plume!” men, who have been generally observed to possess least intellectual ability in proportion to the excellence they have obtained in their own art. I suspect this maniacal vanity is peculiar to the writing-masters of England; and I can only attribute the immense importance which they have conceived of their art to the perfection to which they have carried the art of short-hand writing; an art which was always better understood, and more skilfully practised, in England than in any other country. It will surprise some when they learn that the artists in verse and colours, poets and painters, have not raised loftier pretensions to the admiration of mankind. Writing-masters, or caligraphers, have had their engraved “effigies,” with a Fame in flourishes, a pen in one hand and a trumpet in the other; and fine verses inscribed, and their very lives written! They have compared

The nimbly-turning of their silver quill

to the beautiful in art and the sublime in invention; nor is this wonderful, since they discover the art of writing, like the invention of language, in a divine original; and from the tablets of stone which the Deity himself delivered, they trace their German broad text, or their fine running-hand. One, for “the bold striking of those words, Vive la Plume,” was so sensible of the reputation that this last piece of command of hand would give the book which he thus adorned, and which his biographer acknowledges was the product of about a minute — (but then how many years of flourishing had that single minute cost him!)— that he claims the glory of an artist; observing —

We seldom find

The man of business with the artist join’d.

Another was flattered that his writing could impart immortality to the most wretched compositions! —

And any lines prove pleasing, when you write.

Sometimes the caligrapher is a sort of hero:—

To you, you rare commander of the quill,

Whose wit and worth, deep learning, and high skill,

Speak you the honour of Great Tower Hill!

The last line became traditionally adopted by those who were so lucky as to live in the neighbourhood of this Parnassus. But the reader must form some notion of that charm of caligraphy which has so bewitched its professors, when,

Soft, bold, and free, your manuscripts still please.

How justly bold in


improving hand

The pen at once joins freedom with command!

With softness strong, with ornaments not vain,

Loose with proportion, and with neatness plain;

Not swell’d, not full, complete in every part,

And artful most, when not affecting art.

And these describe those pencilled knots and flourishes, “the angels, the men, the birds, and the beasts,” which, as one of them observed, he could


Even by the gentle motion of his hand,

all the speciosa miracula of caligraphy;

Thy tender strokes, inimitably fine,

Crown with perfection every flowing line;

And to each grand performance add a grace,

As curling hair adorns a beauteous face:

In every page new fancies give delight,

And sporting round the margin charm the sight.

One Massey, a writing-master, published in 1763, “The Origin and Progress of Letters.” The great singularity of this volume is “a new species of biography never attempted before in English.” This consists of the lives of “English Penmen,” otherwise writing-masters! If some have foolishly enough imagined that the sedentary lives of authors are void of interest from deficient incident and interesting catastrophe, what must they think of the barren labours of those who, in the degree they become eminent, to use their own style, in the art of “dish, dash, long-tail fly,” the less they become interesting to the public; for what can the most skilful writing-master do but wear away his life in leaning over his pupil’s copy, or sometimes snatch a pen to decorate the margin, though he cannot compose the page? Montaigne has a very original notion on writing-masters: he says that some of those caligraphers who had obtained promotion by their excellence in the art, afterwards affected to write carelessly, lest their promotion should be suspected to have been owing to such an ordinary acquisition!

Massey is an enthusiast, fortunately for his subject. He considers that there are schools of writing, as well as of painting or sculpture; and expatiates with the eye of fraternal feeling on “a natural genius, a tender stroke, a grand performance, a bold striking freedom, and a liveliness in the sprigged letters, and pencilled knots and flourishes;” while this Vasari of writing-masters relates the controversies and the libels of many a rival pen-nibber. “George Shelley, one of the most celebrated worthies who have made a shining figure in the commonwealth of English caligraphy, born I suppose of obscure parents, because brought up in Christ’s Hospital, yet under the humble blue-coat he laid the foundation of his caligraphic excellence and lasting fame, for he was elected writing-master to the hospital.” Shelley published his “Natural Writing;” but, alas! Snell, another blue-coat, transcended the other. He was a genius who would “bear no brother near the throne.”—“I have been informed that there were jealous heart-burnings, if not bickerings, between him and Col. Ayres, another of our great reformers in the writing commonweal, both eminent men, yet, like our most celebrated poets Pope and Addison, or, to carry the comparison still higher, like Cæsar and Pompey, one could bear no superior, and the other no equal.” Indeed, the great Snell practised a little stratagem against Mr. Shelley, for which, if writing-masters held courts-martial, this hero ought to have appeared before his brothers. In one of his works he procured a number of friends to write letters, in which Massey confesses “are some satyrical strokes upon Shelley,” as if he had arrogated too much to himself in his book of “Natural Writing.” They find great fault with pencilled knots and sprigged letters. Shelley, who was an advocate for ornaments in fine penmanship, which Snell utterly rejected, had parodied a well-known line of Herbert’s in favour of his favourite decorations:—

A Knot may take him who from letters flies,

And turn delight into an exercise.

