An Interview with Martin Jackson

Extending the fun we had working together on HM’s latest publication, The Kelmscott & Doves Presses, Martin Jackson kindly agreed to an interview via email. (In person our conversations are too fast and inclined toward tangents to yield a cohesive interview…). While much of the focus in that book is on the original leaves from the two presses included, it’s Martin’s calligraphy that gives it a spark of contemporary life. The images included with this post are of various trial and test sheets he made during the project (except below, which is from BRC's film).

There’s a short film  by Black Rhino Collective featuring you and your work. In it you mention that the calligraphic spark for you was seeing a letter written by an uncle, and being intrigued by how beautiful it looked. Where you already attuned to reading and writing and designs at that time?

The letter from my Uncle Geoffrey when I was fourteen certainly was the trigger, prior to this I had no awareness of calligraphy, but I had always liked drawing, art was my favourite subject at school.

It is true that initially I copied this letter using an ordinary fountain pen, this gave me some of the ‘italics’ flavour, but there was something missing, but it did become my everyday writing style.

It was a couple of years before I found a small book by Tom Gourdie, I think it was called Italics for Beginners. In this book I discovered one needs a special type of nib that is cut square at the tip, we call this a broad edged nib, it is this feature that allows us to give our letters thicks and thins. What a revelation this was, it was magic.

When did you first study or train in calligraphy? How did it become your vocation?

I have never had any formal training in calligraphy, and it was never my intention to make it anything more than doing something that gave me great joy and satisfaction.

I got my first job (1956) as a junior in a design studio entirely on the strength of my handwritten job application letter, my style of writing set me above any of the other applicants. I worked in this studio for five years while also attending design classes at the Sheffield School of Art. All the senior designers in the studio were skilled at almost everything: design, retouching, lettering, typography etc., I learned so much from them, particularly hand lettering, and the love of type and letterforms, but I also became very good at making tea for them twice a day, a big part of my training.

After this (1961) I had to do two years of compulsory National Service in the RAF. Not fun, but I did get lucky to be posted to the Royal Air Force Design and Display Unit in London.

After these two years I found a job in a small ad agency studio in the south west of England, until they eventually went bankrupt, and in 1966 my wife, Patsy, and I decided to emigrate to Canada, about which we knew very little, having no idea about job prospects, or even knowing anyone here. I found it very hard to find a job, so in desperation tried freelancing. It took some time but eventually I found some clients, one of my strengths being hand lettering and the occasional piece of calligraphy.

Then in the ’70s calligraphy caught fire in California and Oregon and eventually it arrived in British Columbia. Reed College in Portland was a major centre due to two teachers: Father Edward Catich, THE expert on Roman Capitals, and Lloyd Reynolds, an early calligraphy pioneer. Soon after Vancouver caught the calligraphy bug, and instructors were few, and in great demand, so there was lots happening for me. Soon after I spread my wings and began teaching workshops all over the U.S., and also to Australia, Belgium, and Japan.

For our Kelmscott & Doves book, you started by preparing about seven different calligraphy styles. Unlike the calligraphy that appeared in Doves books, the scripts you proposed all were what I would describe as more obviously calligraphic – more obviously written with a pen than drawn (or engraved). Do you recall why that immediately felt like the right choice for the book?

Choosing a style for your book was a challenge. It would have been so easy and too obvious to take one of the beautiful ‘Kelmscott’ typefaces and give it a calligraphic slant, so I decided to give you various different styles to try to find a direction that was pleasing to you. Also, I was always aware that I would be hand writing these letters many time in many books, so it needed to be a style that could be written quite flowingly without having to go back and build up letters or adding too many little extras. Fortunately when decision time came we were in agreement about the final choice.

This style was loosely based on some letter samples a friend in Belgium sent me, from a workshop he had taken with the very talented calligrapher Brody Neuenschwander. It has no name.

A few people have asked me for some technical details on materials used…

The red colour is Holbein Pure Red gouache, which I bought in Japan. I mixed this with distilled water to a consistency that would allow it to flow easily through my pens. The nibs used were Brause, and Mitchell, in various sizes. The gilding is 23.5 carat gold leaf on a gum ammoniac base, applied using a goose quill and burnished with a dog tooth agate burnisher.

Could you describe one or two challenges – in conception or execution – that were unique to this project, and how you approached them?

Any challenges were mainly physical. The sheets were quite large [folios 20 x 15 inches] and I built an extension on my drawing board to accommodate them. I was terrified of putting a crease anywhere, so each time I  finished one spread I had to find somewhere to put it while the ink dried, and making sure they were always in the same sequence, every flat surface in my studio, floor, tables, desks etc were put to use.

Without any doubt this was the most enjoyable project I have ever worked on, for many reasons: You (Rollin) were so open to suggestions and we were able to work together so easily. The paper [Arches wove 120g] was amazing, it was a joy to write on, I was never fighting the paper. And there was no pressure, the deadline was very generous, and with every project there is a budget, and you never questioned my estimate.

Your approach to this project was perfect. You allowed me to make suggestions based on my calligraphy skills about what might or might not work, working together on the timing, keeping me informed so I could make sure I could set aside time for the project, it was all very reasonable and civilized. I would be very happy to work on any project working this way.

Why do you think that revival of calligraphy started in the ’70s, and what place, or role, do you think it has in contemporary design and art?

There has been a fairly strong calligraphy movement in England ever since Edward Johnston ‘rediscovered’ the craft. His monumental book, Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering, which was published in 1906 became the ‘Bible’ for calligraphers, although William Morris also ‘revived’ the craft and was a pioneer in using calligraphy.

In the U.S. there were also some fine calligraphers working, but they did not have such a high profile as in the U.K. It is difficult to determine exactly how and why and when it caught fire in the U.S. It came along at the same time as other crafts such as leather work and macrame etc. became popular, maybe this was all part of the ‘hippie culture’ in the ’70s and ’80s. I do know that when Donald Jackson, the ‘Queen’s Scribe’ made his first visit to the U.S. it brought about a huge response, and I think this may have been the catalyst.

I am not sure if calligraphy has much of a part in contemporary design and art. It’s still associated with something like ‘Auntie Pamela’s knitting class,’ i.e. it is just a little hobby. One very talented and well known calligrapher said that “the word calligraphy is pure poison in the arts community.” He may be right.

I’m not sure what the project will be, but I look forward to working with Martin again.