These reflections created ill-blood, and even an open difference amongst several of the superior artists in writing. The commanding genius of Snell had a more terrific contest when he published his “Standard Rules,” pretending to have demonstrated them as Euclid would. “This proved a bone of contention, and occasioned a terrific quarrel between Mr. Snell and Mr. Clark. This quarrel about ‘Standard Rules’ ran so high between them, that they could scarce forbear scurrilous language therein, and a treatment of each other unbecoming gentlemen! Both sides in this dispute had their abettors; and to say which had the most truth and reason, non nostrum est tantas componere lites; perhaps both parties might be too fond of their own schemes. They should have left them to people to choose which they liked best.” A candid politician is our Massey, and a philosophical historian too; for he winds up the whole story of this civil war by describing its result, which happened as all such great controversies have ever closed. “Who now-a-days takes those Standard Rules, either one or the other, for their guide in writing?” This is the finest lesson ever offered to the furious heads of parties, and to all their men; let them meditate on the nothingness of their “Standard Rules,” by the fate of Mr. Snell.

It was to be expected, when once these writing-masters imagined that they were artists, that they would be infected with those plague-spots of genius — envy, detraction, and all the jalousie du métier. And such to this hour we find them! An extraordinary scene of this nature has long been exhibited in my neighbourhood, where two doughty champions of the quill have been posting up libels in their windows respecting the inventor of a new art of writing, the Carstairian, or the Lewisian? When the great German philosopher asserted that he had discovered the method of fluxions before Sir Isaac, and when the dispute grew so violent that even the calm Newton sent a formal defiance in set terms, and got even George the Second to try to arbitrate (who would rather have undertaken a campaign), the method of fluxions was no more cleared up than the present affair between our two heroes of the quill.

A recent instance of one of these egregious caligraphers may be told of the late Tomkins. This vainest of writing-masters dreamed through life that penmanship was one of the fine arts, and that a writing-master should be seated with his peers in the Academy! He bequeathed to the British Museum his opus magnum — a copy of Macklin’s Bible, profusely embellished with the most beautiful and varied decorations of his pen; and as he conceived that both the workman and the work would alike be darling objects with posterity, he left something immortal with the legacy, his fine bust, by Chantrey, unaccompanied by which they were not to receive the unparalleled gift! When Tomkins applied to have his bust, our great sculptor abated the usual price, and, courteously kind to the feelings of the man, said that he considered Tomkins as an artist! It was the proudest day of the life of our writing-master!

But an eminent artist and wit now living, once looking on this fine bust of Tomkins, declared, that “this man had died for want of a dinner!”— a fate, however, not so lamentable as it appeared! Our penman had long felt that he stood degraded in the scale of genius by not being received at the Academy, at least among the class of engravers; the next approach to academic honour he conceived would be that of appearing as a guest at their annual dinner. These invitations are as limited as they are select, and all the Academy persisted in considering Tomkins as a writing-master! Many a year passed, every intrigue was practised, every remonstrance was urged, every stratagem of courtesy was tried; but never ceasing to deplore the failure of his hopes, it preyed on his spirits, and the luckless caligrapher went down to his grave — without dining at the Academy! This authentic anecdote has been considered as “satire improperly directed”— by some friend of Mr. Tomkins — but the criticism is much too grave! The foible of Mr. Tomkins as a writing-master presents a striking illustration of the class of men here delineated. I am a mere historian — and am only responsible for the veracity of this fact. That “Mr. Tomkins lived in familiar intercourse with the Royal Academicians of his day, and was a frequent guest at their private tables,” and moreover was a most worthy man, I believe — but is it less true that he was ridiculously mortified by being never invited to the Academic dinner, on account of his caligraphy? He had some reason to consider that his art was of the exalted class to which he aspired to raise it, when this friend concludes his eulogy of this writing-master thus —“Mr. Tomkins, as an artist, stood foremost in his own profession, and his name will be handed down to posterity with the Heroes and Statesmen, whose excellences his penmanship has contributed to illustrate and to commemorate.” I always give the Pour and the Contre!

Such men about such things have produced public contests, combats a l’outrance, where much ink was spilled by the knights in a joust of goose-quills; these solemn trials have often occurred in the history of writing-masters, which is enlivened by public defiances, proclamations, and judicial trials by umpires! The prize was usually a golden pen of some value. One as late as in the reign of Anne took place between Mr. German and Mr. More. German having courteously insisted that Mr. More should set the copy, he thus set it, ingeniously quaint!

As more, and


, our understanding clears,

So more and more our ignorance appears.

The result of this pen-combat was really lamentable; they displayed such an equality of excellence that the umpires refused to decide, till one of them espied that Mr. German had omitted the tittle of an i! But Mr. More was evidently a man of genius, not only by his couplet, but in his “Essay on the Invention of Writing,” where occurs this noble passage: “Art with me is of no party. A noble emulation I would cherish, while it proceeded neither from, nor to malevolence. Bales had his Johnson, Norman his Mason, Ayres his Matlock and his Shelley; yet Art the while was no sufferer. The busybody who officiously employs himself in creating misunderstandings between artists, may be compared to a turn-stile, which stands in every man’s way, yet hinders nobody; and he is the slanderer who gives ear to the slander.”1

Among these knights of the “Plume volante,” whose chivalric exploits astounded the beholders, must be distinguished Peter Bales in his joust with David Johnson. In this tilting-match the guerdon of caligraphy was won by the greatest of caligraphers; its arms were assumed by the victor, azure, a pen or; while the “golden pen,” carried away in triumph, was painted with a hand over the door of the caligrapher. The history of this renowned encounter was only traditionally known, till with my own eyes I pondered on this whole trial of skill in the precious manuscript of the champion himself; who, like Cæsar, not only knew how to win victories, but also to record them. Peter Bales was a hero of such transcendent eminence, that his name has entered into our history. Holinshed chronicles one of his curiosities of microscopic writing at a time when the taste prevailed for admiring writing which no eye could read! In the compass of a silver penny this caligrapher put more things than would fill several of these pages. He presented Queen Elizabeth with the manuscript set in a ring of gold covered with a crystal; he had also contrived a magnifying glass of such power, that, to her delight and wonder, her majesty read the whole volume, which she held on her thumb-nail, and “commended the same to the lords of the council and the ambassadors;” and frequently, as Peter often heard, did her majesty vouchsafe to wear this caligraphic ring.2

“Some will think I labour on a cobweb”— modestly exclaimed Bales in his narrative, and his present historian much fears for himself! The reader’s gratitude will not be proportioned to my pains, in condensing such copious pages into the size of a “silver penny,” but without its worth!

For a whole year had David Johnson affixed a challenge “To any one who should take exceptions to this my writing and teaching.” He was a young friend of Bales, daring and longing for an encounter; yet Bales was magnanimously silent, till he discovered that he was “doing much less in writing and teaching” since this public challenge was proclaimed! He then set up his counter-challenge, and in one hour afterwards Johnson arrogantly accepted it, “in a most despiteful and disgraceful manner.” Bales’s challenge was delivered “in good terms.” “To all Englishmen and strangers.” It was to write for a gold pen of twenty pounds value in all kinds of hands, “best, straightest, and fastest,” and most kind of ways; “a full, a mean, a small, with line, and without line; in a slow set hand, a mean facile hand, and a fast running hand;” and further, “to write truest and speediest, most secretary and clerk-like, from a man’s mouth, reading or pronouncing, either English or Latin.”

Young Johnson had the hardihood now of turning the tables on his great antagonist, accusing the veteran Bales of arrogance. Such an absolute challenge, says he, was never witnessed by man, “without exception of any in the world!” And a few days after meeting Bales, “of set purpose to affront and disgrace him what he could, showed Bales a piece of writing of secretary’s hand, which he had very much laboured in fine abortive parchment,”3 uttering to the challenger these words: “Mr. Bales, give me one shilling out of your purse, and if within six months you better, or equal this piece of writing, I will give you forty pounds for it.” This legal deposit of the shilling was made, and the challenger, or appellant, was thereby bound by law to the performance.

The day before the trial a printed declaration was affixed throughout the city, taunting Bales’s “proud poverty,” and his pecuniary motives, as “a thing ungentle, base, and mercenary, and not answerable to the dignity of the golden pen!” Johnson declares he would maintain his challenge for a thousand pounds more, but for the respondent’s inability to perform a thousand groats. Bales retorts on the libel; declares it as a sign of his rival’s weakness, “yet who so bold as blind Bayard, that hath not a word of Latin to cast at a dog, or say Bo! to a goose!”

On Michaelmas day, 1595, the trial opened before five judges: the appellant and the respondent appeared at the appointed place, and an ancient gentleman was intrusted with “the golden pen.” In the first trial, for the manner of teaching scholars, after Johnson had taught his pupil a fortnight, he would not bring him forward! This was awarded in favour of Bales.

The second, for secretary and clerk-like writing, dictating to them both in English and in Latin, Bales performed best, being first done; written straightest without line, with true orthography: the challenger himself confessing that he wanted the Latin tongue, and was no clerk!

The third and last trial for fair writing in sundry kinds of hands, the challenger prevailed for the beauty and most “authentic proportion,” and for the superior variety of the Roman hand. In the court hand the respondent exceeded the appellant, and likewise in the set text; and in bastard secretary was also somewhat perfecter.

At length Bales, perhaps perceiving an equilibrium in the judicial decision, to overwhelm his antagonist presented what he distinguishes as his “masterpiece,” composed of secretary and Roman hand four ways varied, and offering the defendant to let pass all his previous advantages if he could better this specimen of caligraphy! The challenger was silent! At this moment some of the judges perceiving that the decision must go in favour of Bales, in consideration of the youth of the challenger, lest he might be disgraced to the world, requested the other judges not to pass judgment in public. Bales assures us, that he in vain remonstrated; for by these means the winning of the golden pen might not be so famously spread as otherwise it would have been. To Bales the prize was awarded. But our history has a more interesting close; the subtle Machiavelism of the first challenger!

When the great trial had closed, and Bales, carrying off the golden pen, exultingly had it painted and set up for his sign, the baffled challenger went about reporting that he had won the golden pen, but that the defendant had obtained the same by “plots and shifts, and other base and cunning practices.” Bales vindicated his claim, and offered to show the world his “masterpiece” which had acquired it. Johnson issued an “Appeal to all Impartial Penmen,” which he spread in great numbers through the city for ten days, a libel against the judges and the victorious defendant! He declared that there had been a subtle combination with one of the judges concerning the place of trial; which he expected to have been “before penmen,” but not before a multitude like a stage-play, and shouts and tumults, with which the challenger had hitherto been unacquainted. The judges were intended to be twelve; but of the five, four were the challenger’s friends, honest gentlemen, but unskilled in judging of most hands; and he offered again forty pounds to be allowed in six months to equal Bales’s masterpiece. And he closes his “appeal” by declaring that Bales had lost in several parts of the trial, neither did the judges deny that Bales possessed himself of the golden pen by a trick! Before judgment was awarded, alleging the sickness of his wife to be extreme, he desired she might have a sight of the golden pen to comfort her! The ancient gentleman who was the holder, taking the defendant’s word, allowed the golden pen to be carried to the sick wife; and Bales immediately pawned it, and afterwards, to make sure work, sold it at a great loss, so that when the judges met for their definite sentence, nor pen nor pennyworth was to be had! The judges being ashamed of their own conduct, were compelled to give such a verdict as suited the occasion.

Bales rejoins: he publishes to the universe the day and the hour when the judges brought the golden pen to his house, and while he checks the insolence of this Bobadil, to show himself no recreant, assumes the golden pen for his sign.

Such is the shortest history I could contrive of this chivalry of the pen; something mysteriously clouds over the fate of the defendant; Bales’s history, like Cæsar’s, is but an ex-parte evidence. Who can tell whether he has not slurred over his defeats, and only dwelt on his victories?

There is a strange phrase connected with the art of the caligrapher, which I think may be found in most, if not in all modern languages, to write like an angel! Ladies have been frequently compared with angels; they are beautiful as angels, and sing and dance like angels; but, however intelligible these are, we do not so easily connect penmanship with the other celestial accomplishments. This fanciful phrase, however, has a very human origin. Among those learned Greeks who emigrated to Italy, and afterwards into France, in the reign of Francis I., was one Angelo Vergecio, whose beautiful caligraphy excited the admiration of the learned. The French monarch had a Greek fount cast, modelled by his writing. The learned Henry Stephens, who, like our Porson for correctness and delicacy, was one of the most elegant writers of Greek, had learnt the practice from our Angelo. His name became synonymous for beautiful writing, and gave birth to the vulgar proverb or familiar phrase to write like an angel!

1 I have not met with More’s book, and am obliged to transcribe this from the Biog. Brit.

2 Howes, in his Chronicle under date 1576, has thus narrated the story:—“A strange piece of work, and almost incredible, was brought to pass by an Englishman from within the city of London, and a clerk of the Chancery, named Peter Bales, who by his industry and practice of his pen contrived and writ, within the compass of a penny, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, a prayer to God, a prayer for the queen, his posy, his name, the day of the month, the year of our Lord, and the reign of the queen: and at Hampton Court he presented the same to the queen’s majesty.”

3 This was written in the reign of Elizabeth. Holyoke notices “virgin-perchment made of an abortive skin; membrana virgo.” Peacham, on “Drawing,” calls parchment simply an abortive.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53